Special Operations Forces: Additional Actions Needed to Effectively Manage the Preservation of the Force and Family Program
For nearly 2 decades, DOD has increased its reliance on Special Operations Forces, pushing some to the limits of their physical and mental well-being. To help special forces and their families, Special Operations Command established the Preservation of the Force and Family program in 2013. Its budget is about $80 million in FY 2021.
The program offers a holistic system of care that targets physical, psychological, spiritual, and other areas of well-being. However, key program terms aren't well defined, making it unclear how subordinate commands will carry the program out and achieve its goals. Our recommendations address this and other issues.
Participants in an Air Force Special Operations Command Caregiver and Resilience Education summit at a resort in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 2019.
What GAO Found
U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has established minimum requirements for its Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) program to improve the readiness and resilience of Special Operations Forces (SOF) and their families, but has not clearly defined a key term—integrated and holistic system of care—to guide implementation of its efforts across the five POTFF domains (see figure). SOCOM officials interpret this key term differently and SOCOM guidance does not provide clarity on how subordinate commands should implement activities to achieve it. Without defining an integrated and holistic system of care or how to achieve it, SOCOM leaves interpretation of the term to subordinate commands and is unable to establish a standard for POTFF's essential coordination functions or activities against which it can assess efforts to help SOF and their families.
Preservation of the Force and Family Domains
The POTFF program offers a range of services for SOF, but availability and access vary. Participants in GAO focus groups had mixed experiences with POTFF, with some benefitting from services and others lacking access in certain areas, such as spiritual services. SOCOM data indicated that the number and type of POTFF service providers varies by domain and location. Additionally, SOCOM uses an allocation model that does not consider the data required by POTFF guidance, and it lacks a deployment strategy to guide POTFF service provider distribution. Without an allocation model informed by data and a deployment strategy for distributing POTFF service providers aligned to that model, SOCOM will continue to rely on incomplete information to make decisions and may not be able to ensure that service providers are distributed where they are most needed.
While SOCOM is upgrading its POTFF data system to one designed to be more capable, the command does not have clear data governance or management guidance. Although SOCOM Directive 10-12 defines minimum data collection requirements for all SOCOM POTFF domains, it lacks standardized data elements. Additionally, according to officials, although SOCOM worked with service component staff to standardize data as much as possible, it had difficulty reaching agreement on which standards to follow. Without guidance that establishes data governance and management for the POTFF program, SOCOM will continue to struggle to define and collect quality data.
Why GAO Did This Study
For nearly 2 decades, the Department of Defense has increased its reliance on SOF, pushing some to the limits of their physical and mental well-being. To help these special forces and their families, SOCOM established the POTFF program in 2013. In fiscal year 2021, SOCOM expected to make about $80 million available for POTFF program activities and maintained over 800 POTFF service providers across 32 locations worldwide to care for SOF and their families.
House Report 116-442 included a provision for GAO to review the POTFF program. GAO evaluated, among other things, the extent to which SOCOM has provided subordinate commands with guidance on POTFF implementation, made POTFF services available and accessible to SOF, and developed an overarching vision for effective data usage for the POTFF program.
GAO reviewed SOCOM policies and guidance and analyzed information on POTFF services and service providers. GAO also held focus groups with SOF personnel and interviewed officials managing the program.
GAO is making five recommendations, including that SOCOM update its guidance to define its objective to coordinate POTFF programs, establish an allocation model that uses program data, develop a deployment strategy that aligns with its updated allocation model, and develop guidance for POTFF data that aligns with SOCOM's strategy for managing data. DOD concurred with all five of these recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of Defense should ensure that SOCOM updates or establishes guidance to define more clearly the objective to coordinate POTFF programs to create an integrated and holistic system of care, including clearly defining the actions necessary to fulfill this objective. (Recommendation 1)||
DOD fully concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, SOCOM is revising its POTFF directive to clearly articulate program requirements by defining key terms such as holistic and integrated care, as well as outlining means through which those concepts may be actualized. We believe these revisions could meet the intent of the recommendation when complete.
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of Defense should ensure that SOCOM revises or develops guidance that identifies the specific roles and responsibilities and defines the parameters for the POTFF domain representative position at the service components and TSOCs. (Recommendation 2)||
DOD fully concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, SOCOM has instituted a mandatory orientation to address the lack of understanding about the role and responsibilities of POTFF leadership. SOCOM also plans to revise its POTFF directive to more clearly articulate the roles, responsibilities, and parameters of its POTFF leads at the component and TSOC levels. We believe the orientation will help to clarify roles and responsibilities and the revised guidance could meet the intent of the recommendation when complete.
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of Defense should ensure that SOCOM updates its staffing allocation model by using program data to assess its workforce requirements and to determine the appropriate number and types of POTFF service providers. (Recommendation 3)||
DOD fully concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, SOCOM has developed a new staff allocation model using unit size, expected demand for services, and time to task data from its Human Performance Data Management System (Smartabase). The command relies on self-reported information, unit manning levels, and input from subject matter experts, but it is working to improve data collection. We believe a data-driven allocation model will allow SOCOM to make optimal staff decisions for the POTFF program.
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of Defense should ensure that SOCOM develops a staff deployment strategy that aligns with its updated staff allocation model to routinely reevaluate and determine that the appropriate number and types of POTFF service providers are available to support SOF personnel. (Recommendation 4)||
DOD fully concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, SOCOM plans to update POTFF guidance to include an annual reassessment of staff allocation allocation and requirements based on program data. We believe that the revised guidance could meet the intent of the recommendation when complete.
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of Defense should ensure that SOCOM develops guidance for POTFF data collection, governance, and management that aligns with SOCOM's Enterprise Data Strategy for managing data, including, among other things, making POTFF data and data systems usable, interoperable, secure, well governed, and informative for decision makers. (Recommendation 5)||
DOD fully concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, SOCOM is developing a new policy for POTFF data collection in coordination with the command's Chief Data Office (CDO), as well as transitioning program management for its human performance data platform to the SOF Warrior Program Executive Office within the command's Acquisition, Technology and Logistic division. We continue to believe that SOCOM needs to improve data collection, governance, and management to leverage data to optimize program outcomes.