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Sexual Harassment and Assault: The Army Should Take Steps to Enhance Program Oversight, Evaluate Effectiveness, and Identify Reporting Barriers

GAO-22-104673 Published: May 27, 2022. Publicly Released: May 27, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The Army estimates that 40,000 soldiers were sexually harassed and 6,700 soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2018. However, only a fraction of them reported their experiences.

We found that the Army's program for preventing and resolving sexual harassment and sexual assault needs to be improved. For example, the Army hasn't consolidated its policies for sexual harassment and assault prevention and response. It also hasn't assessed the barriers that prevent soldiers from reporting such incidents or fully developed performance measures to evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts.

Our recommendations address these and other issues.

A soldier participates in Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) training

uniformed servicemember writing on printed SHARP presentation slides

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program has policies to prevent, respond to, and resolve incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Program implementation, however, is hindered by disjointed policy, among other things. Key provisions related to the SHARP program are spread across multiple Army guidance documents, creating confusion for SHARP personnel. Long-standing efforts to consolidate SHARP policy into a single regulation have been delayed due to competing priorities, according to SHARP program officials. Without expediting and establishing a timeline for the issuance of a consolidated SHARP regulation, the Army risks continued confusion among program personnel.

Several factors limit the Army's oversight of command SHARP programs. A 2019 reorganization decreased SHARP Program Office staff by half, eliminating dedicated key positions and limiting the office's ability to conduct oversight functions. Further, the office lacks visibility over program funding and staffing. Without designing an oversight structure that addresses these challenges, the Army may continue to face difficulties with program implementation.

In addition, two issues limit the Army's ability to gauge program effectiveness. First, GAO found that none of the SHARP program's performance measures fully exhibit key attributes of successful performance measures (see figure). SHARP personnel identified the number of reported incidents as a key measure, but it is neither clear nor objective. An increase in reports may indicate either increased trust in the program or an increase in incidents, indicating a lack of effectiveness. Without developing a suite of performance measures, the Army is unable to measure progress towards achieving its goals. Second, the Army has not systematically evaluated the SHARP program for effectiveness, despite prioritizing such an effort since its inception in 2009. Without developing and implementing a continuous evaluation plan to systematically evaluate the effectiveness of the SHARP program, the Army may miss opportunities to prioritize promising approaches and address challenges.

Comparison of Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program Performance Measures to GAO's Key Attributes of Successful Measures

Comparison of Army Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program Performance Measures to GAO's Key Attributes of Successful Measures

Why GAO Did This Study

Reports of sexual harassment and assault in the Army continue to rise. Soldiers reported about 1,000 and 2,500 incidents occurring during military service, respectively, in fiscal year 2020. According to DOD survey data, many additional incidents go unreported. While the Army has taken steps to respond to such incidents through its SHARP Program, a November 2020 independent review of the command climate at Fort Hood found structural flaws in the program Army-wide. The review also found a pervasive lack of confidence in it among soldiers at that installation.

GAO was asked to review the Army's administration of the SHARP program. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which the Army has (1) implemented policies and programs to prevent, respond to, and resolve incidents of sexual harassment and assault; and (2) mechanisms in place to oversee the SHARP program and determine its effectiveness. GAO reviewed policies and guidance; conducted a generalizable survey of SHARP personnel; interviewed DOD and Army officials; and interviewed officials and commanders at three Army installations selected based on risk level, among other factors.

Recommendations

GAO is making nine recommendations, including that the Army expedite and establish a timeline for the issuance of a consolidated SHARP regulation, design its oversight structure to address identified challenges, develop a suite of performance measures, and develop and implement a continuous evaluation plan. The Army concurred with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Director of the Army SHARP Program expedites and establishes a timeline for the issuance of a SHARP regulation that consolidates the various policies, to include clarified procedures for managing sexual harassment complaints. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022, Army SHARP officials stated that a consolidated SHARP regulation that includes various relevant policies and clarified procedures for managing sexual harassment complaints has been drafted and is currently in internal review. Based on current timelines, the Army expects to publish the regulation no later than January 15, 2023. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should publish the consolidated SHARP regulation, including the recommended elements. We will review the regulation upon publishing, and will provide updated information at that time.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Director of the Army SHARP Program conducts a review of the consolidated SHARP regulation prior to issuance to ensure that it aligns with DOD policies for sexual harassment and assault prevention and response. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022, the Army requested closure of this recommendation as implemented, stating that it had conducted the recommended review while drafting the consolidated SHARP regulation which is currently scheduled to be published by January 15, 2023. However, the Army did not provide documentation of such review, and the draft of the regulation provided lacked at least one element outlined in DOD policy and discussed in our report. Specifically, DODI policy requires that SARCs request, and upon victim consent expeditiously transfer, case management documents to help ensure continuity of care and SAPR services when a victim has a temporary or permanent change of station or is deployed. However, we found that while existing Army policy directed that SHARP case documents will be transferred to the gaining SARC with victim consent, it does not reference the speed of transfer, what should be done if the case is closed, or include instructions for temporary transfer or deployment. These elements were not included in the draft SHARP regulation, either. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should provide documentation of the review conducted of the consolidated SHARP regulation to ensure that it aligns with DOD policies for sexual harassment and assault, and clarify the reason for omission of specified areas discussed in our report. We will continue to monitor steps taken by the Army to implement this recommendation and will provide updates as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should establish a mechanism to ensure that Sexual Assault Response Coordinators have direct and unimpeded access to the installation commander, as well as the immediate commander of both the servicemember victim and alleged servicemember offender, without going through layers in the chain of command. This could be accomplished by, for example, providing Sexual Assault Response Coordinators with the requisite designation or categorization needed to facilitate direct communication with their commander. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022, the Army requested closure of this recommendation as implemented. Specifically, the Army stated that it had published refined or clarifying guidance to meet this recommendation in Army Execute Order (EXORD) 126-22, and added SARC access to commanders on its Organizational Inspection Program (OIP) checklist. Further, the Army stated that non-compliance with this requirement would be reported through the Major Command to Headquarters, Department of the Army to ensure enforcement. However, we reviewed EXORD 126-22 and determined that it did not include additional or clarifying language since our report was published. Specifically, the EXORD directs the designation of a Lead SARC who reports directly to the senior commander and supervises all other SARCs. This change does remove SARCs from the immediate chain of command, but it does not ensure that all SARCs will have direct and unimpeded access to the commanders of the units they serve, and the commanders of the victim and alleged subject, as required in DOD policy. Further, this item was not included on the draft OIP checklist we reviewed, and the Army did not provide documentation on how non-compliance would be managed. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should provide documentation of the requirement that SARCs have direct and unimpeded access to the commander of the units they serve, as well as the immediate commanders of victims and alleged subjects, and documentation of a mechanism for ensuring such access. For example, the Army could include appropriate language implementing this recommendation in the consolidated SHARP regulation currently in review, along with inclusion on the OIP checklist and documentation of how non-compliance will be managed. We will continue to monitor the Army's efforts to implement this recommendation, and will provide updated information as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Director of the Army SHARP Program publishes or directly links all relevant resources to assist commanders in implementing their SHARP programs in a single, easily accessible location, such as the SHARP Learning Portal, and comprehensively publicizes the list to commanders so that existing resources are readily available and easily accessible when needed. (Recommendation 4)
Open – Partially Addressed
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022, the Army requested closure of this recommendation as implemented. Specifically, the Army added a specific "Commanders Resources" page to the SHARP website which includes a number of relevant resources or links directly to such resources. Further, the Army stated that it would highlight these resources in all pre-command courses and utilize communication plans to ensure command teams are aware of these resources, but did not provide details or documentation of these communication plans. While the Army has taken steps to publish or directly link all relevant resources to assist commanders in implementing their SHARP programs on its new "Commanders Resources" page, it has not developed a plan to comprehensively publicize the page. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should develop and provide documentation of its plan to comprehensively publicize the "Commanders Resources" page. We will continue to monitor actions the Army has taken in response to this recommendation and will provide updated information as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should design an oversight structure in accordance with existing DOD guidance for implementation of recommendations stemming from the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military. The oversight structure should also: (1) include a mechanism for comprehensive oversight of SHARP programs at the installation and command level, to include visibility over all areas of program implementation, such as inspection results, funding, and staffing; (2) direct that the SHARP Program Office is structured so as to enforce commander accountability for program implementation; and (3) ensure that the SHARP Program Office has adequate personnel resources to carry out its oversight responsibilities. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022 the Army stated that this recommendation is being addressed through DOD's Implementation Plan for the Independent Review Commission, along with additional support from various Army offices. Specifically, the Army expects to address workforce resources through the Implementation Plan. Further, the Army stated that the Department of the Army IG will be required to provide all inspection results to the SHARP Program Director. Army officials plan to conduct a review of available resources during the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) submission for fiscal years 2025-2029, and the Army plans to utilize SharePoint to collaborate with commands and program managers, including tools to track funding and manpower. The Army expects to implement these steps by the end of fiscal year 2023. We will continue to monitor Army actions in response to this recommendation, and will provide updated information as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Director of the Army SHARP Program issues guidance to ensure that incidents of sexual assault that are not officially reported but are disclosed to SHARP personnel and medical providers without access to the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database (DSAID) are shared with a brigade-level SARC and documented in the SAPR Related Inquiry module in DSAID. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022, the Army stated that it plans to provide guidance to ensure that incidents of sexual assault that are not officially reported but are disclosed to SHARP personnel and medical providers without access to the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database (DSAID) are shared with a brigade-level SARC and documented in the SAPR Related Inquiry module in DSAID in its new SHARP regulation, scheduled for issuance by January 15, 2023. However, we reviewed a draft of the regulation and found that such guidance was not included. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should issue guidance, such as the new SHARP regulation, which includes this requirement. We will continue to monitor the Army's actions in response to this recommendation and will provide updated information as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should develop a suite of performance measures that measure the desired outcomes for the SHARP program and, at a minimum, are clearly defined, objective, balanced, and enable consistent tracking of program performance over time. (Recommendation 7)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022 the Army stated that it will work with the DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) and the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) to develop standardized performance measures for the SHARP program. DOD estimates completion of this effort by the end of fiscal year 2023. Further, the Army is working with RAND to develop and pilot a pulse survey infrastructure that will enable rapid monitoring of prevalence rates for SHARP-related harmful behaviors, such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, gender discrimination, hazing, and bullying). The Army expects to complete the RAND pilot program by May 2024, and publish a related report by May 2025. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army needs to develop a suite of performance measures, such as standardized performance measures developed in collaboration with SAPRO and ODEI, that measure the desired outcomes of the SHARP program and meet the requirements laid out in our recommendation. We will continue to monitor the Army's actions in response to this recommendation and will provide updated information as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should develop and implement a continuous evaluation plan that employs a suite of fully-developed performance measures to systematically evaluate the effectiveness of the SHARP program. The plan should include ensuring that there are sufficient personnel with the relevant competencies, skills, and knowledge needed to implement the plan. (Recommendation 8)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022, the Army stated that it will work with appropriate DOD offices to develop and implement standardized performance measures, and will conduct a manning analysis to ensure the SHARP Program Office is sufficiently staffed to conduct program evaluation, including defining relevant competencies, skills, and knowledge for evaluation personnel. The Army stated that the manning analysis has been completed, but did not provide documentation. The Army expects to complete efforts defining knowledge, skills, and abilities, and complete hiring of evaluation personnel by the end of fiscal year 2023, but timelines for the development of a strategy for continuous evaluation and DOD development of standardized performance measures were unknown. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should develop and implement a continuous evaluation plan, including a suite of performance measures, to evaluate the effectiveness of the SHARP program, including efforts to ensure adequate staffing to implement the plan. We will continue to monitor Army actions taken in response to this recommendation and will provide updated information as appropriate.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Director of the Army SHARP Program conducts a systematic assessment to identify barriers to sexual harassment and sexual assault reporting and develops a plan to mitigate identified barriers and encourage reporting. Such barriers may include concerns related to the staffing structure of the SHARP program and perceptions about the prevalence of false reporting. (Recommendation 9)
Open
The Army concurred with this recommendation. In December 2022 the Army stated that it has a number of ongoing research projects focused on identification of barriers to sexual assault and sexual harassment reporting, and intends to utilize the results of those projects to inform the development of evidence-based plans to mitigate identified barriers. The Army estimates completion of its ongoing research projects by May 2024, but did not provide a timeline for assessment of those efforts and development of a plan to mitigate barriers and encourage reporting. In order to implement this recommendation, the Army should ensure its efforts to assess and identify barriers to reporting are systematic, and should develop a plan to mitigate identified barriers. We will continue to monitor the Army's actions in response to this recommendation and will provide updated information as appropriate.

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Agency evaluationsAssaultCompliance oversightEqual opportunityMilitary forcesPerformance measurementSexual harassmentSexual assaultsClimateEmployment discrimination