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Service Members Transitioning to Civilian Life: Agencies Can Improve Warm Handovers for Additional Assistance

GAO-24-106248 Published: Mar 21, 2024. Publicly Released: Mar 21, 2024.
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Fast Facts

Transitioning from military to civilian life can be difficult for some service members as they may lose access to housing, pay, healthcare, and more. DOD provides certain at-risk service members with a person-to-person connection—known as a "warm handover"—to support agencies like VA.

But DOD doesn't ensure that warm handovers take place. From April 2021-March 2023, more than 4,300 at-risk service members didn't receive this assistance. Also, DOD hasn't assessed whether warm handovers are helpful. As a result, the program may be missing opportunities to best meet service members' transition needs.

We recommended addressing this, and more.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

To assist certain service members who may be at risk for a difficult transition from military to civilian life, the Department of Defense (DOD) provides them with a person-to-person connection, known as a “warm handover,” to other agencies. These other agencies include the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Labor (DOL), which can help the service members obtain additional transition services. Through its Transition Assistance Program, DOD ensures these service members receive agency contact information, but does not ensure that a connection with a person actually occurs (see figure). DOD provided at least one warm handover to about 41,000 service members, according to available data from April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2023. However, during this same time period the agency did not provide a warm handover to over 4,300 other service members who were also considered at-risk of having a challenging transition. DOD officials said the agency has not analyzed the reasons why these service members did not receive a warm handover. Without developing a written plan to analyze its data, DOD cannot ensure that the thousands of service members transitioning annually have access to the additional assistance they need and the benefits they have earned.

DOD's Warm Handover Process Does Not Ensure Service Members Connect with Agencies for Additional Assistance with Their Transition to Civilian Life

DOD's Warm Handover Process Does Not Ensure Service Members Connect with Agencies for Additional Assistance with Their Transition to Civilian Life

Transition Assistance Program counselors and others told GAO that warm handovers could be helpful to some service members, but DOD has not assessed their helpfulness. DOD has recently worked with VA and DOL on pilot projects that will provide some additional information, but these efforts are expected to provide limited information on warm handovers, and other agency efforts to assess the Transition Assistance Program do not focus on warm handovers. Without a plan to assess the helpfulness of warm handovers, program officials may be missing opportunities to ensure they are meeting the needs of service members.

Agencies generally collaborated effectively to implement pilot projects aimed at refining warm handovers, but they have not identified criteria to make decisions about scaling all of the piloted approaches. Without identifying specific criteria, these agencies risk not collecting data needed to decide whether and how to scale the piloted approaches to the broader Transition Assistance Program and warm handover processes.

Why GAO Did This Study

Hundreds of thousands of service members transition from military service to civilian life each year, and some can be at risk for unemployment, homelessness, or gaps in medical care. To help them succeed, DOD provides certain service members with a warm handover to other agencies and organizations for additional assistance.

Senate report 117-130 includes a provision for GAO to review DOD's warm handover process. GAO's report addresses the extent to which DOD: (1) ensures that service members receive a warm handover as appropriate, (2) assesses information on the helpfulness of warm handovers, and (3) collaborates with VA and DOL in their efforts to refine the warm handover process.

GAO analyzed DOD program data for April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2023, the most recent available. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, policies, and agency documents, and interviewed officials from relevant federal agencies and five military installations selected for diversity in numbers of transitioning service members, geographic location, and service branch.

Recommendations

GAO is making eight recommendations, including that DOD develop plans to analyze warm handover data and assess the helpfulness of warm handovers, and that DOD, VA, and DOL coordinate to identify criteria for scaling piloted approaches. The three agencies agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop a written plan to analyze its available Transition Assistance Program data to identify reasons why transitioning service members who should receive a warm handover are not receiving one, and take appropriate action to collect additional warm handover data. Actions could include requiring Transition Assistance Program officials to provide an explanation when not providing a warm handover. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop a process to regularly request updated online contact information from receiving agencies, including VA and DOL, to help ensure that Transition Assistance Program officials can connect service members with agency programs through warm handovers. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop additional guidance to commanders and their designees on verifying warm handovers and on recording the verifications in the Transition Assistance Program database. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in coordination with interagency partners, such as DOL and VA, should develop a plan to assess the helpfulness of warm handovers as a part of its overall assessment of the Transition Assistance Program. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop and implement a process to share information and findings on the helpfulness of warm handover from partner agencies with military service branches, including Transition Assistance Program counselors and other stakeholders. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs coordinates with DOL and VA through the Transition Assistance Program interagency partnership to identify criteria and standards for the ENPP and TSMRC pilot projects to determine whether and how to scale the piloted approaches into the overall warm handover process. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should ensure the Undersecretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration coordinates with DOD through the Transition Assistance Program interagency partnership to identify criteria and standards for the TSMRC pilot, to determine whether and how to scale the piloted approach into the overall warm handover process. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Labor The Secretary of Labor should ensure that the Assistant Secretary for Veterans' Employment and Training Service coordinates with DOD through the Transition Assistance Program interagency partnership to identify criteria and standards for ENPP to determine whether and how to scale the piloted approach into the overall warm handover process. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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