DOD Needs an Oversight Framework and Standards to Improve Management of Its Casualty Assistance Programs
GAO-06-1010: Published: Sep 22, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2006.
Almost 6,000 servicemembers died from October 2001 through September 2005. The Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Social Security Administration (SSA) provide assistance to survivors of servicemembers who die on active duty. This assistance includes but is not limited to making funeral arrangements, applying for federal benefits, providing relocation assistance, and coordinating with other agencies. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 required GAO to assess casualty assistance provided to survivors of servicemembers. For this report, GAO reviewed the extent to which DOD has (1) an oversight framework and standards to monitor the assistance it provides to survivors of these deceased servicemembers and (2) visibility over the costs of its casualty assistance programs. GAO also reviewed the roles of VA and SSA in providing casualty assistance. In conducting this review, GAO analyzed agency documents and interviewed program officials, limiting its scope to federal programs.
DOD does not have a comprehensive oversight framework and standards that could improve its ability to monitor the casualty assistance it provides to survivors of servicemembers who die while on active duty. The absence of a comprehensive oversight framework exists because DOD has not developed departmentwide program objectives and all the necessary outcome measures to monitor the military services' casualty assistance programs' effectiveness and efficiency. GAO found that while each service gathers information about its casualty assistance program and DOD and the services meet three times a year to share information, program performance comparisons across services are hampered by the lack of common metrics and assessment methods. Moreover, DOD's current policy does not specify key standards for the services' casualty assistance programs that would facilitate more consistent delivery of assistance across the services. Such standards would include processes (1) for consistent delivery of short- and long-term assistance across and within the services and (2) for coordinating with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service about benefit payments to survivors. DOD does not know the total costs of its casualty assistance programs because it has limited visibility over all program costs. This limited visibility exists for two primary reasons: (1) casualty assistance program costs are scattered across many different parts of DOD's budget, including military personnel, operation and maintenance, and defense health program budgets, and (2) costs of benefits provided to survivors of active duty servicemembers and military retirees, such as the annuities, are lumped together. Although casualty assistance program costs and benefits represent a small portion of DOD's overall budget, without visibility over costs, it is difficult for program officials to make informed decisions regarding the costs of any changes to DOD's casualty assistance programs. In GAO's July 2005 report on the transparency of the military compensation system, GAO recommended that DOD compile the total costs to provide military compensation and communicate them to decision makers perhaps as part of its annual budget submission to Congress. Casualty assistance benefits are another type of cost that could be included as part of total compensation costs. Because GAO recommended that DOD compile total compensation costs in its July 2005 report, GAO is not making that recommendation here. VA and SSA primarily provide long-term financial and nonfinancial benefits to support and compensate survivors starting almost immediately after the servicemember's death and possibly extending through the lifetime of the survivor. However, neither agency has visibility over the extent to which these survivors utilize their benefits or the overall costs of their participation.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Defense Authorization Act for 2006 mandated that GAO evaluate the programs of the Department of Defense (DOD) for casualty assistance and report its findings by July 2006. The same legislation also required that DOD revise its policy guiding the provision of casualty assistance by August 2006. GAO reported that while DOD offers a wide array of benefits and assistance to the survivors of servicemembers who die on active duty, DOD lacked a comprehensive oversight framework necessary to monitor and improve the assistance it provides. GAO recommended that DOD develop an oversight framework that includes measurable objectives for aspects such as survivors' satisfaction with assistance and the required reporting by the services on these measures. DOD issued its revised casualty assistance policy in January 2008, and the policy strengthened the oversight framework of DOD by requiring the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop a common feedback mechanism for casualty assistance officers and survivors. This mechanism will provide DOD with information about the provision of casualty assistance across the services, and thus allow decisionmakers to monitor and improve casualty assistance.
Recommendation: To improve DOD's ability to effectively manage its casualty assistance programs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop an oversight framework that includes measurable DOD-wide objectives for casualty assistance programs, DOD-wide outcome measures to evaluate aspects of its programs, such as survivors' satisfaction with assistance they received from casualty assistance officers, and clearly link program performance with these objectives, and requirements for the services to report on these outcome measures so that DOD can use the reports to monitor the casualty assistance programs' performance and make fact-based decisions about the program operations and resources.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Defense Authorization Act for 2006 mandated that GAO evaluate the programs of the Department of Defense (DOD) for casualty assistance and report its findings by July 2006. The same legislation also required that DOD revise its policy guiding the provision of casualty assistance by August 2006. GAO reported that while DOD offers a wide array of benefits and assistance to the survivors of servicemembers who die on active duty, inconsistencies in the provision or short- and long-term casualty assistance occurred due to lack of key standards. GAO detailed areas in which inconsistencies were observed and recommended that DOD incorporate standards into its casualty assistance policy. DOD addressed our recommendation in its January 2008 revised policy by requiring casualty assistance to be uniform throughout DOD. Specifically, the uniformity of assistance is addressed in the standards for training of casualty assistance officers, timely completion of the casualty assistance officer feedback report, and timely and thorough completion and update of the DD Form 93, a form that guides emergency notification and the designation of beneficiaries. The revised policy also now requires that the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) identify a single point of contact for each service and provide a document to survivors which explains the purpose and amounts of all monies being paid to them as survivors. Implementation of this recommendation should result in DOD providing better service and greater consistency of casualty assistance to servicemembers and their families. Action taken by: Agency
Recommendation: To improve DOD's ability to effectively manage its casualty assistance programs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to incorporate standards, such as a comprehensive checklist of duties for casualty assistance officers, when revising its casualty assistance policy.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense