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National Guard Youth Challenge Program: Actions Needed to Enhance Oversight and Assess Performance

GAO-24-106172 Published: Nov 17, 2023. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The National Guard Youth Challenge Program helps teens earn their high school diploma or GED by offering military-like training and classes at 39 program sites in the U.S.

DOD regularly inspects these sites and recently updated inspectors' checklists to address whether sites have cameras in areas such as classrooms—a required safety measure.

However, DOD hasn't addressed systemic problems such as persistent understaffing. DOD also can't fully assess if the program is working because it doesn't have program-wide strategic goals, performance goals, or performance measures.

We recommended that DOD address these and other issues.

National Guard Youth Challenge Program Cadets Rappel at Wisconsin Challenge Academy, 2015

A person using a rope to rappel down a tall structure while others watch from above

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The National Guard Youth Challenge Program is a voluntary, quasi-military program that aims to imbue at-risk youth aged 15.5 to 18 with the values, life skills, education and self-discipline needed to succeed as productive citizens. GAO found that selected program sites generally implemented non-academic core program components through activities prescribed by National Guard Bureau (NGB) guidance. For example, all 13 sites GAO surveyed reported implementing the life coping skills component by teaching participants (cadets) how to prepare a personal budget. In contrast, sites' implementation of the academic excellence component varied, with instruction and testing shaped by key differences in academic credentials, accreditations, and partnerships.

National Guard Youth Challenge Program: Idaho Youth Challenge Academy

National Guard Youth Challenge Program: Idaho Youth Challenge Academy

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and NGB oversee program sites using several processes, including triennial program inspections and audits of cooperative agreements between NGB and the states. However, systemic issues identified by NGB—such as low staff-to-cadet ratios—persist across sites, and National Guard personnel have not consistently performed required cooperative agreement audits. By addressing the root causes of systemic issues, NGB can better ensure cadet health and safety and improve program performance. Further, by establishing a process to ensure completion of required audits of cooperative agreements, NGB can address longstanding delays and help ensure that sites adhere to agreements.

Although OSD and NGB collect some performance information, including site-level operational and financial data, they cannot fully assess program performance because they have not established program-wide strategic goals, performance goals, and performance measures. By establishing such goals and measures, OSD and NGB will be better positioned to determine program-wide performance and how to best allocate resources to achieve established goals.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since its inception in 1993, the National Guard Youth Challenge Program has produced over 200,000 graduates across dozens of sites located in the states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Currently, the program operates 39 sites.

House Report 117-88, accompanying the Department of Defense Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2022, included a provision for GAO to review the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, including its implementation and oversight. This report describes (1) how selected sites implemented core program components, and examines the extent to which OSD and NGB have (2) conducted oversight of the Challenge Program and (3) assessed its performance, among other objectives.

GAO reviewed program policies, inspections, and audits; surveyed program officials at a non-generalizable sample of 13 sites; and interviewed OSD, NGB, and site officials.

Recommendations

GAO makes five recommendations for DOD to assess and address root causes of systemic inspection findings; establish a process to ensure completion of required cooperative agreement audits; and establish strategic goals, performance goals, and performance measures. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations and described actions that they believe implemented some of the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Sort descending Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, establishes performance goals that align with strategic goals and include quantitative targets and time frames against which performance can be measured. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In April 2024, DOD stated that it plans to draft and implement performance goals by December 2025. To accomplish this, DOD stated that it plans to establish a baseline of existing Key Performance Indicators currently being captured across all sites; understand the data collection methods available to each program site; establish a system of record to allow for longer-term tracking of program outcomes; work with stakeholders and subject matter experts to draft specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound performance goals; and establish guidance for the standardized implementation of the goals. We will update the status of this recommendation once we confirm what actions DOD has taken.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, establishes program-wide performance measures that align with the eight core components for the Challenge Program and established performance goals. At a minimum, the measures should be clear, quantifiable, objective, and provide for the baseline measurement of current performance. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In April 2024, DOD stated that it plans to draft and implement performance measures by December 2025. To accomplish this, DOD stated that it plans to review and assess the National Guard Bureau's Core Component Measurement Guide and RAND's prior work to update or draft performance measures for each core component; establish a system of record to allow for longer-term tracking of program outcomes and assess data collection needs and capabilities for all measures; and update and implement the Core Component Measure Guide. We will update the status of this recommendation once we confirm what actions DOD has taken.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, in consultation with the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and the Chief of National Guard Bureau Office of Youth Programs, assesses the root causes of all triennial inspection systemic findings and establishes a plan to address them, such as by issuing guidance or best practices, or developing remedial strategies. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In April 2024, the National Guard Bureau compiled a list of systemic findings from the past three years of inspections. DOD stated that National Guard Bureau's Office of Youth Programs will continue to maintain the spreadsheet of all national systemic findings and engage with program site directors and subject matter experts at semi-annual workshops to address the findings, starting with the most prevalent systemic findings. DOD stated that National Guard Bureau's Office of Youth Programs would review the results in March 2025. We will update the status of this recommendation once we confirm what actions DOD has taken.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, in consultation with the Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau and the NGB Comptroller, establishes a process, such as in planned guidance, to ensure that United States Property and Fiscal Officers conduct required audits of cooperative agreements in accordance with policy. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
DOD concurred with this recommendation. In December 2023, the National Guard Bureau Comptroller issued a reminder memorandum to United States Property and Fiscal Officers (USPFOs) to complete National Guard Youth Challenge Program cooperative agreement audits at least once every three years. The memorandum also directed USPFOs to submit their audits to National Guard Bureau's Office of Youth Programs for review. In April 2024, DOD stated that the National Guard Bureau Comptroller is developing a system to track all required audits and remind states they must complete their audits if the state enters their third year without completing the audit. DOD stated the NGB Comptroller will review the results in December 2024. We will update the status of this recommendation once we confirm that DOD has developed a system to track required audits and ensure their completion.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, establishes strategic goals for the Challenge Program. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In April 2024, DOD stated that it will work with state program directors and key stakeholders to clarify key goals and areas of focus and develop a strategic plan for fiscal years 2025-2027. DOD stated it plans to finalize the plan by January 2025. We will update the status of this recommendation once we confirm what actions DOD has taken.

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Topics

Best practicesCompliance oversightCooperative agreementsEducational standardsFederal spendingHealth and safetyInternal controlsPerformance goalsPerformance measurementPhysical fitnessStudents