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Critics: Climate assessments fall short

Aug. 6, 2013 - 10:58AM   |  
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The Air Force’s climate assessments meant to curb sexual assault do not go far enough, said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has been an outspoken critic of how the military handles sexual assault cases.

“If you’re not going to link these assessments to promotions, if you’re not going to have to put it into one’s file to be reviewed for promotion purposes, what you are saying is, ‘Let’s do some more window dressing; let’s try and appease Congress by making it sound like we’re doing something,’ ” Speier said in a July 31 interview. “If you’re not going to link it to promotions, if you’re not going to say that this has a direct affect on military readiness and cohesiveness, then you’re missing the point.”

Instead of half measures, the Air Force needs the type of leadership exhibited by Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Australia’s army chief, who delivered a blistering video message last month telling Australian troops that he will be “ruthless” in getting rid of soldiers who mistreat women.

“The Air Force has, regrettably, disappointed me consistently, and I see this as a continuation,” she said.

As of July 31, commanders from the squadron through the air staff level will issue the unit climate assessments within 120 days of assuming command — and then annually thereafter — but the assessments will not be included in commanders’ files and they will not be seen by promotion boards, said Cyrus Salazar, the Air Force’s equal opportunity program manager.

Amid a spike of reported incidents of unwanted sexual contact, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced May 7 that commanders would have to brief their superiors on the results of the assessments, “to enhance accountability and improve insight into command climate at every level — at every level of the chain of command.”

The assessments will include six sections covering issues including perceived discrimination, supervisory support and command equal opportunity policy, he said. The last section of the assessments will ask six questions about sexual assault, and those results will be briefed to commanders by local sexual assault response coordinators, who will propose solutions to any issues that respondents raise.

While they are important tools in ensuring commanders hear from personnel about sexual harassment and sexual assaults, the assessments are not meant to be used as “report cards,” Salazar told Air Force Times.

“Rather, these are means to gauge the engagement or the climate within their organization,” Salazar said. “They’re an effective tool to really understand cohesion and pride, motivation and morale and understand the climate at that level, but they are not to be used by the higher level commander to affect their OPR [Officer Performance Report] or their evaluation or any form of promotion in their cycle.”

But an advocacy group for female service members feels that linking climate assessments to promotions is essential to holding commanders accountable.

“Unless they’re going to keep these in their files and track them and look for trends, it’s completely up to the senior commander in terms of what he’s going to do this,” said Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network. “You can provide the basis for a discussion or a conversation in the sense of a manager doing sort of a performance appraisal, but there’s really no teeth to this.”

Without an incentive for commanders to do the right thing, the climate assessments will not have much of an effect on curbing sexual assault, Jacob said.

“We would rather see practical, real type of evaluations and assessments of commanders that actually count, that actually matter, because that’s really what’s going to motivate commanders to change the culture is if they have some kind of skin in the game,” he said. “Until that happens, they’re not going to be pushing as hard as they possibly can.”

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