As terrorist organizations continue to recruit followers, spread propaganda and announce plans to conduct attacks, US counterterrorism efforts are an increasing priority. However, even though the Department of State lists countering violent extremism (CVE) as a priority, the department has yet to evaluate its past or current CVE efforts, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report.
In response, the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism was elevated to a Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT Bureau) based on recommendations in the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.
The goal of the change was to enhance the department’s CVE efforts. GAO also noted that, “One reason for elevating the CT Office to a bureau was that the office’s responsibilities for counterterrorism strategy, policy, operations and programs had grown far beyond the original coordinating mission.”
Since being elevated to a bureau, the CT Bureau has taken steps to prioritize counterterrorism efforts, as well as to address long-standing staffing gaps and annual evaluations. GAO recently reviewed the CT Bureau, three years after its creation, to evaluate how well it is handling these issues.
In addressing staffing challenges, GAO noted that since 2011 the number of authorized full-time equivalent (FTE) positions at the CT Bureau has increased each year. In 2011, there were 66 such positions available; however, this year, there are 96, and the CT Bureau has never hired enough people to fill all of the positions. From 2011 to 2015, FTE vacancies have ranged from 17 to 23 percent.
In June, a senior official in the CT Bureau testified to Congress that only 11 vacancies were left. However, GAO has been unable to verify that four of the positions are actually filled, as the State Department has not provided enough documentation. The unfilled positions have covered a variety of different types of jobs, including a management position in the Office of Homeland Security and program analyst positions in the Office of Programs.
“According to the CT Bureau, about 7 of these positions were initially filled within the first 6 months after the bureau was established,” GAO stated. “Filling many of the remaining positions was postponed until the current Coordinator for Counterterrorism had time to assess the bureau’s needs and priorities, according to the CT Bureau.”
In addition, while the CT Bureau has assessed its performance, it has not evaluated its priority—the countering violent extremism program—or established time frames for addressing evaluation recommendations.
GAO determined that, “Although the bureau has completed some program evaluations, it has yet to evaluate its past or current CVE efforts, an action that could help it make more informed decisions about programmatic efforts to counter violent extremism abroad.”
Program evaluations carried out in 2013 and 2014 resulted in 60 recommendations, of which 28 had been implemented as of June 2015. The remaining evaluations do not have time frames for completion.
GAO stated, “Without specific time frames, it will be difficult for the bureau to ensure timely implementation of programmatic improvements. In addition, despite identifying its CVE program as a priority and acknowledging the benefit of evaluating it, the bureau has postponed evaluating it each fiscal year since 2012.”
In evaluating how well the CT Bureau worked with other agencies on CVE programs, GAO found that its cooperation “generally reflects key practices for effective collaboration.”
GAO recommended that the Secretary of Statetake steps to ensure CVE program efforts abroad are evaluated and specific time frames are established for addressing recommendations from program evaluations.
The State Department agreed with the recommendation to undertake a more comprehensive evaluation of CVE program efforts, and is currently assessing which programs would most benefit from a third-party evaluation during the upcoming fiscal year. The State Department expects CVE to be included in their final determination.
“The CVE Program in CT was established in 2010, and CT Bureau received only limited funding for CVE activities the first few fiscal years,” the State Department said in a statement. “At this stage, we now have a number of programs underway for a sufficient amount of time to benefit from an assessment of cross-cutting lessons learned.”
The State Department noted that although they had not undertaken a comprehensive CVE evaluation, the department has built monitoring and evaluation (M&E) into each of their projects. CT has also developed standardized CVE results indicators that it’s shared with embassies and implementing partners, when relevant.
The State Department agreed with the recommendation to establish specific timeframes for addressing recommendations from program evaluations.
“State will commit to setting a timetable of reviewing each recommendation by a third party evaluator and implementing those actions that are deemed both implementable and worthwhile,” the department said in a statement.