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CONTEST 3: progress for transparency and evaluation?

Commentary, 14 July 2011
Terrorism, Europe
CONTEST 3 continues to recognise the now-established tradition that counter-terrorism strategy should be as transparent as possible. But with transparency comes robust evaluation, a mechanism that seems to be missing in the government's latest plan to deal with terrorism.

CONTEST 3 continues to recognise the now-established tradition that counter-terrorism strategy should be as transparent as possible. But with transparency comes robust evaluation, a mechanism that seems to be missing in the government's latest plan to deal with terrorism.

By Kyle Johnston, Research Analyst, RUSI

Armed Police

When added to the recently released Prevent strategy, the UK's strategy for countering terrorism (CONTEST 3) is unprecedented in its size.  It now stands at a combined total of 236 pages - some 62 pages longer than its 2009 iteration, and 203 pages longer than that of 2006. 

That this expansion reflects the increasing breadth and depth of the UK's counter-terrorism policy is only part of the story.  Whilst it is true that CONTEST 3 covers a greater diversity of threats and recommendations than its predecessors, the reason for this growth has been a calculated move by successive Governments to bring  counter-terrorism strategy out into the open.

Whereas the first iteration of CONTEST, released in 2003, remained classified, its updated 2006 version did not.  The 2009 CONTEST took this transparency one stage further, offering an unparalleled insight into the UK's strategic approach to countering terrorism.

CONTEST 3 has continued in this vein. It offers a candid assessment of the current threat landscape, situating UK counter-terrorism policy against a changing geopolitical backdrop in the Middle East and in light of shifting modes of terrorist attack.

The threat emanating from Al-Qa'ida inspired terrorist networks, groups and unaffiliated individuals is emphasised, and indeed, detailed information regarding counter-terrorism measures in the UK is provided.  We learn, for example, that since 2000 there have been thirty-one terrorist attacks against the UK and its interest overseas; that in the last two years alone, sixty-seven people have been prosecuted for terrorism related activity in Great Britain; and that removing extremist material from the internet will play a vital part in UK counter-terrorism strategy.

Recent research has shown that such transparency can bring significant benefits,[1] and in two respects, it is likely to facilitate the success of the UK's strategy for countering terrorism.

In the first instance, it offers the public a measured account of the existing threats and their role in countering terrorism - something particularly important to the current strategy.  Indeed, CONTEST 3 has placed a particular emphasis on the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) - a specialist police team which looks to remove unlawful terrorist material online.  The success of this unit will depend on the cooperation of the public, which, it is argued, 'has a key role in identifying harmful and illegal content on the internet.'[2]  Thus, increased transparency of the Government's counter-terrorism priorities will be essential, as will information regarding forms of online extremist material - an overview of which is provided in a dedicated section on 'Counter-terrorism and the internet'.

Secondly, increased transparency within CONTEST can provide an effective  means of countering extremist narratives, which can often fill the void left by Government secrecy with falsehoods about UK security practices.[3]  By declassifying information and being more open about UK counter-terrorism policy - particularly regarding the security services and intelligence gathering - the Government can render conspiracy theories demonstrably false, building greater public trust and isolating extremist voices.  It should be welcomed, therefore, that together with the latest Prevent strategy, CONTEST 3 carries 103 references to the importance of intelligence gathering, and the roles and responsibilities of some twenty-nine UK departments and agencies are explained throughout.  Transparency in this respect undoubtedly constitutes progress for of the CONTEST strategy.

The importance of evaluation 

For a strategy to be truly effective and to have long-term impacts, it is essential that embedded within it are mechanisms which allow it to be evaluated, reviewed, and for the lessons which emerge to be appreciated and taken on board.  The process of target-setting plays an important role in this, and as the Cabinet Office guidance on professional policy making argues, 'to specify precise outcomes, products and milestones early on build evaluation into the policy making process from the outset. And having in-built mechanisms for monitoring the progress of work helps to keep the policy process on track'.[4]  Such processes are also essential for ensuring that Governments and Departments are held accountable for the policies they institute, and in this respect, it is important that  the process of evaluation is open and visible to the public. 

Nevertheless, one of the enduring failures of the effort to increase transparency has been a lack of information about how CONTEST is evaluated and against what standards it is being judged.  The first publically available version of CONTEST, released 2006, contained no mention of performance measures, and only in 2009 were references made to an open process of evaluation.  This came via the inclusion of a Public Service Agreement (PSA) - a clear statement of the policy designed to shape ambition and offer a tangible benchmark to publically assess Government performance.  For CONTEST, this came in the form of PSA 26, which outlined nine key outcomes based upon the overall strategic aim of the CONTEST: 'to reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from international terrorism'.[5]

Although the introduction of PSA 26 was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, in reality, the nine outcomes it identified constituted only a fraction of the information needed to evaluate the progress of CONTEST.  The extent of this was made clear in  a 2010 report on CONTEST, where it was revealed that for 2009/2010, '53 priority deliverables across CONTEST ' existed, against which the success of the strategy was to be judged.  However, it was added that '[f]or security reasons, these plans and could not be published,'[6]  Thus, although there existed fifty-three benchmarks for evaluating CONTEST, only nine were made available to the public. 

It would be wrong to say that CONTEST 3 takes a step back with respect to openness on evaluation.  Equally, however, it is clear that little progress has been made.  As with the 2009 version, positive signs exist, and indeed, across the four central strands of CONTEST - Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare - sections are included which define the objectives for the next four years, and rather more usefully, they elaborate on what the 'success' of each strand might look like - something not so explicitly stated in the 2009 iteration. 

However, gone are any references to PSA 26 - indeed, there is no mention of any PSA - and no concrete account of how CONTEST is to be evaluated is provided.  There are, of course, necessary limits on transparency, and real barriers as to how much of the counter-terrorism strategy can be publically disclosed.  These are principally due to issues of security, and the dangers of revealing information which might compromise ongoing investigations or be of use to terrorist organisations. 

However, just as there are legitimate barriers to openness, it must also be recognised that for Government's and the civil service, there are disincentives to openness - particularly when it comes to evaluating policies and holding decisions to account.  

As a recent report by the Institute for Government made clear,[7] the absence of effective and accountable evaluations is one of the enduring weaknesses of British policy making.  All too often, it is argued, the government has many incentives to  'curb or soften evaluation findings that are critical', as do the Departments responsible for the policy which often have a major say over what evaluations are made publically available.  It could be contended, therefore, that an absence of public information on the evaluation of CONTEST might not, despite arguments to the contrary, be a consequence of security restrictions alone. 

And, as the report goes on to suggest, the absence of an adequate evaluation process may also be due to the fact that evaluations are all too often treated 'as a problem for another day'[8]  rather than something which needs to be embedded within the policy from the outset.  Sentiments such as these seem to be borne out within CONTEST 3, where it is argued that the Government still 'intends to develop a more effective and better targeted performance assessment and target programme.'[9] 

The question of why the CONTEST 3 evaluation process is to be tagged on to the end of the strategy rather than  embedded within it is an important one, and irrespective of the underlying cause, it signals a worrying lack of progress in this latest iteration of CONTEST.

To be sure, this will not only implicate the success of this strategy,  but is likely to inhibit the future progress of CONTEST as a whole.  Indeed, the development of an successful counter-terrorism strategy is a process rather than a series of one-off policy initiatives, and for reasons of effectiveness and accountability, it is essential that the issue of evaluation is now confronted at the earliest possible stage.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI


[1] Bartlett, J. and Miller, C. (2010) 'The power of unreason: Conspiracy theories, extremism and counter-terrorism', London: DEMOS; Research, Information and Communications Unit (2010) 'Prevent: a communications guide', London: Home Office.

[2] HMG (2011), 'Contest: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism', p. 76

[3] See Bartlett and Miller (2010)

[4] Strategic Policy Making Team, Cabinet Office (1999), 'Professional Policy Making for the Twenty first Century, p. 18.

[5] HMG (2009), 'Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering International Terrorism',  p. 138.

[6] HMG (2010), 'Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering International Terrorism: Annual Report', p. 26.

[7] Hallsworth, M. with Parker, S and Rutter, J. (2011), Policy Making in the Real World: Evidence and Analysis, London: Institute for Government, p. 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] HMG (2011), 'Contest: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Terrorism', p. 116.

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