Security and Sympathy

A number of people have asked whether I have any sympathy for G4S given the current security shenanigans at the London Olympics? Some – yes. And for others too.

Having taken part in a few live debates about the Olympic security situation on radio stations across Britain over the last couple of days, I thought it worth consolidating my thoughts here. It always seems easier to think about what to say once off air.

There are three parties involved: Government, the organisers: LOCOG, and G4S. Oh – and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) of course. Each time the Olympics and Paralympics are awarded by the IOC to a host city, that city then sets about building an entire operation, in this case LOCOG, from the ground up. From scratch. Learning and evolving in a relatively short period of time. And under constant scrutiny.

Whilst growing and evolving, LOCOG also have to plan the events and award contracts. Contracting for live events is really quite different from contracting anything else. You know you need certain services, but can’t accurately specify them until close to the event – way beyond needing the contract in place. Requirements evolve constantly. Yes you can learn from history – but this only gets you so far, every event is different. A degree of experienced clairvoyancy is required to predict what lies ahead.

Having both contracted and been tasked with doing the unprecedented, I know first hand what it’s like on both sides. If you are attempting something unprecedented as this security operation in the UK is, against such a fluid backdrop as I’ve outlined; normal contracting protocols go out of the window. As this G4S situation proves – a contract is little practical use to anyone at the eleventh hour. You need a balance of competency and process, coupled with great relationships.

Being unprecedented, both organiser and supplier are learning, and as such, full specifications and responsibilities are nigh on impossible to accurately or usefully detail in any contract. This therefore demands an open, partnership-like approach. With the strict governance LOCOG and G4S operate under and likely penalty-rich, robust contracts, it’s conceivable the security problems, whilst known about, may have been hidden for too long for fear of reprisals. Contractors failing or struggling is not uncommon. How you deal with it is key.

Another consideration when doing anything unprecedented is to assume the contractor will fail and have a backup plan. A doomsday view perhaps, and I admit not a view held by everyone, but to consider and hope all will go to plan is a flawed theory. I cannot believe LOCOG and the Government did not have a plan B. What’s been most alarming to me over the past couple of days is the level of surprise plan B seems to have been met with. Was the drafting in of police and military personnel really such a surprise? Or is it that if revealed previously, there would have been public outcry? I am not sure we’ll ever know.

The perfect security storm has hit then. What next? And could it have been avoided? Criticisms are easy to dish out, but given none of us know the real facts, I’ll not be dishing any out. A few considerations though . . .

Should LOCOG have split the contract – possibly, yes. I think concerns made by some observers that this would have made the coordination more difficult are less of a concern – but would the public sympathise with the fact this would have inevitably cost more? I doubt it.

Should the Government have tasked the military and police with the whole security job from the outset, which I am sure they would have done brilliantly? Possibly, but would the public sympathise with diverting such a huge amount of resource away from their day jobs? I doubt it.

Should G4S be in the situation they’re in? No. But G4S are not working alone, they are, regardless of contracts, working in partnership with LOCOG and the Government. G4S clearly seem to have some serious internal problems but they are also dealing with evolving specifications and constantly moving goal posts from their partners (and client) – this is normal, not ideal – but normal. G4S may have perhaps been naive to treat this contract like they do any other. Working with a (temporary) organisation like LOCOG on a temporary event isn’t like working on normal contracts – you need to understand not what you are contracted to do – but everything you are not contracted to do but are going to be held responsible for regardless – it’s that clairvoyancy again. A lesson I learnt a long time ago and one G4S are seemingly learning very publicly now.

Government, LOCOG and G4S need to work together for the final push. It is these final moments where everyone will really earn their salaries.  The G4S Chief Executive, Nick Buckles sat through a fairly horrific Select Committee hearing yesterday taking the heat. He had no choice admittedly. I think those questioning him though needed to look at the bigger picture. Fault lies with all parties I am sure – but what does the blame game actually achieve at this eleventh hour? It certainly won’t help that final push.

G4S will go on to learn from this, as will the Government, though LOCOG will cease to exist in a few months time.

The games will be a success. Everyone is working hard. The challenge is unprecedented. Many would struggle in the same circumstances. The problems have been relatively minor in the scheme of things. Having been where LOCOG and G4S are – I’ve some sympathy for both.