David Rubens – ‘So, who’s in charge here…?’

David Rubens, Managing Director of David Rubens Associates
David Rubens, Managing Director of David Rubens Associates

In David Rubens seventh exclusive article for Infologue.com, he discusses the management of risk and ultimate responsibility. David writes; “As someone who has been involved in pretty much every level of security training over the last twenty years, from static security guards through to the highest level of specialist academic research, it never ceases to astonish me that major organisations still seem to lack even the most basic understanding of security and risk management. This is true even though those capability gaps put their very existence at risk. It seems to make no difference that all sorts of management hierarchies are created specifically to oversee those matters, with no shortage of ‘experts’ being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for their specialist skills. In fact, it often seems that there is a direct correlation between the number of levels of management involved in decision making, and the likelihood of those decisions going catastrophically wrong.

“The self-inflicted wounds that the BBC has inflicted on itself over the last weeks has put one of the most respected institutions in this country at risk, and yet it seems that the underlying reasons that that has happened are down to basic mistakes in management oversight. After the Jimmy Savile / Newsnight affair, which led to the resignation of the BBC Director-General and the suspension of a number of senior programme managers and editors, you might have thought that any decision made in connection with the general issue of child abuse would have been pressure tested from every angle before being released into the public domain. The fact that a false and unsupported accusation of child-abuse against a senior political figure was allowed to be broadcast is almost beyond understanding. And yet, in all of the reports on that (and other) incidents, there was one line that jumped out at me, and which has been playing over in my mind since I read it. As The Times’ put it on 13th November, ‘There was confusion among senior BBC editors and executives over who was responsible for ‘final editorial sign-off’ for the disastrous Newsnight report which falsely accused a senior Conservative of being a paedophile….The problems in the programme stemmed from two different sign-off processes being put in place of continuing inquiries into Savile….As a consequence, there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility for the Newsnight report’.

“It is surely an undeniable principle of any operation, never mind one with such potential harmful outcomes, that the chain of command should be clearly defined, the ultimate responsibility should be unambiguous, and the ‘Go’ command, however it is given, should be both definitive and recorded. The fact that the BBC lost control of that process, even in the midst of the turmoil that resulted from the side-lining of many of its most senior and experienced news managers, is an indication of serious weaknesses in their management systems, and a failure of those people responsible for ensuring that such management controls were in place.

“However, the language used to describe those shortcomings, and the effects that resulted from the ‘ambiguity’ of the command chain, reminded me of similar language used in another tragic case, the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting in 2005, in the period immediately following the 7/7/ bombings. In the official report issued by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, great significance was given to the fact that it was unclear as to who had / should have had control of the operation to intercept the suspected terrorist Hussain Osman (who turned out in fact to be Brazilian carpenter de Menezes), whether it was the Designated Senior Officer / Gold Commander, or the operational Silver Commander. It was also unclear whether Operation Kratos, the official strategy for dealing with a ‘Suspected Suicide Bomber’ had been triggered. Operation Kratos was the designation for the legal use of a ‘critical shot’ in the event that it was perceived as the most appropriate and effective way of dealing with a suicide bomber who would otherwise cause mass destruction. Senior commanders were clear that no command concerning Operation Kratos had been given, but SO19 specialist firearms officers on the ground later said that it had been implied that they were responding to a suicide bomber who needed to be stopped under all circumstances.

“It is easy to say that both these organisations were responding to unique situations, which they had perhaps not been prepared for, but then surely that is a significant part of any crisis situation. Although there had been numerous table-top and live exercises with senior officers practicing Operation Kratos scenarios, the actual situation did not develop as had been foreseen, falling between two different response plans: ‘Operation C’ for a suicide bomber at a pre-planned public event, and Operation Kratos for intercepting a suicide bomber in a fast-developing and more spontaneous manner. The fact that the surveillance teams had failed to give clear identification of the suspect, together with the fact that critical counter-terrorist and specialist firearms units weren’t in the positions that they were meant to be in, led to on-going confusion as to the actual level of immediate threat, and the responses that had been authorised. Whilst this is a natural consequence of the chaos and disorder that tends to surround any fast-developing crisis situation, it is one of the functions of senior managers and strategists to ensure that the command and management frameworks that are in place are robust enough to stand up to the pressures that they will face once they move into actual crisis response.

“For any senior manager looking at crisis management failures such as the BP Deepwater Horizon affair, Hurricane Katrina, the Metropolitan Police and the de Menezes tragedy or the self-inflicted wounds of the BBC, there will undoubtedly be a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God…..’. If there are lessons to be learned from all of these case histories, it is that we might not be able to influence the root cause of the crisis (though that is an argument for another column), but at least we can ensure that everything is in place to give us the best possible chance of getting through it with the least possible damage.”

David Rubens has been involved in UK security consultancy for twenty years. He holds an MSc in Security and Risk Management (Leicester University), and is a Visiting Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor on their Security, Terrorism and Policing MSc programme. He was a Visiting Lecturer on the Strategic Leadership Programme at the Security and Resilience Department, Cranfield University, UK Defence Academy (2009-’10), focusing on terrorism & public policy and the management of large-scale, multi-agency operations. He has written specialist reports for government agencies in Japan, Russia, Dubai, Nigeria, Liberia and the Caribbean, and is highly-regarded as a speaker on the international security circuit. He is currently on the Professional Doctorate programme at Portsmouth University Department of Criminology & Justice, where his research is concerned with the strategic management of security operations at the extremes of organisational complexity. He can be contacted at david@davidrubens-associates.com/www.davidrubens-associates.com

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