Hard Lessons Learned From London Olympics Security Fiasco

July 26th, 2012 by CHHS RAs

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CHHS Research Assistant  Ben Yelin

The 2012 Summer Olympics being in London on July 27th, but there is one private security company certain not to win any medals. British company “G4S” was awarded an Olympic security contract, and promised to provide 10,000 security officers to man the city during the games. But G4S was not able to summon the 10,000 guards they promised- not even close. At this time, only about 5800 officers will be trained and ready to work when the Olympics begin. As a result, the British military has been forced to put more than 3,500 soldiers on stand-by to do basic security checks, at a cost of 15 million pounds to the taxpayers.  But there’s more at stake than just money. The Olympic Games, because of their large viewership and worldwide audience, have in the past been the target of terrorist acts, most notably the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996, and the Munich massacre in 1972. Future Olympic host countries must learn from this fiasco and should take steps to assure that this type of fiasco does not happen again.

 

The scope of G4S’ failure was staggering. Perhaps most importantly, G4S failed to inform officials of the personnel shortage until only two weeks before the Olympic Games. British Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted that the country had a very strong contingency plan in place, and that security will not be compromised. Nevertheless, the G4S’s CEO agreed that the company’s failure has turned into a “nationwide humiliation.” G4S has promised to pay for the government’s police and military personnel. As a result, the company expects to lose about 12% of its annual profit.

 

British officials are now scratching their heads wondering how this could have happened, and what can be done to prevent something similar in the future. The company surely deserves its share of the blame. G4S CEO Nicholas Buckles blamed the failure on "scheduling systems that had failed to effectively register staff.”   Buckles did not elaborate on what this meant. The CEO also said that the contract itself was flawed, stating that the contract was set up in a way that hiring workers in advance was neither “practical nor cost effective.”  Yet, there were more deep-seated problems with the way G4S handled the contract.  G4S was only offering 8.50 (about $13 USD) pounds per hour to employees, below even the British minimum wage, 10 pounds. The BBC speculates that the low rate of pay discouraged potential security employees from working with G4S. There are plenty other, higher paying jobs available in the retail and service sectors during the Olympics.

 

The British government certainly deserves its own share of blame. The government signed the large contract with this private security firm even though the firm had a number of recent scandals and “there were serious concerns about the training and accountability of G4S employees.” The government also bears some responsibility for the lack of oversight during the run-up to the Games. Just as G4S was culpable in failing to meet its obligations, the government is similarly culpable in that it didn’t know that G4S would fail to meet its staffing promises until just weeks before. With more oversight, the government would have been able to discover the problem and address it sooner.

 

There are also more systemic problems involved in outsourcing security services to private companies. The leader of the British Opposition Labor Party, Ed Milliband, expressed concern about private companies taking on police roles, claiming that “policing is too important to be left in the hands of multinational companies unaccountable to taxpayers.” He claims that private companies are “too big to fail” and that there should be tougher procurement rules that protect against multinational corporations having unaccountable monopolies over security functions. At the very least, Milliband noted, private security staff undertaking police work should be accountable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission in the same way as sworn officers. G4S’ leadership was certainly not an example of accountability. Even while admitting that G4S’ failure was a “nationwide humiliation,” Buckles will not give back the 57 million pound ($88 million USD) management fee that was part of the contract.   

 

The Olympics are supposed to be a safe event to celebrate global unity and athletic achievements. Security mishaps like this undermine these efforts. Government officials and Olympic organizers must assure accountability and competence for those providing security to millions of spectators.

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