The G4S debacle in London is a wake-up call on outsourcing security

It’s time to take another look at why big corporations - rather than the police or armed forces - are responsible for our security. Seth Anderson

Stuff happens. When organising something as big as the Olympic Games some things are bound to go wrong.

Sometimes the failures are simply funny. Just one day after its public unveiling in Trafalgar Square, the official 500 day Countdown Clock stopped counting down. It was a real-egg-on-face moment for LOCOG but harmless black comedy for everyone else.

Not so the recent news about G4S. The world’s largest security firm was forced to come begging cap-in-hand to the Ministry of Defence and police to cover its shortfall in recruiting security personnel for the 100 Olympic venues.

G4S was initially contracted to deliver 2,000 security personnel. But after a major review of Olympic security last December, they were asked to deliver 10,400 personnel (plus 3,000 in reserve to cover last-minute dropouts). The armed forces were asked to provide 13,500 personnel.

At the time, G4S and LOCOG were roundly criticised for having so badly underestimated the security needs for the games. Nevertheless, LOCOG’s decision eight months ago to dramatically boost the force strength of both G4S private security personnel and British troops resulted in a windfall for G4S. Its contract went from £86M to £284M. And even with the news that it will now have to reimburse the Ministry of Defence for the costs in assigning extra troops to the games - costs that could run in excess of £50M - G4S appears to be getting off lightly.

G4S CEO Nick Buckles is facing a lot of questions about what went wrong. The CBI/Flickr

Where does this leave security for the London Olympics? Answering this question is more difficult than it first appears. G4S has bungled one of its biggest assignments in its 110 years of history. With only 4,000 personnel so far recruited and numerous stories of problems with schedules, uniforms, training on x-ray machines, and so forth, the news from G4S could hardly be worse.

By all accounts, the world’s largest security firm was really scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to delivering what personnel it could for the London games. It is this that makes the accounts of some recruits falling asleep in training and others being unable to comprehend the English used by their instructors all too credible.

On the other hand, it now looks as if security has been substantially improved by using military personnel to do what the private sector was unable to do. If the G4S recruits are as ill-trained and ill-prepared as the numerous stories suggest, we’re much better off having experienced soldiers and police officers taking their place.

How did things go so badly wrong? There is no doubt that after the games have concluded, hopefully without major incident, there will need to be a large-scale inquiry to answer this question. Unpleasant though it is, this whole debacle may yet yield some positive outcomes.

The past two decades have seen a major shift to employing the likes of Blackwater Security Consulting and G4S to do what previously would have been done by military personnel and police officers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted US and allied forces and accelerated the shift to private contractors.

They should have been on leave, but UK military forces are stepping into the breach. Open Democracy/Flickr

While much of this is inevitable, it is becoming increasingly clear that relying on private contractors to do the work of state security agencies is deeply problematic.

The name Blackwater became so synonymous with dirty deeds and corrupt practices that the firm has now been forced to re-badge itself as Academi, after first trading for several years as Xe Services. Academi president Ted Wright said they chose the name in a deliberate attempt to “appear more boring”.

It remains, however, the largest security contractor in America and continues to be dogged by controversy. By shifting from special operations to regular security contracting Academi is now in direct competition with G4S, and as such may stand to benefit from that organisation’s severely tarnished reputation: Monday’s stock market opening saw G4S shares slide by 9%.

Perhaps in the end the G4S debacle will be a timely reminder to question the rush to outsourcing and downsizing, replacing uniformed employees of the state with uniformed employees of global conglomerates.

As Australians ponder the lessons to be learned from the G4S debacle in London it is important to reflect on some of the numerous smaller scale scandals associated with G4S. It was in a prison van operated by this firm in Australia (then trading as GSL) that Mr Ward, a 46-year-old Aboriginal elder from Western Australia, died in January 2008 from heatstroke and dehydration. He was being transported on a four-hour journey between detention facilities in summer heat in a locked metal pod without air-conditioning or water.

As outrageous as this story is, it is but one of many comparable stories of criminal negligence and brutality in the history of G4S and its precursor organisations.

Mistakes are inevitable for any company as large as G4S working in a field as difficult as private security, but they should never be shrugged off and left unexamined.

It is a black irony that troops who have served numerous tours of duty in Afghanistan, and who were looking forward to summer holidays with their families, facing the sure knowledge that budget reductions in the UK military had made them redundant, are now being asked to step in and cover for the mistakes of the world’s wealthiest private security company. The fact that they are likely to do a vastly better job than many of those who would’ve been recruited by G4S is an important bit of good news in the midst of this dismal affair. Hopefully those who might have been emboldened by the disarray to attempt a terrorist attack will be quickly pulled up short.

The presence of more uniformed professionals is, under the circumstances, a good thing. But it should not be forgotten that the new demands being made on British police personnel to attend to security at the 100 Olympic venues threatens to increase the risk to the public transportation and private hospitality venues that also serve the Olympics.