‘We speak civil service, but we speak private sector too’ – JSaRC head Angela Essel on government’s ‘bilingual’ approach to national security

Written by Sam Trendall on 21 February 2020 in Features
Features

The Home Office’s Joint Security and Resilience Centre helps government work with industry to meet the UK’s security challenges. We talk to new head Angela Essel about why ‘heated discussions’ between civil servants and commercial secondees has created mutual respect and understanding

Credit for all pictures: Paul Heartfield

However much a government official cares about their area of expertise, there must be times – during the days, weeks, and months that it takes to shape an idea into a policy and then a programme of work – that it all starts to seem a little abstract.

But, at other times, the impact and import of a civil servant’s work can strike much closer to home.

On 29 November last year, two people were stabbed to death and three more injured in a terrorist attack near London Bridge. In the chaotic minutes and anxious hours that followed, Angela Essel was just one among the millions watching the news who found themselves deeply affected by the day’s events.

“I basically shut down that day in terms of how I felt. And that’s never happened before,” she says.

The incident was not the first terror attack perpetrated in the UK, nor will it be the last. But it was the first major incident to have taken place since Essel was appointed as the head of the Home Office’s Joint Security and Resilience Centre, which sits within the department’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. The unit is dedicated to bringing government and industry together to combat the UK’s biggest national security threats.

“I have been working in the security space for a number of years, and if there is an attack… now it really does affect me. It’s distressing and, because you work in that space, you feel it a bit more.”

For Essel and her colleagues across OSCT, the counterpoint to this distress is the knowledge that their work is dedicated to preventing or mitigating future attacks.

“That was one of my main aims in joining the public service,” she says. “I used to be a computer programmer in the private sector. And I went to work for the police, because I felt that our community [services] need to be representative of the people that live there. That is why I wanted to go and work in the public sector.”

One of the secondees really used to challenge me on how long we took to do things, and we used to have really heated discussions. But, actually, I think that’s what made the team really bond – because we really respected each other, and we really started to understand each other.

And, some 17 years later, she has not looked back. Following her time at the National Policing Improvement Agency, Essel worked for the Centre for Applied Science and Technology, and the Security Innovation and Demonstration Centre – both of which were part of the Home Office.

The latter, which helped support the rollout of technological law-enforcement tools such as body-worn cameras, was Essel’s first experience of bringing together public servants and experts from industry. 

In 2016, Essel was part of the team that founded JSaRC, which was created to support and increase such public-private collaboration.

“Following the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015, it was recognised that there was a need for a closer working relationship with the private sector for security-related solutions,” Essel tells PublicTechnology

“Government is a huge beast, and it’s really hard to navigate to find the right person. So, for a small or medium-sized enterprise that’s trying to find the person leading on counter-terrorism for border security, how would you even know where to go? We needed an entity within the Home Office that… [people would recognise] as the place to go.”

The Home Office teamed up with security industry trade body RISC to provide £11m to JSaRC, to be matched by commercial and academic institutions via the provision of supporting resources.The engagement with businesses extends to more than just inviting them in for a meeting. Of JSaRC’s current tally of 25 employees, 15 are civil servants and the rest are on secondment from partner companies and universities. IBM, Airbus, and Sopra Steria are among those with representatives currently working at the agency. BAE Systems, Boeing, and the University of Kent have previously supplied secondees.

At least one civil servant and one industry representative works on each of JSaRC’s projects. Essel acknowledges that “there were definitely challenges” in accommodating private sector viewpoints and practices within the world of officialdom. But this friction has sparked a mutual appreciation.

“One of the secondees really used to challenge me on how long we took to do things, and we used to have really heated discussions,” Essel says. “But, actually, I think that’s what made the team really bond – because we really respected each other, and we really started to understand each other.”

She adds: “From a secondee perspective, they’re really getting engrossed and embedded within government; they are seeing how it works, and they get exposed to how to challenge things. So… myself and the other civil servants are now challenging processes ourselves, because [secondees] are informing us on how we could do it better.”

As a result of this close cooperation with industry, Essel says, the organisation is “bilingual”. 

“We can speak civil service, but we can speak private sector as well. When a new piece of work comes in, we will sit down together in partnership and look at how we’re going to tackle it. The secondees will tell us what they think, and then we will say ‘this is what we can actually do’. And then we’ll try and come to a place in the middle, and we can pretty much get a plan together within six months – we’re very delivery-focused,” she says.

High-footfall screening
Among the most visible projects JSaRC has undertaken to date was its work on trials of high-footfall screening technologies. The idea was to find new ways to reliably screen large numbers of people in public places while minimising intrusiveness and inconvenience.

In 2018, JSaRC worked with the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure to test the use of passive low-millimetre wave imaging technology – which works on a similar basis to airport security screening machines, but at a distance of up to 40 metres.

The kit, which was supplied by six different tech firms, was deployed at locations including Thorpe Park, Aston Villa Football Club, the National Gallery, and the O2 arena. The lessons learned from the trials have been reported back to policymakers, who are examining the extent to which existing legislation requires updating.

Securing crowded places remains an important objective, and JSaRC will conduct more work in this area, in conjunction with policymakers from the OSCT’s protect and prepare function.

Once policy objectives have been set out, JSaRC will seek to share their intent with industry suppliers, so “they have an understanding of the government’s position, and what we think will be coming down the line”. The high-footfall screening trials were also of benefit to the firms who took part. One of which, Oxfordshire-based SME Thruvision, has subsequently been able to grow its business in the US.

Objectives
Supporting the growth of the UK security sector is, according to Essel, one of JSaRC’s “three main objectives”.

Forging better communication between government and its suppliers, can help “shape the market”, she adds. Possessing better information on the biggest national security challenges and the chance to test their products in real-life environments, British businesses can develop products faster than overseas peers. This then supports the export targets of the Department for International Trade, according to Essel.

JSaRC’s other core objectives are to “jointly respond to UK security challenges”, and to ensure that government is, ultimately, equipped with “the right solutions”.

“Through our networks, such as RISC, we can reach out to 6,000 SMEs for any particular subject, or anything that we have a security concern about. And through those discussions we can articulate a requirement that industry understands,” Essel says. “We will test and trial the technologies that come in through industry and bring those solutions to operational contexts.”

One such trial that proved a major success was JSaRC’s work with HM Prison and Probation Service, in which the security agency tested the use of fraud documentation and biometrics technologies in several institutions. 

The capabilities of the tech were then demonstrated at the annual Security & Policing show, where ministers had the chance to experience an “immersive demo”.

“When you materialise something into a real-world context like that… it makes it tangible and people can really see how it works,” Essel says. “And the MoJ went on to achieve a pledge from the prisons minister for £100m off the back of that.”

This year marks the second time JSaRC has been responsible for running the Security & Policing event, which takes place in Farnborough from 3-5 March. Once again, the event will offer attendees two “immersive” experiences designed to demonstrate the potential of innovative new security technologies. The first of these will focus on aviation security.

Without wishing to give too much away, the JSaRC head says the concept covers a “journey through time”, in which a person draws up travel plans, before travelling to their destination and visiting various locations.

“It’s going to be very immersive,” she says. “I want to do a demo where everybody’s senses are being touched – so their hearing, their touch – everything is part of the immersive feature.”

The second demonstration will be focused on the issue of knife crime and will expand on a week-long trial of Thruvision’s screening tech which took place at Stratford station in east London last September.

Essel adds that, as a black person in the UK, she feels especially troubled by knife crime – and especially dedicated to helping combat it. “It’s my community, and it really does affect how I feel about it,” she says.

Consequently, the demo at the event will seek to frame the issue and its possible solutions in more than simple technological terms.

I used to be a computer programmer in the private sector. And I went to work for the police, because I felt that our community [services] need to be representative of the people that live there. That is why I wanted to go and work in the public sector.

“There are many, many layers to the problem of knife crime,” she says. “Three of which that we are going to bring to S&P, are the technology angle, the data angle and the community angle.”

Essel’s observation that her perspective on knife crime is shaped by her own experiences echoes her early belief that public services ought to be more representative of the communities they serve. It is a belief that also underlies the civil service’s commitment to become “the UK’s most inclusive employer by 2020”. 

Although progress towards that objective has been made in the last three years, women and ethnic minorities are still markedly under-represented in the security sector – both inside and outside government. 

“I think there is work to do,” Essel says, when asked about diversity across the civil service. “But I’m quite happy to be an ambassador. I am the OSCT BAME representative. That involves looking at ways in which we can improve diversity and inclusion across all the BAME community. And I feel particularly proud because, since becoming SCS, quite a few young ladies have asked me my name or worked out who I am and said: ‘My gosh, you give me hope! Maybe I can do it.’ Because I’m a normal person – I just work hard.”

This work ethic seems to be as evident in the gym as it is in the office; Essel says that, outside of the day job, she exercises frequently and always takes her kit with her on business trips.

At the moment she is “particularly into boxing”, and typically does several training sessions per week with a professional-level coach – albeit without any desire, as yet, to face off against anyone in the ring.

“No one can hit me!” she says.

Next steps

In October, the Home Office published government’s first Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Strategy, setting out how the UK could benefit from the use of drones, while reducing the risks posed by their potential malicious use. JSaRC contributed to the document and Essel picks out working on its ongoing implementation as a key priority for the coming months. 

“The strategy is government setting out its commitments, and how we want industry to engage with us,” she says. “Underneath the actual strategy itself, there is an implementation strategy. And part of that is the industry engagement working group, which JSaRC chairs and leads. It is a cross-government industry group, where we set out how government wants to best engage with industry, and we try to help industry understand what the security requirements are in that space. But also to ensure that we’re actually listening to industry – so we’ll have briefings and forums and roundtables and discussions with industry, and that will be through JSaRC.”

The organisation recently sent out its first “counter-drone” bulletin to 150 companies – some 55% of which went on to engage with JSaRC within two days.

“That’s a really positive sign of industry responding to the fact that we’re now trying to share our thoughts,” Essel says.

After several years of hard work, JSaRC’s colleagues across the rest of government also now appreciate what it has to offer, she adds. 

“The first few years were all about trying to get people to understand what we did, and trying to build a programme of work and create an external presence,” Essel says. “Those things were all about creating the structure of JSaRC and getting the staff in place. It was all about doing that groundwork.

“And now, I would say, we are established. I think a lot of people know what our narrative is, and I think that, because of our successes, we’ve been able to build on them. We’ve learned and we’ve created better ways to drive innovation.”

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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