MCA Chief on coastguard service modernisation

In a conversation earlier today, Sir Alan Massey, CEO of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency [MCA] talked about some of the key issues around what has become a controversial modernisation of the coastguard service.

This reorganisation has cost Scotland both Forth Coastguard and Clyde Coastguard, the stations that have long watched over the two great central belt ports of Scotland’s capital city and its largest one. This is a situation that, however logical its planning might be argued to be, inevitably feels as if the country has been eviscerated.

However, the hard fact remains that, with the Scottish Government showing no serious intention to stop the loss of these stations, it is unreasonable to condemn those who have done the planning.

As we reported earlier, Sir Alan was in Greenock to say goodbye personally to the staff at Clyde Coastguard, which closes formally tomorrow, 18th December 2012.

He said to us that he was here to thank them and to offer them his respect for the fact that, despite the death sentence hanging over them for some time now, the staff at Clyde had  not once taken their eyes off the ball.

The centrality of experienced staff

With six other coastguard stations around the coasts of the UK also to close, the service has been leaching experienced staff, as those fearing – reasonably – for their futures, take what alternative employment they can find.

The report of the second hearing into this matter by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee underlined the increased percentage of unfilled vacancies – which has doubled in just two years.

Speaking with obvious seriousness, Sir Alan said that the greatest challenge he faces and the highest priority he assigns to what he has to do centres on the imperative to retain experienced staff.

The strategy to assist in this is to recognise the greater responsibility that officers will carry under the new system by raising the grades of the new jobs, bringing higher pay; and opening the jobs to competition.

This has to be about creating something of an elite service, with fewer staff but the best staff, rewarded for what they do and, theoretically at least, with the best systems; facilities and equipment to assist them.

We say ‘theoretically’ here not to be snide but to reflect the fact that there are endemic problems in the technical enabling to date of some of the communications systems; and that other systems and installations – like those for the key Maritime Operations Centre [MOC] at Fareham, do not yet exist and so cannot either be guaranteed to be good enough nor derided for not being so.

The Fareham MOC

In our analysis, the modernised coastguard system will stand or fall on the effectiveness  – and the accepted effectiveness – of the Fareham MOC. So much has been sacrificed to bring this into being – for a planned go live in April 2014; and so great a proportion of resources are to be pumped into it, in digital systems and in staff numbers.

It will be critical for the success of what is planned that the calibre of staff, systems and facilities is the same across the retained coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres [MRCCs] as it is intended to  be at the new Fareham MOC.

Fareham is to be very generously staffed – with a planned establishment of 96, responsible for coordinating external resources and assets with the new interconnected nationwide MRCC network, in response to the most serious of major incidents anywhere in the seas or on the coasts of the UK.

It will, however be less used than the MRCCs, since everyday-to-moderately-serious incidents are much more frequent than are profoundly critical ones.

Because it will be heavily staffed but less used, Fareham creates two problems for Sir Alan and his senior planning staff:

  • it could be a sleek white elephant, which would feed critics of the new system;
  • the working MRCCs, halved in number and therefore doing double the former work, could be left to carry the greater burden of work for the duration.

This sort of two-tier model, skewed further by the inevitably greater official eclat bestowed on the MOC,  creates the sort of discontent, grievances and friction that can corrode any reorganisation.

One solution to this would be routine staff rotation, meaning that MRCC staff would become familiar with the operations at Fareham; while what have been dubbed ‘Call Centre’ staff at the Fareham MOC would never lose the capability required in day to day area operations – and would progressively acquire the more consolidated local knowledge that is indeed a necessary part of the equipment of safeguarding.

The Transport Select Committee has, in its recent report, predicted that the MCA will find difficulty in staffing Fareham, perhaps because of the erratic and [mercifully] infrequent nature of its frontline work; and perhaps because of the doubts as to its ultimate usefulness that are circulating in the service.

Sir Alan is honest in admitting that six months ago he shared the committee’s concern on recruiting for Fareham.

Since then, he has been bringing coastguard staff there to let them see the place and to test their responses to it. He says that since he started doing this, he has had significantly more expressions of interest from staff in working there. He talks of people finding renewed interest in their jobs and in the challenges they will face.

We asked what is in Fareham, at the moment that is producing these more positive responses from staff.

There is a bit of a pause and then Sir Alan talks of the building – new, efficient, fit for purpose, with much better showers and locker facilities than staff are used to and with a new canteen.

This wasn’t the answer we’d expected, as our interest was in what was exciting potential staff about the jobs they would do there.

We asked if this response meant that basic staff facilities are all there is in Fareham at the moment. It does.

The building is new and is generally rather than  particularly purpose-built. It was a project begun and abandoned by the previous Labour government and was built to be a Fire Rescue Control Centre. Not a bad fit.

We also recognise that introducing staff to the physical reality of the place they might work starts to build a relationship between person and place. Where staff can see themselves working there and respond to the idea, we accept that this is constructive, regardless of the fact that there is no operational kit or installed systems there yet.

Sir Alan took issue with us on our prediction that the MOC would be unlikely to be in working operation before 2015, well after its go live date of April 2014.

Our reasoning on this had been twofold:

  • the Transport Select Committee predicted staffing problems;
  • UK government departments and agencies have a poor track record in the procurement specification and project management needed to get complex IT and digital communications systems up and running to time and to budget.

We just couldn’t see it.

Sir Alan’s response to this was also twofold:

  • technical systems will be progressively installed in the building;
  • for the six months prior to April 2014, personnel will be trained and systems will be tested simultaneously.

He covered the staffing situation by saying that he and his team have calculated that the MOC could effectively go live with 48 staff, rather than its full projected establishment of 96.

He is confident that the complement of 48 is achievable; says that the MOC will not need to be able to coordinate a full national emergency situation from Day One; and sees this particular capability being progressively built once the MOC is operational.

We asked, on a Murphy’s Law basis, that, emergencies being emergencies, what would happen if, on Day Two, a major incident occurred when the station had 48 rather than 96 staff.

Sir Alan said that the network as a whole – which includes the coastguard MRCCs – is planned to be able to contribute to major incident monitoring and coordination, with stations not faced with an immediate local incident free to share the heavy lifting in the management of a major incident.

While we can see practical difficulties of a variety of kinds in the gap between plan and reality here, we accept that this flexibility will come about, if not at once. And any new system crosses its fingers for a bit of luck in achieving a familiar stability before it gets hits with the big one.

But this begs the question of whether the Fareham MOC would be overstaffed.

If the MOC with a staff of 48 can, with the network of MRCCs as planned, coordinate and manage a major emergency incident, one has to ask what the other 46 staff planned for Fareham – almost double – will be there to do? The MOC’s planned staffing is, after all, 22% of the establishment of the entire proposed service of 436.

Local knowledge

This is one of the widely contentious issues in the planned modernisation of the service and one where Sir Alan gave as good as he got while not being anything like as dismissive of the value of this life-critical ‘value-added’ knowledge as he has previously been reported to be.

The reality is that Sir Alan is as concerned about the danger of assumed but inaccurate local knowledge as much as he is about its absence.

This is an entirely sustainable position. Who has not come unstuck from a misplaced certainty of knowing when what was actually known was no better than approximate?

What Sir Alan appears to be working for is a fully robust all-round precision of location identification, which would include self-interrogated local knowledge, the trained questioning of the person making a distress call and the use of increasingly sophisticated databases staff would be trained to use confidently and quickly.

We have to remain dubious about the ultimate security of a universal database dealing with place names in at least two languages beyond English – Welsh and Scots Gaelic. We see the principal obstruction to the use of this as being the added confusion of the phonetic rendering of such place names by those reporting and receiving an incident location. What would be keyed into the database? How capable could such a system be in returning a workable number of most likely locations in response to so variable a search term?

In connection with the vexed issue of local knowledge, we asked Sir Alan if there had been any difficulties in coordination after Aberdeen assumed control of the Forth area; and after Belfast/Stornoway had assumed control of Clyde’s area?

The answer was a simple ‘None’; nor does Sir Alan expect any. He says that Forth and Aberdeen had been paired stations and knew each other’s areas well, as had Belfast and Clyde – both pairings in operation since this system was introduced in the early years of this century.

Continuation of station closures following the Transport Select Committee report

We asked Sir Alan why the programme of station closures was continuing in the face of the quite serious criticisms of the robustness of the new system and of its ongoing implementation expressed in the Transport Select Committee’s report.

He said that the Committee had only instructed the Department for Transport [into which the MCA appears, by its new website location, to have been fully absorbed] not to close any more stations – after the completion of this particular programme.

Even though we feel Sir Alan’s ‘get out clause’ on this is pretty sophist, it is factually correct. It cannot be disputed that it is incumbent on a select committee to say what it means; and it must therefore be assumed that this is precisely what it was asking.

Sir Alan said that the Department and the MCA have no intention of closing any more stations than those currently scheduled.

And so…

In this focused conversation with Sir Alan we listened to someone who is on top of his brief.

Yes, as the Select Committee said, there are times when he is short on detail and we  noticed that, as someone in his position has to be – he is clearly capable of astute swerves in answers to awkward questions.

These manifestations seem to happen where there are aspects of this plan for which no serious detail yet exists – and the evasions and swerves come at the same points – as with what is or is not already in Fareham.

It certainly cannot have been a feature of Sir Alan’s original scheme that the heart of the new system would not be ready until well after several of the existing coastguard stations had closed – and from the assurances of the previous Shipping Minister, Mike Penning MP, it is clear that this was far from intended.

This is Sir Alan’s ultimate responsibility as CEO but whether it is actually a failure of his, or of his team – or a victim of the UK’s endemic difficulty in getting a grip on projects centering on digital information management and communication systems, we cannot know.

We do see a central problem in the disparity between the apparent partners in this enterprise.

The current UK government, so early in its term, has already fielded two Shipping Ministers, neither of whom had the first idea about the area of their given responsibilities. The current one, Stephen Hammond MP, moreover shows no great eagerness to master his portfolio. His inability to respond to questions of any specific substance from the Transport Select Committee members and bis constant need for Sir Alan to ride to his rescue was superficially comical and we have mocked it. But this is fundamentally serious, as was Mike Penning’s fairly similar position.

This situation sees the man in charge of creating the plan – the genuine expert -  Sir Alan Massey, left without adequate interrogation of that plan – one on which lives and environmental security depend.

Sir Alan’s inferiors in the MCA will not offer the necessary scrutiny, rank being rank – and his one superior who might question it, the Minister, is actually his pupil.

This does no one any favours. We found Sir Alan perfectly amenable to questions and we feel that therefore he would be likely to welcome well informed and engaged ministers – a faint prospect in our current political system.

The creation of a leaner elite service puts the coastguard reorganisation in the van of a fundamental philosophical and political debate on aims, needs, values and futures, national and individual, in which pretty well every sector throughout the UK will have to engage.

In a way this is something of a test bed. How it is eventually resolved will either bequeath a template for a better future or a botched job that leaves the UK staggering on in its familiar pattern of opaque manipulation and force majeure.

Toss a coin.

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