The fast and the curious: Anita Friend on the Defence and Security Accelerator's 'defendable' decisions

Anita Friend tells CSW how DASA finds and funds innovation to serve national security, why she trusts her staff, and how managing crises has framed her approach to work

Systemic change in the civil service can be grindingly slow, but Anita Friend has seen what it can do at the sharp end of things. She saw it when she was working on the government’s response to the Novichok crisis in 2018, the swine flu outbreak in 2009, and the London riots.

The urgency needed to respond to a crisis – whether a nerve-agent poisoning or the emergence of a new disease – brings about a “brutal prioritisation and efficiency”, says the head of the Defence and Security Accelerator. “You only do the things that you know are going to matter. It forces you to focus on the things that are going to make the most difference because you don’t have the bandwidth or time to do the ‘nice to haves’ around the edges.

“Ministers need to make decisions really quickly, and civil servants need to be able to quickly and efficiently coordinate the best available advice across a wide range of departments.”

Friend’s decade-long civil service career is a rundown of high-pressure and high-stakes roles that includes a stint as head of risk assessment for the Cabinet Office and – immediately before her current job – a six-year stretch at the Home Office, where she oversaw a team responsible for reducing the risk of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive attacks on UK soil.

Her current post as head of DASA seems, at first glance, more pedestrian. But she says there was a running theme that drew her to the Ministry of Defence body.

“I’m not going to lie; the adrenaline of some of those [previous] roles was quite exciting, as was being at the forefront of some of that decision-making,” she says. But the main attraction was having a sense of purpose at work, and a mission she cared about. All her jobs, she notes, have been national security-oriented.

“They’ve all centred around: ‘how do we keep people safe and how do we protect values?’ And they’ve always centred around trying to harness the very best expertise, be that from inside or outside government.”

It’s that drive that led her to DASA. The Accelerator finds and funds innovative technologies to help solve problems brought to it by its customers – government departments and other public-sector bodies. It does this through funding calls, where it invites companies to put forward bids for funding to develop products and services, and by engaging with businesses around the country. All the innovations aim to strengthen national security in some way.

Friend describes DASA’s model as “deliberately customer demand-led”. Customers approach DASA with a request – and, crucially, funding – and are involved throughout the decision-making process “because, ultimately, they have the expertise on what can make a difference in their specialist area”.

“It’s quite a good way of ensuring that the things we focus on are things that someone in the national-security system deeply cares about,” Friend says. While the funding requirement “really sharpens the thinking on ‘is this a priority, is it something that we actually need?’ it also means that the customer has skin in the game,” she adds.

When DASA puts out a funding call, businesses put their proposals forward and go through a rigorous bidding process where they are assessed according to three core criteria. As well as being desirable, they must also be technically feasible and practically viable. “The science has to stack up,” Friend says. “We want to take risks, but we don’t want to be investing in things that have absolutely no chance”.

But, she stresses, it’s not all about the technology. “The technology being ready and fit for purpose – it’s pretty obvious that you need that, although it’s often underestimated how difficult that can be. The other bit is knowing how you’re actually going to use it. The technology on its own is valueless unless we know how we are going to use that technology in a way that will be valuable. And then, practically, how do we turn that into reality?” That could entail regulation changes or securing accreditation, for example.

The viability criteria also considers commercial promise. “Ultimately, government wants innovation to be cost effective; we don’t want to be having to throw massive chunks of money at this,” Friend says. DASA wants the projects it invests in to be profitable for the companies creating them, which retain their intellectual-property rights and can funnel those profits into scaling up and securing investors. “Once you start to get those external investments, it’s not all in government’s hands to scale up. You’re doing it in genuine partnership with the private sector.”

The customer – which ultimately uses the product or service – has the final say on which bids to fund and how much risk to take. Friend describes DASA as a “facilitator and enabler”, bringing in experts to weigh in on risks and potential benefits for national security. The Accelerator has a pool of nearly 900 assessors from the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and across the government’s science network that it can call on to help with those judgements.

“It’s important for us that the decisions about what we invest in are defendable and robust,” Friend says. “So it isn’t me going, ‘I think this might be useful’... It is the very best experts from across the government network.”

Firefighters in uniform and people in hi-viz hazmat suits stand in a semicircle looking at something on the floor that is obscured by a tree

Crisis begets "brutal prioritisation and efficiency". Photo: PA Images/Alamy stock photo

Friend joined DASA in September 2019. A few months later, DASA’s capacity to source and support innovation at speed was tested and its leader’s crisis-management credentials really began to shine. The Accelerator’s focus quickly turned to addressing pandemic-specific issues. “Because, funnily enough, that was a big priority at the time,” Friend says.

“We had to work much faster than we had before. You couldn’t wait several years for us to get this capability through; it was needed now. So we had to really focus our attention on the innovation where we could have rapid impact. We were looking at technology that didn’t require a significant amount of development before being used in practice, in the emergency,” she says.

One project DASA funded in response to the Covid pandemic aimed to speed up the process of sanitising ambulances, to cut the turnaround time between call-outs. “It’s critically important that they are clean, because you don’t want to spread infection. But the quicker you can do it, the more lives you can save,” Friend explains.

The Accelerator launched a funding call and more than 200 proposals for technical solutions piled in within a week. DSTL scientists tested 12 methods, which in some cases cut cleaning time from an hour to 10 minutes. The project was completed within just 10 days and implemented by the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust, having a “real-life impact” on the number of lives saved.

The ambulance example illustrates the scope of DASA’s work. “Our mandate covers national security writ large,” Friend says. “So although we sit within the Ministry of Defence, it is defined as innovation for the benefit of all national security – and there are a range of departments across that.”

“Part of our challenge is helping private-sector companies and academia understand the breadth of what we worry about when it comes to national security,” she adds.

While most companies have “a pretty good understanding of the obvious bits”, there are a number of areas they might not think about, Friend says. “It’s only when we can clearly articulate what we want and need in a way that can be understood by organisations that don’t typically work with national security and don’t typically work with government that we can really fully harness the potential of what’s out there.

“That’s the first hurdle. If you can’t understand what it is that we want… you’re unlikely to make the leap of ‘that idea that I’m developing is really relevant for national security and can make a really big difference’.”

Another project DASA funded recently was to develop a device created by a small company called Glic to autonomously hook up trailers to vehicles. “That has been developed for the commercial market, but it has huge utility for the military because there’s been a really big drive for automation of military platforms. Being able to have a trailer that can tow equipment on the back of it that can be [connected] automatically is game changing,” Friend says.

“There’s a perception barrier, if we’re being honest. There are quite a lot of negative perceptions about working with defence and security. It’s not all about weapons”

DASA funded further development of the civilian technology so it can be used by the army, including testing to make sure it would work in a military environment. “It’s always key that these things actually work in situ, rather than in abstract,” Friend notes.

DASA uses a network of “innovation partners” across the UK to tap into local business and academic networks to expand its reach and build businesses’ understanding of national security. Friend says it can be difficult to reach suppliers who have not worked in defence and security before, and are therefore “at a disadvantage from the very start”.

“Part of what DASA is trying to do, along with others, is to level that playing field: to provide the support, advice and knowledge networks that are needed to give those suppliers a more equal chance of getting their ideas through on merit,” she says. The Accelerator can support smaller players to build their capacity to make ideas commercially viable and develop them at the pace and scale needed in the public sector.

“Assumed knowledge” can create difficulties, too, when talking to companies that don’t have the familiarity and understanding that longtime defence suppliers have built up of national security operations and priorities. “We’ll talk about capabilities that make a lot of sense within the internal community… without really [setting out clearly] what we are actually trying to achieve,” Friend says.

Another challenge when working with potential suppliers, she adds, is overcoming defence’s image problem. “There’s a perception barrier, if we’re being honest. We know that there are quite a lot of negative perceptions about working with defence and security. And we need to be conscious of that and need to avoid reinforcing those stereotypes.

“Defence is not all about weapons, and the more ‘spiky end’ – how it can often be perceived. These are necessary capabilities that are required in order to protect people and to protect our values that people have fought for over the years. And similarly, with national security, at the heart of a lot of those capabilities is that balance between keeping people safe and preserving people’s personal freedoms.”

The difficulty, Friend says, is in “making sure that those nuances come out in our communication so that we don’t end up inadvertently reinforcing those negative perceptions that defence is all about war and killing people and weapons and that kind of thing; and that security is all about a kind of ‘Big Brother’ state and monitoring people. That isn’t what we’re trying to do. And I think we just need to make that a lot clearer in our narrative – because that can be quite a big barrier to people engaging in the first place.”

An NHS ambulance driving along a road

"Our mandate covers national security writ large." Photo: Lee Haywood/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Just like for the rest of the civil service, the pandemic changed not just the Accelerator’s mission but also its ways of working. DASA’s staff are already spread across the country, but Friend says the pivot to full remote working showed “more can be done remotely than perhaps we had thought”.

“There were some real negative sides to that – there have been conversations at length about the loneliness, the isolation and the challenges that it poses. But there’s also some real positives, because it provides opportunities for people to carve out that work-life balance in some circumstances.”

For DASA, the pandemic “reinforced our thinking on all-inclusive, flexible working… that empowerment, choice and trust for employees to choose where they work, based on business needs but also based on their personal needs. They can balance the two.”

She applies that thinking to her own career beyond the pandemic – taking breaks for “thinking and reflecting” away from meetings and emails to make more sense of her working week. “It’s also about managing energy – I’m a natural introvert; public engagement is not something that comes naturally to me. I know I need to balance my time – I need those face-to-face interactions to do my job, and big public-speaking conferences are absolutely crucial to what we do. But I need to balance that with time on my own, because that’s when I get my energy.”

Much of her approach to work has been informed by her previous jobs. “Crisis management, as you’d expect, is a really high-pressure environment where everything is needed yesterday. That experience has really taught me a lot about resilience… that it’s doable to work really long hours over a short period of time – and a lot of people do, because people really want to bring the best to the job – but it isn’t sustainable.

“Working in crisis management has taught me a lot about resilience, and that working really long hours over a short period of time is doable, but it isn’t sustainable. It results in burnout”

“For the longer crises that I was working on, you could really see the impact that it had on people... Inevitably, it results in burnout. It results in people being a bit sharper with each other than they might have been otherwise because it doesn’t bring out your best self. You’re more likely to do things in a way that you wouldn’t do when you’re not under pressure.”

She is mindful of how her approach as a leader “sets the tone” for her team. “It’s that recognition that if you work long hours, your team are probably going to work long hours too. If you want a culture where that isn’t expected, you’ve got to lead by example – you’ve got to say, ‘You know what, today I’m going to go see my kids because there’s something on at school.’

“For me it was almost a reframing of how I thought: it’s about how I make best use of the time that is available, as opposed to ‘how do I get through this massive long to-do list?’”

Work-life balance, wellbeing and job performance, Friend says, “are all connected”. She explains: “It’s really important that we are always striving to maintain that happy, engaged feeling at work. It’s also about that empowerment and trust of our people – trusting them to make smart, informed decisions about how best to use their time and where best to spend their time in a way that works best for DASA but also works best for them. Ultimately, it’s a win-win.”

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