By Suzannah Brecknell

23 Oct 2017

Mark Bryson-Richardson, director of the Stabilisation Unit, tells Suzannah Brecknell how his team helps government respond to international emergencies

As the West African Ebola outbreak spread in 2014 and 2015, the UK government responded by sending more than 3,000 military personnel, civil service staff and professionals from partner organisations. Among them were NHS volunteers, as well as communications experts helping to keep the public informed, and 29 specialists working to ensure that the medical crisis did not result in destabilisation and conflict in the countries affected.

Those specialists, working both with the UK government and the International Security Assistance Force, were deployed by the Stabilisation Unit. This cross-government team of around 100 staff aims to ensure government departments have access to specialist support and resources when dealing with some of the trickiest policy challenges in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Although it shares the impressive quad of buildings occupied by the Foreign Office and Department for International Trade, the SU is not part of any other department. Instead it reports up to the National Security Council, and is funded by the Conflict, Stabilisation and Security Fund, which the NSC oversees.


The SU evolved from a cross-departmental team set up in 2003 to help the Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office work together more effectively in Iraq. In 2011, with the launch of the coalition government’s Building Stability Overseas strategy, the SU’s remit expanded from post-conflict work to include crisis response and conflict prevention. And in 2015 it moved out from the control of DfID, MOD and FCO and into the control of the National Security Council.

Director Mark Bryson-Richardson’s team is entirely focused on supporting other departments and improving cross-government working in countries where close co-operation between agencies is essential.  “We’re never going step into a situation and say: ‘Stabilisation Unit’ has now got this and is running it’,” he says. “What we do is look at teams in government that are under pressure, so Ebola was one example slightly outside of our normal area but Iraq or Syria would be good examples, and see how we can put in extra resource.”

When a department comes to the SU for help, the unit uses its own budget to fund initial scoping exercises to determine what extra support may be needed. This support might take the form of specialist individuals joining a team, or expert audits, analysis or support, such as a recent gender audit carried out by the SU for the Ministry of Defence. After this initial work, ongoing deployments are funded by the department itself. This is in part to ensure that departments are fully engaged in the work and the outcomes it aims to achieve.  “We want to make sure the outcome is owned and shared rather than just having an SU outcome for the process,” Bryson-Richardson (left) says.

The unit is made up of civil servants seconded from 12 government departments, working alongside police and military secondees. It can also call on an external roster of experts as needed. In 2016, it deployed just over 500 individuals for different tasks, and at any one time there are about 130 people doing different jobs for the unit somewhere in the world.

This external group – the Civilian Stabilisation Group – not only provides access to very specialist support as needed, but contingency for times when the SU may need to take on long-term deployments.

The model is obviously cost-effective – allowing government to pay for expertise only as and when it needs it – but how does the team ensure it has the right balance between internal capability and that external pool? “We try and keep that team [managing the external pool] as lean as possible but the honest answer is it does take quite a bit of investment,” says Bryson-Richardson. “You need to recruit, train and then deploy people to some of the most dangerous places, so we have a really strong duty of care/welfare commitment.”

As well as managing existing members of the CSG, the unit must continually review skills and availability to make sure the group is up to date, and ensure it is able to meet future needs. “We have a formal process of looking ahead trying to get a sense of what’s happening either in terms of a geographic focus or a thematic focus,” says Bryson-Richardson. “So far the anticipation has been reasonably successful. People are really clear about what government is trying to do – with things like the National Security Strategy, and the Strategic Defence and Security Review, you’ve got very clear markers.”

If the unit finds it needs to build particular skills it is able to call on the National School for Government International, a small unit within the SU that provides training, advice and capacity building support to overseas governments but also offers workshops for the UK government. “The aim is to train the rest of the civil service but also to make sure internally our experts have access to that breadth of skills,” explains Bryson-Richardson. “So, if you’re an expert on security sector reforms and defence institutions, [we make sure] you also know about gender and monitoring and evaluation. There’s a very big focus on upskilling internally and making that available to the rest of government.”

“As a leader, it helps to know that your team is set up to cope with crises. This team is tried and tested in operating during a crisis”

A challenge for this team, however, is that this training relies in part on experts in other departments, whose skills are already much in demand. “Obviously there is an awful lot going on in government at the moment, departments are incredibly busy and there are some big strategic challenges coming up,” Bryson-Richardson says. “We work by drawing on expertise across the rest of government, so one of our challenges is going to be making sure that we can maintain that and drag really important and busy civil servants away from the UK to deliver some of that impact overseas.”

A key part of the unit’s work is to help departments evaluate and learn from stabilisation work – and then ensure those lessons are shared across government.

This, Bryson-Richardson explains, will never be about finding definitive solutions, but about building an evidence base on interventions that work most effectively for different challenges. “They’re classic complex, wicked problems so unfortunately it’s not a cookie-cutter solution,” he says.  “What it is, is evidence of what’s more likely to have an impact, and what are the risks associated with different kinds of impact.”

Bryson-Richardson on... coping in a crisis

“Part of the challenge is recognising the difference between a genuine crisis and just being really busy. We are incredibly busy; we’re deploying more people than we’ve ever deployed. Genuine crises like Ebola are actually reasonably infrequent but –  it’s classic civil servant speak – that’s when you have to just ruthlessly prioritise. Ebola trumped everything else we were working on.

“As a leader, it helps to know that your team is set up to cope with crises. This team is tried and tested in operating during a crisis. It’s got the means of doing so, which are proven to work, and that obviously gives you a lot of confidence going in. At an individual level I think it’s about putting it in perspective. What we’re doing is supporting priorities that are really important and everyone’s trying to do their absolute best, but it isn’t everything. There are still other things we can draw on.”

Part of the learning culture fostered at the unit is reflected in its charter, which states: “We are not afraid to fail. When we do...we see it as an opportunity to learn.” This is a noble sentiment, but not always easy to uphold in the civil service. Bryson-Richardson says the complex nature of the challenges they face make it essential to learn how to fail well.

“There’s no programme we’re going to deliver in this sort of environment that doesn’t need adapting, doesn’t need to learn, doesn’t need to evolve,” he says. “There is no easy answer on how to promote stability in Afghanistan or how to tackle modern slavery or how to promote better justice, so we already recognise that the  environment we’re working in is really complex and that frankly it’s about making sure we learn the lessons and get better and better at it.”

“The key caveat I’d add is that it’s not acceptable to fail twice at the same thing, so we have a big focus on [building a] learning culture, not apportioning blame for failure. It would be acceptable to blame us if we weren’t learning lessons and applying them back into what we’re doing.”

One priority for the new parliament is to strengthen ties with the Home Office and police on issues like counter terrorism, countering violent extremism and organised crime overseas. Earlier this year the SU and Home Office launched the Joint International Policing Hub, which, Bryson-Richardson explains, provides “a focal point to co-ordinate all overseas requests for UK policing assistance”.

As well as providing support to other police forces, the hub helps UK forces to build their own skills. “If you’re looking at criminal intelligence analysis for the whole of Afghanistan, that’s taking a different challenge, a different skill set and then enabling people to bring it to their day job in the UK,” says Bryson-Richardson.

Though the projects and regions will change, the main ambition of the unit will remain and that, for Bryson-Richardson, is to keep pushing for better partnerships and more effective working in complex situations. “For the rest of this parliament, it’s really about promoting continued and past integration,” he says. “Bringing different parts of government together, cross-fertilising, and hoping we’re greater than the sum of our parts.”

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