By Suzannah Brecknell

26 Apr 2024

The head of the Joint Security and Resilience Centre on why there are "very few challenges for which we don’t have to work with organisations outside of government to find solutions"

Abu Ahmed may be a self-described career civil servant, but he is well used to taking his work outside the world of Whitehall and Westminster. Before the pandemic, as head of counter-terrorism engagement and communication in the Home Office’s Homeland Security Group, he would travel the country meeting with councillors and members of local communities to bust myths and build public support for the government’s work. In 2020 he received an OBE for this work – a moment he describes as the proudest of his career so far.  

As well as often requiring him to work late at night or over the weekend, Ahmed tells CSW that these visits “sometimes involved taking a lot of hostile questions from people who weren’t really happy with government. I remember one person who said: ‘We don’t often get to see the whites of the eyes of officials from London.’”

Now, as the head of the Home Office’s Joint Security and Resilience Centre, Ahmed’s job involves building connections with other groups who might feel they don’t get enough chance to engage with Whitehall officials. Established in 2016, JSaRC aims to bring together government, industry and academia to solve the UK’s security challenges. Meeting with partners from industry may not elicit the hostile questions that Ahmed faced when discussing counter terrorism in community halls, but civil servants can still feel reticent about this kind of engagement. Some may be wary of breaching procurement or propriety rules, while others may fear that they won’t be able to set clear expectations with peers from another sector. He recalls one senior official who recently shared their anxiety at inadvertently being seen to enter into a financial commitment with industry partners.  

Ahmed says he was initially nervous about working with industry, but now enjoys being a part of discussions between the two sectors. In fact, talking to partners outside government is an essential factor in homeland-security work. Whether it’s through public engagement to counter radical ideologies, or working with business to procure the detection methods to match ever-more sophisticated security threats, “there are very few challenges for which we don’t have to work with organisations outside of government to find solutions,” Ahmed says.

JSaRC’s original and primary aim is to support “industry-led innovation to meet the challenges faced by government and our partners, such as the police,” he continues. It does this by acting as a two-way signpost: communicating to industry the challenges that government faces, but also helping government find and test solutions to those challenges. One early trial involved, for example, technology to screen large crowds quickly and non-intrusively at large events such as major sporting fixtures.

One ongoing piece of work is exploring the best options for biometric self-enrolment, allowing people to submit fingerprints and facial images easily and accurately ahead of travel to the UK.

JSaRC conducted initial public trials in late 2021, involving over 500 members of the public testing the latest biometric fingerprint-capture capability of a range of smartphone app suppliers. These trials found that further development was required to ensure effective delivery against a range of standards, and internal JSaRC-led benchmarking trials were then conducted in 2022 and 2023. The results from the latest round show good market development and better smartphone app performance from a range of industry suppliers.

Another round of public trials was approved by the Home Office Digitise Board in December and JSaRC is now developing a plan to further test the capability of this emerging technology later this year with over 1,000 people. All of this work supports the UK government’s ambition to improve security at the border by requiring everyone who applies for a visa to submit biometric information, but it has also garnered interest beyond the UK.

“There is definite international interest in these trials because we’re quite advanced in testing this particular technology,” Ahmed says. “The idea that people can, in their own homes, take their own fingerprints and send them off – that could have a variety of different use cases.”

JSaRC also has an increasing focus on supporting growth in the security sector. “Ultimately if we have a strong, prosperous, dynamic security sector, then we will have capabilities to tackle the policing challenges, the border challenges, all the security challenges government faces.”

There’s also a growing focus on exports – so much so that supporting exports is one of the four pillars of JSaRC’s most recent strategy, alongside a commitment to improving procurement, supporting innovation and building skills. “Our security exports are second only to the US and China,” Ahmed notes, “but globally there’s a lot of fierce competition. There are some sectors, for example the drone and counter-drone industry, where there’s not enough of a market for a company to grow just in the UK. Those companies rely on exports and we’ve got to support those industries to grow, because ultimately that will lead to greater job creation, greater technological advantage and better solutions for our range of partners within and outside of the Home Office.”

Ahmed on... growing skills

“The breadth of the security sector means that there’s a broad range of different skill requirements – someone who wants to get into the cyber industry may need to be strong in terms of science and engineering; while people working in private security, providing CCTV monitoring or personal protection, will need a different skillset.

“So, given that diversity, we’re trying to zone in our support to where it’s most needed. Obviously promoting STEM subjects, supporting the prime minister’s ambition of the UK becoming a leader in science technology, is something a range of different departments will have an interest in. In those areas, we want to be aware of what’s going on across government to make sure industry are aware of it, that we are joining those pieces for them. But we also need to own some pieces [of the skills agenda]. For example, in the private security area we’ve developed a brochure to encourage young people to get into the security sector. It’s gone down really well, and we’ve worked with a range of different organisations including Skills for Security to promote that particular product so people can join that industry. We’ve also invited some students to come to Security & Policing to get an idea of the amazing variety of careers they can have with the security sector.”

Ahmed joined JSaRC in 2022 as head of international engagement – a new role at that point, created to reflect the growing importance of building international connections to meet the unit’s strategic goals. A lawyer by training, his first civil service job was acting as an immigration tribunal advocate, representing the Home Office. Keen to work on “big picture stuff”, he soon moved into policy roles. After working on the Equality Act when it was still at bill stage, he moved into counter terrorism in the early 2010s.  

“It was an interesting time because the threat morphed from Al Qaeda to Daesh to more complex ideologies around extreme right-wing terrorism, and the prevalence of mental-health issues within terrorism as well,” Ahmed says. He worked in various posts, including carrying out a review of right-wing terrorism that took him out of Whitehall again – this time to Berlin, where as the British Embassy’s first secretary for counterterrorism he supported the relationship between the British and German governments. Just before moving to JSaRC he led another cross-government review, this time looking into how the UK could improve its capabilities to counter the ways in which terror is globally financed.

Shortly after joining JSaRC, Ahmed was appointed head of the unit. Given his background, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ahmed says the biggest learning curve in his first nine months leading the team has not been to do with homeland security or international work – both of which are familiar areas to him – but with developing a better understanding of the priorities and challenges faced by his colleagues across the Home Office. One key structure which helps to build this understanding is the annual Security and Policing event – government’s official global security show, which has been taking place for over 40 years.

Although JSaRC is the formal host of the event – and organising it is a major focus for the team – the conference connects many partners across government. The UK Defence and Security Exports team, which sits in the business department, has a strong involvement, as does the transport department. Within the Home Office there’s a close involvement with the Science, Technology, Analysis and Research group which runs the “Innovation Zone” at the event.

“They’ve got a really rich series of panel discussions where they’re pulling together those working in science and tech, those in industry and those in government, policing and so on,” Ahmed says. The discussions hosted in this zone aim to communicate government’s “demand signals” to researchers and businesses, while also informing visitors about the latest innovations which may impact their work.

The event also attracts many international visitors, including ministers and senior officials. JSaRC plays a key role in ensuring these important delegates see the event as more than just an exhibition, whether that’s through the agenda of speeches and discussions, or by introducing them to relevant officials and partners in the UK.

“There’s an onus on us to make sure we’re creating the right opportunities for people to network, to meet, to have that stimulating intellectual dialogue”

“I think there’s an onus on us to make sure we’re creating the right opportunities for people to network, to meet, to ask challenging questions and to have that stimulating intellectual dialogue,” Ahmed says, “so they go away thinking ‘that was an amazing event, because I connected with exactly the right kind of person to help me identify what I need to do and where I need to invest’.”

He’s also keen to better understand the value these events provide in terms of supporting sales and growth. “I am led to believe, reliably so, by some of our trade association partners that these events are invaluable. People don’t immediately say, ‘I will buy 15 of these or 20 of these,’ but in the months after the event those relationships start to come alive. Conversations happen and contracts are signed. What I want to do is try and get underneath that. As you know, we’re coming up to a spending review and I think the more we can point to the value of these kinds of events and the value of our engagement with industry, the more I think we can invest in this area.”

Ahmed himself attends a large number of corporate gatherings through his job, so he speaks from experience when he reflects on the importance of meeting people and building connections. What are his tips for making the most of a big international event like this? “I like to get a diversity of different stakeholder views,” he says. “So I’ll typically want to speak to the larger primes who are going to be at the event, but also to medium-sized enterprises and the smaller or micro enterprises to get a breadth of different views.

“As a person who’s interested in policy,” he continues, “I’m keen to understand where there are blockages. We’ve had really good dialogue with some SMEs, for example, on their experiences of government procurement. We then managed to talk to the right people in the Cabinet Office and surface some of those issues.”

JSaRC is overseen by the Security and Resilience Growth Partnership – a strategy-level board which meets several times a year and brings together representatives from across government and industry. Jointly chaired by the security minister and the chair of industry body consortium RISC, the board provides strategic direction for JSaRC as well as an opportunity to connect with important partners in other parts of the Home Office.

One recent attendee at the SRGP, for example, was Phil Douglas, the director general of Border Force. After speaking at the board to set out the challenges his teams face, Douglas invited industry representatives to visit two ports in the UK. JSaRC helped to facilitate those visits, and Ahmed described them as “really eye-opening” for the companies involved. “They had a series of assumptions about how the ports work, but when they visited, they just thought: ‘Wow, hang on, you are trying to scan X number of containers within this limited time period and with these logistical constraints? We did not realise this.’ As a result of that visit, one industry figure told me they have shut down an area of R&D because they realised that what they were planning wouldn’t work. They are now able to invest in the right way, so that visit was really valuable.”

As Ahmed nears the end of a year in post as head of JSaRC, his priorities for the team are to continue building structures and systems which support policy objectives without relying on individual relationships. At the moment, he reflects, JSaRC bases a lot of its work on “strong relationships with individual missions” across the Home Office. But driving work around growth, exports and innovation more effectively across the department will take more than just his team and the relationships they can build.

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