The Olympics Secretariat brought together reps from about 20 government bodies, forming a single team to manage the Games. Tim Fish investigates the complex team established to manage a very complex project.
The Olympics Secretariat was a temporary cross-government team that was set up to oversee and manage the delivery of the Games, ensuring that all key players were kept informed and their work was coordinated.
Comprising about 70 people from a range of government departments and agencies, the Secretariat – which was disbanded just after the Paralympics – was located in a basement room of the Cabinet Office and designed to be the single source of truth about all issues relating to the Olympics. The Secretariat supported ministers by collating information and producing a twice-daily national situational awareness report, as well as organising ministerial and official meetings to aid rapid decision-making on any incidents leading up to and during the Games.
The difference between the Olympics Secretariat and the DCMS or organisations such as Locog and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) – which also had central roles in running the Games – was in terms of output. Simon Case, head of the Olympics Secretariat, told CSW: “Locog had a Games to run, ODA had a project – buildings – to deliver, so we were on occasion the front line in relation to crises. The difference is that our output was policy advice.”
Using the information received from across the governmental spectrum, the Secretariat was able to provide advice and information to help ministers with their decisions. Actions were coordinated by the Secretariat so that the operators on the ground were kept informed and could respond to unfolding events.
Becky Kirby, the Secretariat’s deputy chief of staff, says the other major difference concerned the team members’ roles. Civil servants are often seconded across Whitehall, but in most cases it’s simply their expertise that’s being sought. In the Secretariat, she says, team members were “representing their own organisations” and brought to the team both delegated decision-making powers, and strong links back into their employer body. Each had the expertise and authority to allow them to provide advice and take decisions as early as possible; and each could rapidly contact the specialist Olympics teams back at their HQs to gather additional information or coordinate action. This sped up the decision-making processes during meetings by getting required information “either at the time or in a few minutes”, says Kirby.
Working up to the main event
The Olympics Secretariat was founded on 1 January 2012 with seven core staff from the Cabinet Office. They entered into a design period that set out to establish the architecture of the organisation and the necessary command, control and communications (C3) infrastructure; establish key relationships; and define with the prime minister and other ‘customers’ what was wanted from the Secretariat during the Games.
During this period, a final list was drawn up of the departments and agencies that should be involved. “We identified the organisations we needed based on the operational roles of departments or policy accountability lines, and then it was really down to the departments to decide who would be best placed to form that liaison function,” Kirby says.
The lines of responsibility between the departments involved were set out in a ‘Concept of Operations’ document that was refined in the 12 months before the Secretariat was set up. “In this project, better than any one I have ever worked on before, the responsibilities were crystal clear,” Case says.
As training progressed, representatives from the departments and agencies started spending more time together. Some members of staff had already worked closely with the Cabinet Office thanks to jobs in civil contingencies or counter-terrorism, while others arrived as strangers: to build a common knowledge and understanding of the procedures, all the team members spent one afternoon a week in joint training during the two months running up to the Games. Prior to that, 10 days had been allocated over six months for joint exercises or test events to help develop the right skills for the operating environment.
A series of three Command Post Exercises (CPXs) were completed in the run-up to the Games. These took place in September and December 2011 and April 2012, in addition to a live exercise in February 2012. The CPXs involved thousands of people and tested the organisational and operational arrangements; helped relationships between those involved to develop; and tested specific crisis scenarios.
During the Games, the Secretariat was manned 24/7. Early each day, all departments and organisations provided a daily situational report on their field of expertise to their representatives in the Secretariat, who assessed it and passed relevant material on to the heads of the Secretariat. This information was compiled into a national situation report and distributed via the national resilience extranet to 1,000-2,000 people, from the prime minister down to operators on the ground. This was followed by a daily Olympic security and intelligence meeting chaired by the home secretary, and then a meeting of the Cabinet Committee for the Olympics. Further ad hoc meetings and briefings were prepared during the day, and then the process was repeated in the evening.
“That is quite an aggressive rhythm of products and information in and out,” says Case. “It is a pretty dynamic environment we were operating in, and with so many different facets.”
“The reason it is so aggressive is because of the significance of the risks, including transport, security and reputational risks; the eyes of the world were on the UK for a month. We needed to make sure we were on top of what was going on to make sure that we could avoid problems before they became problems.”
Proximity alert: close quarter cooperation
The joint team arrangement, using individuals from various departments trained together and located in one office, meant that relationships developed rapidly. The close relationships between individuals in the Secretariat proved very useful when it came to managing problems or threats that arose during the Games, helping organisations to agree on a solution as quickly as possible. Although there were no major incidents, one ongoing challenge involved the provision of security staff by contractor G4S.
Clare Beamish, a Home Office team leader at the Secretariat who was the policy and communications lead for the Olympics safety and security programme, tells CSW: “The fact we had done the various exercises and we knew the contacts in the different departments, with direct lines of reporting, meant that a number of meetings could be quickly convened. The process for doing that was a lot smoother, as we had those close relationships and we could ring our Cabinet Office colleagues and clarify the requirement – what the prime minister was looking for – so we could brief our ministers or officials for the meeting.”
G4S’s failure “was the biggest challenge and one that continued throughout the Games, because the prime minister and ministers wanted to keep an eye on how G4S were performing, and the numbers of security guards that were showing up and therefore what the requirement for the military contingency force would be. There was constant oversight of that issue throughout,” she says.
The personal relationships within the Secretariat, where colleagues from different departments could consult each other face-to-face, was “fundamentally important” to the team’s success, says Duncan Moss, the manager of the Secretariat’s Ordnance Survey geospatial support team. OS’s role was to provide maps to illustrate the national situation report, and Moss tells CSW that “because we were able to have a conversation, understand the putative requirements, produce a product and get immediate feedback from the customer, we could change and refine it. You really had to be in the tent to achieve that.”
Ordnance Survey had already been working across government on the Games for five years, liaising with 32 different organisations including the Defence Geographic Centre; 42 Engineer Regiment (geographic); the Metropolitan Police; Locog; and the ODA, among others. “We brought together a group called the Olympic Production Coordination Group, which enabled data sharing across all of those organisations, making sure we were all working from the same information and that we were not duplicating effort and to find where there were gaps,” Moss says.
He adds that the exercises were “key” to the success of the team: “We knew what the peak of demand was likely to be, so accordingly we were able to skill up and understand the various roles of the organisations that were going to be part of the Olympics Secretariat. Thanks to that we were very well prepared, so when it came to the real task we had all the resources and people in place.”
Extensive planning and exercises enabled organisational or operational problems to be resolved early. Stewart Gandy, an operations support officer and information manager with the DCMS team at the Secretariat, tells CSW that the main teething problem was with the incompatibility of the IT systems. Organisations had to use the Cabinet Office’s FLEX IT system to collaborate within the team, and their own laptop to link to their home department.
Using the FLEX system – a more secure, ‘locked down’ version of a standard Windows and Office package – presented challenges because team members had to get the hang of a new piece of software, says Gandy. But having Cabinet Office colleagues in close proximity meant that help was at hand. “That was quite useful, because if I had a problem and I asked: ‘How on earth do I get this done?’, they could just wheel their chair over and sort it out in five minutes,” he says.
The facts that the team’s objectives and roles had been clearly worked out in advance, and that team members had already got to know one another, minimised the potential for disputes between member organisations. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, with frustrations around the use of IT. “Trying to get the national situation report in a readable format, particularly for use on Blackberries, was quite interesting,” says Gandy. “Often we had to tweak it or re-format it, which of course when you have a deadline for it to go out, made for some quite interesting ‘down to the wire’ situations.”
When the reports were distributed, the Secretariat tried to make them “universal from the outset” by using both a global email address list and a more restricted list, says Gandy – but this too proved difficult: “In the early days, there were a lot of people coming back saying that had not received certain reports, so [the challenge] was often working out why that was.”
Gandy adds that because staff used the Cabinet’s FLEX system as well as their own laptops to access their department’s system, “there were a few screens on desks and that kind of thing to work through”.
Conflicts that did arise concerning departmental responsibilities were defused early on, says Gandy: “Actually, during a couple of the command exercises we had some people thinking: ‘This is my area, I’ll go and deal with that’, and not respecting the plan that had been put in place and what was the agreed process to follow.”
When these issues came up during exercises, the departments sat around a table and discussed why the procedures weren’t being followed: “Is there a problem with the [Concept of Operations] document, or is it actually that we are just tearing it up and ignoring it and doing our own thing?” says Gandy, “It was useful to get those issues addressed early on.”
A particular concern of the Home Office was how to deal with classified information or conversations that were restricted. Beamish tells CSW that some Secretariat team members needed a secure space for discussions: “We had a ‘strap room’ – a room that has been swept [for bugs] and is secure – built in the annexe so we would have somewhere to work.”
Individuals were chosen for Secretariat work either on the basis of their existing position within their departments, or because they volunteered to work on the Olympic Games. The 24/7 shift nature and intense work pressure of the Secretariat proved to be no barrier to applicants, with many prospective team members keen to understand the working practises of other organisations. “All of the feedback I have had from colleagues and other departments has been positive,” says Case.
Patricia Boyle, head of the Met Office Olympic advisers – who provided information about severe weather conditions and the associated risks – tells CSW that the experience of working in the Secretariat gave a valuable insight into the wider operation of government: “If you want to go into another department, you now have a better understanding of what that department does, its role and how government fits together,” she says. “Quite often, we get siloed in government, and you only vaguely know what others do. You don’t understand the big picture, but [the Secretariat experience] gives you an appreciation that if everybody is not doing their part then you can’t make it work.”
A sense of common purpose is crucial in interdepartmental teams – and the importance of the Olympics to a wide range of departments made it relatively easy to create this essential unity. “We were very much focussed on delivering the best experience for the public,” says Boyle. “I think there was a real sense of responsibility that we had to get this right so that UK plc was seen in the best light. It sounds a bit corny, but that is what it was about.”
“Every government department was bound together into making the Games a success,” adds Case, explaining that he and his colleagues used this shared objective to build support for the team and agreement on its role: “We managed to get departments to buy into a common cause about what the team was about.”
Another key contributor to the team’s success was the long-running shared training programme, Case adds: “At the beginning of our 118 days of operations there was the Torch Relay. If we had started then with people from scratch, there would have been no way of hitting the ground running.”
Kirby says that other important lessons included clearly dividing up responsibilities within the team so that everybody “knew what we required from them, what their departments required from them”, and what they were responsible for delivering. There was also the need for every team member to invest in personal relationships within and beyond the Secretariat, so when instigating a conversation the relationship was already in place. “They know where you are coming from, they know who you are, and you don’t have to explain yourself or your organisation,” she says.
For future operations, the Olympics Secretariat experience can offer lessons for other types of pre-planned events or government initiatives, as well as crisis response in the aftermath of an incident. Beamish says: “I really like the model of having everyone together in one place, and I think there is value in re-creating that or having an arrangement whereby it can quickly be re-created.”
Kirby adds that it would be “incredibly helpful to do it again”, forming cross-departmental teams in preparation for crisis response or if there is a “major cross-governmental policy push or strategy launch. Just having people together with those close relationships who can very quickly sort things out would be handy.”
“I think it is something that we can keep in our back pocket,” she says. “We now know that it works.”