G4S and London 2012: Choosing your partners wisely?

The inability of private security firm G4S to adequately resource Olympic security provides a salient lesson for Government: know your partner's strengths and weaknesses and formalise a tighter control mechanism through which to hold its counterpart directly accountable.

By Valentina Soria, Research Fellow 

It was a perfect storm with headlines branding the G4S crisis as a 'blunder', a 'fiasco', a 'debacle' and a 'humiliating shambles'. Despite the failure of G4S, a private security company, to provide the expected number of private security guards and the subsequent decision to deploy extra military personnel for protecting venues - the overall security regime at Games time will probably be more professional and effective.

There is the risk that a picture would emerge of wanting organisation, widespread mismanagement and poor efficiency, whenever security at the London Olympics will be discussed in the future. This would by no means represent a fair and accurate depiction of the whole apparatus, and would unduly overlook the meticulous preparation that UK security authorities have undergone over the last two years.

Nonetheless, the Government's decision on 12 July to draft in 3,500 extra troops, on top of the 13,500 already confirmed, gave a mixed impression. It showed that appropriate contingency plans had already been worked out and agreed on at an inter-departmental level, proof itself of effective joint working mechanisms within the Government. However the announcement, made only two weeks before the Games, pointed to flawed mechanisms of integration and co-ordination within the broader Olympic security machine.

It has already been announced that an inquiry will be carried out after the Games[i] in order to precisely determine who was responsible for what. This is necessary not only for the sake of transparency and accountability, but also in order to restore overall confidence in the UK's ability to think through, plan and deliver security on such a grand scale in the future.

(Un)Learned Lessons

At this early stage, however, there is also a sense that, by viewing the task ahead as an unprecedented operational challenge, significant lessons from previous events may have been unduly dismissed by the Government, the London Olympic Organising Committee (LOCOG) and its private sector partners.

It is certainly true that past Olympics did not offer an immediate comparable precedent in relation to the security arrangements required; with the possible exception of Athens 2004, London 2012 are the first Summer Games to be held in an urban area of a major Western city, within the context of a very demanding threat environment. Being the first Olympics to be held after 9/11, the Greek Games saw the deployment of 90,000 security personnel;[ii] however, a large proportion of the defence component was provided by international partners, specifically the US and NATO. Although the risk of a terrorist attack by Al-Qa'ida cells or sympathisers was viewed as high, the threat from jihadi terrorism, and particularly that posed by home-grown individuals, was not as significant and persistent as it has been for the UK over the past decade. This has almost certainly contributed to drive up security standards for the London Games, well above the ones usually demanded by the International Olympic Committee for other host cities.

Despite this, previous big sporting events have regularly presented very similar challenges from an organisational and logistical point of view. In particular, the progressive expansion of the 'Olympic experience' - which nowadays includes a vast array of parallel events alongside traditional sporting competitions - requires organisers and host countries to embrace a much more holistic approach to security. This inevitably puts limited police resources under great pressure to a point where relying on the support of the Private Security Industry (PSI) becomes not only desirable but indeed necessary to guarantee appropriate workforce levels.

On the other hand, the traditional suspicion and scepticism which characterises the public sector's attitude towards the PSI has usually prevented a more genuine and active engagement of the industry[iii] at an early stage of the planning process. This has often resulted in an overestimation of the industry's supply capability due to a lack of appreciation of the logistical challenges that the recruitment, training and retention of huge numbers of temporary personnel present.

In the past, the subsequent mismatch between demand and supply - in some cases, manning levels at Olympic events have been as low as 40 per cent of overall requirement[iv] - has often forced the police and the military to fill the gap very rapidly.[v] Thus, it is not surprising that, for instance, police in Manchester and Glasgow have already announced that extra officers will be deployed to provide security around competitions and training venues.

This represents more than a temporary glitch; ultimately, it undermines the very principle of burden-sharing and effective allocation of resources on which such security arrangements are essentially based.

2002 Commonwealth Games and 2010 Winter Olympics

Although clearly on a smaller scale, the 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester presented challenges that would appear rather familiar to anybody now looking into security for London 2012.Even then, initial planning could only be based on partial risk assessments, meaning that early estimates of the number of security personnel required had to be reassessed and increased later on in the process.[vi]

A private company specialised in crowd management, Showsec, was appointed only eight months before the Games and asked to provide roughly 3,000 personnel, from event stewards to security guards.

For Showsec, the main challenge was to secure the small pool of experienced personnel available on the market at the time, while recruiting and training a significant number of new staff.[vii] Delays in the start of the recruitment phase complicated the whole process and forced the organisers to adopt some contingency measures to mitigate the impact of a potential shortfall in numbers. Among those, the decision that a significant proportion of volunteers would be used for crowd management and mag & bag searches,[viii]involving the use of magnetic scanners for bags and physical search on people - a task usually carried out by security guards. Between April and June 2002, Showsec was able to recruit the required number of personnel. However, this in itself was not a guarantee that appropriate workforce level would be maintained during the Games, as workers would only be formally employed from mid-July. Thus, it was never possible for the company to provide organisers beforehand with accurate figures as to the number of trained people that would be present at specific events. Among the key lessons identified by both the local authority and the organisers after the Games were: the need to begin detailed planning for security at least two years before the event; avoiding Games wide appointments unless workforce capability clearly exists; considering having separate security providers for key venues; and having a specific strategy for workforce commitment and retention.[ix]

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were very successful from an organisational point of view. Yet even then, security industry representatives had accused the Organising Committee (VANOC) of unrealistic expectations with regards to the private sector's supply capability. Eventually, ad hoc legislation was introduced by the Canadian Government which allowed companies to obtain temporary licences for their employees, a measure which facilitated the employment of temporary staff.[x] More importantly though - having acknowledged the scale of the task,  organisers decided to award the contract to a consortium of three companies which were then able to share responsibility for recruiting, training and managing a total of 5,000 security guards.

Going for Gold?

In the case of London 2012, it seems that the risk that something could go wrong in relation to venue security was already appreciated several months ago. Appearing before the Public Account Select Committee in December 2011, LOCOG's Chief Executive, Paul Deighton, admitted that extending the contract with the existing supplier realistically could have created two challenges: firstly, the risk of escalating costs - insofar as the contract was renegotiated in a non-competitive environment where no other companies were invited to bid. Secondly, the six-fold increase in the number of personnel G4S was asked to recruit posed logistical problems in relation to the speed of the process, the quality of the workforce and the cost associated with it.[xi]

It is not just with hindsight that one can safely argue that such concerns should have prompted a tighter monitoring mechanism and a more assertive stand from both the organisers and the Government.

For the moment, however, G4S emerges as the main culpable and, accordingly, as the biggest loser. Not only did the company give erroneous assurance in relation to quality levels of the workforce available on the market; it also failed to acknowledge the limitations of their existing recruitment and vetting process which was not designed to deal with those huge numbers. It was a lack of adequate management skills and expertise in organising mass events that eventually failed the firm. This was seemingly compounded by an overconfident approach, fuelled by a desire to use the Olympic experience as a platform to boost the company's reputation as a world class player in the security field.

Perhaps, the greatest paradox of the whole story is that, by trying to outclass the competition, the company failed to perform as the ideal team-player it was expected to be.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



[i] 'UK Politicians to Quiz G4S Security Chiefs Again', Reuters, 19 July 2012

[ii] Valentina Soria, 'Beyond London 2012. The Quest for a Security Legacy', RUSI Journal (Vol.156, No.2, April/May 2011), p.38.

[iii] Ibid., p.40.

[iv] David Evans, 'The Role of the Private Security Industry', in Anthony Richards, Pete Fussey, Andrew Silke, Terrorism and the Olympics. Major Events Security and Lessons for the Future (London: Routledge, 2011), p.175.

[v] Soria op.cit

[vi] Manchester City Council, 'Manchester 2002, The XVII Commonwealth Games', Post Games Report Vol. 3, p.100,

[vii] Ibid., p.102

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., p.103

[x] Jeff Lee, 'Olympic Security Firms to Hire 5,000 Guards', Vancouver Sun, 17 April 2009

[xi] House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 'Preparations for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games', 74th Report Ev., 29 February 2012


Valentina Soria

Associate Fellow

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