IWM Outsourcing Visitor Services: Revisited


On 11th December 2013, Visitor Security and Services Assistants (VSSA) staff at the Imperial War Museums had confirmed to them what they had expected, their department was being contracted out to a private security firm, Shield Group. From 1st April 2014, some 160 front-of-house and security staff would no longer be employees of the Museums.

The IWM Board identified major risks to the decision, including the threat of “losing significant numbers of staff who may decide not to TUPE across (Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment)” to Shield, despite most of their benefits theoretically being protected for a year and “a potential dip in quality of service during transfer because of low staff morale.”

The decision was a controversial one, especially as it would come into effect months before the major £35 million re-launch of IWM London and its new WW1 galleries in the commemorative centenary year.

IWM’s VSSA review commenced from September 2011, focussing on “effectiveness, efficiencies and also opportunities for staff development,” comparing in-house with those offered on the market. In the summer of 2013, they decided to “test” commercial options by opening the service to public tender.

From the outset, it was clear that the tender process was not a genuine comparison because security firm bidders, such as Shield Group, had no experience in providing visitor services.

The department was put out for public tender in June 2013 to find the most “economic” and a shortlist of four companies, including Shield Group submitted final proposals in October 2013.

With the decision to select Shield Group being announced in December, this means that IWM likely spent under two month evaluating the four final proposals before awarding the £10-11 million contract to Shield Group for three years with the option of a two year extension.

The table below is from documents obtained from IWM through a FOI request. It appears to show that the four shortlisted bidding companies only had to provide a projected breakdown of costs for the first year of the contract. This is despite the fact that the claimed “main efficiency benefits” were to be borne from year 2.

table 1

Shield’s projected costs for the first year of the contract were redacted by IWM from the documents. However, within IWM’s tender evaluation document is a table (included below) which compares IWM’s Year 1 projected costs with Shield’s, taking into account parts of the department not included in the contract and, therefore, retained by IWM ( certain facilities management costs (FM) and new  IWM staff posts created from the outsourcing). An 0.8% figure is provided in an unlabelled column which is likely to mean that Shield’s projected costs plus IWM retained/created costs amount to 0.8% more than IWM’s, at £4,761,559. (IWM: £4,723,769).

table 2

Based on this table, IWM were expecting the first year of the contract to offer no savings and, in fact, cost 0.8% more. This ‘loss’ could actually be even greater because not included in the table are “equipment costs” which Shield expressly state in the documentation that they will not absorb. It is not known if Shield was the one bidder who proposed a contingency fund.

Moreover, the tender proposal and further clarification documents suggest that Shield did not cost for staffing at certain corporate events or summer events at Duxford. Shield’s proposal also assumes no staff to be working on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, which was not addressed in IWM’s clarification questions.

Most significantly, in terms of excluded costs, Shield expressly state in their tender proposal that costs for pensions and VAT had not been included. It is not clear if the figures provided by IWM in their tender evaluation include these or not.

Due to the IWM having redacted the figures projected by Shield, it is not possible to reach a definite conclusion about loss/savings in year 1. But, it seems likely, if the 0.8% figure has been interpreted correctly, that IWM was expecting to lose money rather than make savings. It is possible that the actual loss could be very significant if Shield did not include VAT or pensions costs in their costs projection during the tender process.

The possible first year loss on the contract makes IWM’s claim of an annual savings figure of £250,000 even more dubious. IWM claims that this will be achieved through ”reduction in staff numbers; the benefits of providing additional staff from their (Shield) reserve and support teams; and the natural turnover in staff will enable them to employ on their terms and not IWM terms (estimated that this could save £6-8,000 per post).”

IWM concluded that over 6 years cost savings could amount to £1.5m. No evidence seems to have been provided for these figures. Expected efficiency benefits borne from year 2 were “based on information provided by all tenderers, and the experiences of the [redacted].”

TUPE regulations prevented Shield from amending the benefits of staff transferred to them from IWM for at least a year, except for certain pension benefits. Staff turnover and cheap labour was relied upon by Shield and IWM to make cuts. But, with no meaningful projections by Shield beyond Year 1, IWM seem to have gone into this contract blind about costs.

Further information is needed from IWM as to whether the procurement of Shield, partially having been funded by the public, has achieved any meaningful benefits. More questions also need to be asked about the procurement process which seems to have been insufficient for such a significant contract affecting so many staff.


Review: ‘Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS’

Fighting Extremes

Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS (iwm.org.uk)

At Imperial War Museum London until 13th November 2016

Fighting Extremes is the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition on recent British military engagement. The new exhibit uses images and objects to tell the story of the British military’s efforts, particularly the construction efforts, to help contain the Ebola virus epidemic in Sierra Leone between August 2014 and November 2015 and the combat efforts against ISIS in the Middle East.

Like its predecessor exhibition, War Story, which was supported by the MOD and arms manufacturer, Boeing, “Fighting Extremes” does not examine the context or history of the increased conflict in the Middle East.

What would a genuinely critical exhibit on the British role in fighting Ebola and ISIS say? It would not just praise the work of military personnel. Many were, indeed, courageous, like the British health worker volunteers. A critical exhibit would acknowledge the serious responsibility Britain has for the deaths caused by both the scourges of Ebola and ISIS.

Britain and its coalition partners, lead by the US, helped to create the conditions for ISIS to be formed through their invasion and occupation of Iraq. This has been conceded even by Tony Blair who lead Britain into the invasion. President Obama described ISIS as “a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion.”

When Syria’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 developed into a civil war, the US and Britain provided “non-lethal” support, training and financial aid to the anti-Assad forces – and helped neighbouring allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to ship weapons to the rebels – amongst whom were extremist jihadis – despite the warnings.

“Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country,” two former NATO Secretary-Generals warned in 2013.

Now, Britain has turned its attack on ISIS in Syria – whilst its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, continue to support ISIS. The decision by the British Parliament to bomb ISIS targets in Syria has been condemned by many who reference disastrous recent interventions, such as the 2011 bombing of Libya, in which the UK and its allies exploited a UN mandate to protect civilians to attack Gaddafi forces. Libya has descended into civil war and mayhem and a hotbed for extremism and human and weapons trafficking. Some recent news reports suggest Britain will soon turn towards fighting ISIS in Libya.

The Imperial War Museum’s decision to juxtapose ISIS with Ebola is, perhaps, to depict ISIS as a disease that sprang out of nowhere. In truth, neither emerged ex nihilo but there are parallels which emerge from a look at the evidence.

ISIS and Ebola both “take advantage of the weakness and internal conflict of countries” according to UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Since its December 2013 outbreak, there have been 28,041 recorded Ebola cases and 11,302 deaths in West Africa. Many of those deaths were easily preventable.

The international response was “slow and derisory” according to charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) whose staff were overwhelmed from March 2014 by the virus. It was then that West Africa recognised that a public health crisis was underway but the World Health Organisation (WHO) only made the declaration in early August 2014. By then, some 900 people had died of the virus and many more were dying due to crumbling health systems.

The UK’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) would find in review that the UK response had been “inadequate”. As a major donor to international organisations, particularly, the WHO, the UK could have raised the alarm sooner to mobilise action, they said. The Committee found the UK government failed to release funds quickly enough and paid insufficient attention to NGOs, such as MSF, who were arguing for the necessity of a massive deployment of health workers and resources. Moreover, there was “no scientific justification for the UK Government’s decision to prevent direct flights to the affected region from the UK, which has likely increased the cost of dealing with the outbreak.”  Had the government acted sooner, “both lives and money would have been saved,” according to the report.

Why the inaction and delay? MSF was clear in its publication at the end of August 2014, when there were 1,427 reported victims of Ebola: “the international community community simply doesn’t feel responsible for responding to what is happening in regions that are not perceived as politically or economically interesting.”

The UK deployed 70 Royal engineers to Sierra Leone from August/September 2014 to commence building treatment and training centres. In all 1,500 British military personnel were deployed during an operation that lasted just over a year. The result, according to the government, was 6 UK funded treatment centres and the training of over 4,000 health care workers. “They are a credit to our country, they have saved a nation,” UK Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon said. The MOD was also able to call on hundreds of NHS volunteers in their efforts.

The morality of the UK and other states can be best judged by attitude before Ebola became an international security threat. As MSF identified, member states of the UN had allowed the operational capacity of the WHO to be weakened through reorganisation. The WHO’s haemorrhagic fever unit, for viruses such as Ebola, had been closed.

Between 2010 and 2012, experimental drugs and vaccines to combat the Ebola virus had been tested successfully on animals. However, they sat on the shelf untested on humans because they were not profitable. Only some 1,590 people had been killed by Ebola prior to the 2013/14 outbreak. “Malaria kills as many people each day as this outbreak has killed so far. We must try to keep things in perspective,” Peter Holez, director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington said, when the death toll was around 900 in early August 2014.

Clinical trials have been brought forward and results published this year are promising. One vaccine, the rVSV-ZEBOV showed 100% effectiveness in interim trial results. The few samples of experimental drugs/vaccines that existed in 2014 also showed promise when used in emergency situations during the outbreak, mainly benefiting Western aid workers.

The IMF has played a key role in preventing the development of health services in countries such as Sierra Leone. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, that country had 120 doctors and 1 virologist, who was to be an early victim of the epidemic. A 20 year long IMF policy of requiring debtor nations to prioritise debt repayments and building foreign exchange reserves over healthcare spending had, “contributed to under-funded, insufficiently trained and poorly prepared health systems in countries with Ebola outbreaks,” according to a study published in the Lancet.

The UK is a shareholder in the IMF and World Bank and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and International Development Secretary sit on the ministerial committees of the Washington-based organisations.

Some concession to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the worst hit nations, was made in early 2015 when the IMF cancelled almonst $100 million debt and made new loans of $160 million. The immediate relief was welcomed but longer-term IMF indebtedness of these countries will increase from $410 to $620 million. The West has a responsibility to cancel the debt owed by these devastated states to the IMF which made $9 billion in lending over the last three years.

When the Western states did act, some five months and hundreds of deaths after help was asked for,  it did so along familiar imperial lines. The US, UK and France intervened in their areas of colonial influence: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea respectively. Moreover, they responded to a public health crisis primarily through their military.

“The only positive development to come from the epidemic is that it attracted long needed attention from drug makers,” according to Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Neglected diseases affect some one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population – and threaten many more.

The legacy of Ebola will live long. With Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone having lost many of their health workers, maternal mortality could rise as much as 74% in Sierra Leone and 111% in Liberia, according to the World Bank.

As long as we deny vast swathes of history and evidence regarding the UK’s and other developed nations’ role in the world, we can expect the devastation to continue.