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Michelle Russell: a profile

Michelle Russell is the first female chief executive of the Security Industry Authority; but that is not the most significant first for the new SIA chief, writes Mark Rowe in this profile.

How to judge an SIA chief, by comparison with the five previous ones, in the SIA’s 19 years of chiefs so far? To use the measure of how each related to the hundreds of thousands of door staff, security officers, CCTV control room operators and bodyguards is at once wrong, and ideal. Wrong, because we can be sure that whether or how candidates empathised with the 389,000 SIA licence-holders did not count much with the Home Office recruiters. Ideal, because that measure does throw some light on the personality of each – a window on the soul, even.

To briefly recap the chiefs so far – and at six in 19 years, if that were Roman emperors, it would count as a fairly turbulent period. While SIA chiefs unlike Roman emperors do not wind up mostly assassinated, it is a fact that only one of the first five had a natural ending to his term. The era of the first chief, John Saunders, ended in legals; the second, Mike Wilson, exited suddenly. Bill Butler’s time ended when he retired; significantly, he is the only chief to still have any profile in the security industry, still chairing the annual Association of Security Consultants’ (ASC) conference Consec each autumn. He remains a Chartered Security Professional (CSyP). The next two, Alan Clamp and Ian Todd, each came from a specialist regulatory background, and within a couple of years or so moved on to other, similar, regulatory posts.

John Saunders cannot really be judged on how he related to the SIA-badged, because his task was – more mountainous than it may seem looking back – to get the SIA in place, while working out such basics as estimating how many there were to licence. Mike Wilson with his military background gave the impression that in civilian life he could not shake his officer (the military rank, that is, not job role) class mentality, for good and ill, which made it difficult for him to relate to the privates of this world – though he meant well. Bill Butler was an accountant. Ian Todd had the best back-story, having worked on the ‘front line’, as a paramedic. While it’s allowed that Clamp and Todd left the SIA for personal career reasons – it happens everywhere, all the time – it could rankle with some in the security industry who are in it for the duration, for another thing because the SIA tends to seek long-serving industry figures to volunteer to contribute to strategies, agendas and the like.

Some SIA chiefs made more efforts than others to understand, and be seen to understand, the front line whether by accompanying SIA staffers on operations, or by even undergoing the training required for SIA licence application. Like so much in life, this could be taken numerous ways. Did it show willing to get to grips with what the daily work of private security is like, to better inform SIA policy? Or did it just prove that the chief was out of touch to begin with?

How much the SIA chief identifies with those badged is unimportant because like any chief the head of the SIA has to be Janus-faced – to face inwards, to set priorities (with the chair of the Authority) and see that the couple of hundred or so staff work to them, and stay within the roughly £30m a year budget; and to represent the SIA outwards to (in the jargon) ‘stake-holders’, such as: the licensable sectors that pay for the regulator, the Home Office (the bureaucrats, notoriously dysfunctional; and the Home Office ministers, slow to make any decision and since 2010 and the end of the Labour government that set up the SIA, seldom showing any public interest in the Authority, or the security industry).

Where Michelle Russell looks like scoring highest of the SIA chiefs so far is in emotional intelligence; which does have a bearing on how she relates to the SIA-badged. In her first public appearance in-person, at the National Association for Healthcare Security conference in Birmingham yesterday, she spoke of the Liverpool Women’s Hospital security officer, who reportedly denied that he did anything heroic after the suspected suicide bomb detonation in a taxi on Sunday, November 14, and said all he was doing was his job. “That really resonates with the importance of the role of security in moments of intense need,” she told the event early on in her half hour speech. She added the correct insight; that security ordinarily blends into the background – ‘when everything is ok’ – until the emergency (invariably outside the regular nine to five when office staff are at their desks), when the public puts its trust in people doing Security.

This is not new of her; she has spoken with similar feeling in her year as interim chief; for example at Professional Security’s Women in Security (WiS) awards night in London in September.

To the NAHS conference as at the SIA’s own online conference the week before, and as SIA chair Heather Baily set out in her first in-person appearance last month to the Security Institute conference, Michelle Russell stresses that the SIA’s priority is in answering the ‘monitored recommendations’ (MRs) of the Manchester Arena Inquiry. Significantly, to the NAHS she spoke also in personal terms of having given evidence (like other SIA staffers) to the Inquiry – a daunting prospect for anyone, as anyone watching the Inquiry on Youtube can see for themselves. Michelle Russell confirmed this. Being a witness was ‘not a very easy experience’. Earlier she recalled how hard it was, ‘looking at the families at the back of the room, hanging on your every word’ – that is, the bereaved of some of those who died in the May 22, 2017 suicide bombing. In other words, with being in a position at the SIA, let alone on the front line wearing a SIA badge, comes responsibility.

Away from the podium she shows interest in what the other person has to say – she listens, with a view to learn. That is an important and has become a sadly rare quality in figures of authority. If Britain has seen a calamitous decline in public life and politics in its broadest sense in our time – and it has – it is because the elite, the one per cent, call them what you will – parliamentarians, leaders of corporate business – have chosen or been forced to insulate themselves from reality. Partly, it’s to protect themselves against terrorism and other criminal threats; partly because otherwise they’d be besieged by bores and nutters. Yet unavoidable or deliberate avoidance of reality has led to poor input into bad decisions, the corroding of civil society and public faith in democracy, and failures in a crisis.

On that note, she shows evident interest in social media, about what people are saying – invariably grumbles – about the SIA. She speaks clearly on what SIA can do (public safety according to the Private Security Industry Act 2001), can have a voice in (putting a case to the Home Office for change to the PSIA), or have no influence over (the shortage of SIA badged door staff since the lifting of covid restrictions in the summer – that is for the market). Industry won’t like to hear that; because just as the BBC is forever grumbled about by television licence-payers, so SIA badge holders and SIA approved contractors have the SIA to grumble about, fairly or not.

While Michelle Russell as any chief exec is fluent in corporate speak (problems are ‘challenges’), the NAHS speech did show some plain speaking. She closed by urging partnership working – an uncontentious point, also made by the police for years. But she added that partnerships – for example to set standards among security officers and supervisers beyond the SIA badge minimum – have to be more than sitting around a table. That was an unexpected thing to hear for two reasons: first, that the SIA like any quango and the Home Office in general can be guilty of doing just that – setting up one consultation process after another for the sake of it seemingly. Second, going beyond the SIA minimum is one of those fields where the SIA is a scapegoat; it’s for the industry – suppliers and buyers – to go beyond the badge minimum. And ever since the first door licences were issued in the mid-2000s, the industry has shown little sign of progress on that score. The industry cannot have it both ways – can the SIA can be over-interfering, doing ‘mission creep’, and be guilty of leaving industry shortcomings unsolved?

Another sign of emotional intelligence – an attribute of a leader, the NAHS conference heard later in a broadcast from American healthcare security leader Bonnie Michelman – came when Michelle Russell admitted to find it difficult why some things are licensable activities and some not – to do with the Arena Inquiry’s suggestion that all CCTV monitoring, not only done under contract, be SIA-licensed.

To succeed or last as the SIA or any chief exec requires more than emotional intelligence, although it, and a sense of humour in particular, helps – of the six SIA chiefs, Bill Butler was first for humour (if you like it dry). What is required is good fortune. One ‘challenge’ that blew up early in Mike Wilson’s time and that only needs a further BBC Panorama documentary to blow up again regardless of SIA personnel is how people with poor English still carry SIA badges – suggesting training malpractice, which the SIA and the training regulator Ofqual have all along appeared to leave to each other.

This is a foreseeable and more or less inevitable organisational, existential crisis; it may be that the BBC has already in the can a damning documentary, and only awaits the end of the Arena Inquiry (whatever its outcome). Then it helps to have good relationships to draw on. Such as between any chief exec and any chair. While at least one past SIA chief and chair are still on speaking terms, it is beyond belief that all are. It may be relevant to point to how a stubborn barely ten per cent of those 389,000 SIA badged are female; yet besides a new female SIA chief, all three SIA chairs have been female, the current Home Office junior minister with the SIA (and a dozen or more other things) on her plate is female – since September, Redditch MP Rachel Maclean – as indeed is the Home Secretary Priti Patel.

But the first about Michelle Russell that may give her an advantage over her five predecessors is that she did not enter the SIA by applying for the top job; she joined in January 2020, as director of partnerships (that word again) and interventions (SIA-speak for compliance and enforcement). While covid soon interrupted her as everyone else, it did mean that she could learn the ropes.

What, then, is on Michelle Russell’s plate? Besides the Arena Inquiry; facing inwards, she has to manage a ‘return to work’. She has inherited what Heather Baily in her speech to the Institute admitted is a ‘London centric’ institution; she, and Michelle Russell, have promised a more ‘proactive’, visible enforcement of the licensing regime. The SIA is presumably paying rent on its Canary Wharf offices even if staffers (like any London commuters) have found during lockdowns reasons to prefer ‘work from home’. Facing outwards, she has to offer more to get more from the industry – as featured in the April print edition of Professional Security magazine, while interim chief in February she admitted to an Institute webinar that she was surprised that only 6pc of intelligence leads about SIA regime wrong-doing – whether in training or about approved contractors – came from the industry, whether badge-holders or security companies. For an Authority that regards the public’s trust and confidence in private security as vital, that industry appears to have little trust in the SIA. As she told the NAHS, the SIA holds a lot of intelligence: “We need to do better at analysing and sharing that intelligence.” The SIA is best placed to give such basics as how many are in the industry, and where, and what are their job intentions (if any) – all useful data to security contractors.

She cannot alter the basic contradiction in the SIA regime all along; that vague sense that the SIA is something done to the industry, rather than for it. The Portsmouth academic Prof Mark Button put his finger on it, years ago; what’s the role of the SIA – cheer-leader for the industry, or something else? The ‘stake-holders’; Parliament, the public, and the security industry (those badged, and unbadged in-house) will always have different, if only subtly different, interests, pulling the SIA different ways.

(Photo of Michelle Russell, courtesy of the SIA)


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