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An IPSA Member's View of the Approved Contractor Scheme

International Professional Security Association (IPSA) : 26 February, 2010  (Technical Article)
Mike White of Charter Security comments on the Security Industry Authority's Approved Contractor Scheme and whether this is enough to determine competency
I was fortunate to be in the audience at The Security Institute members evening in London recently when Bill Muskin (MD of the VSG Group) spoke about the need for a new standard to differentiate between security providers now that the SIA's approved contractor scheme could be widely viewed as having failed to differentiate between suppliers as some (or indeed most) had hoped.

Now I can't pretend to know Bill well. We've met on probably a dozen occasions at best, sat together even less but you don't need to know Bill overly well to see how passionate he is about the security industry and how much that passion seem to remain with him after, by his own admission "a fair few years in the industry". His achievements initially with Firm Security and subsequently with VSG are certainly well known enough to ensure that when he speaks the very least the rest of us should do is listen.

However, we don't need to automatically agree with him and I'm sure that a healthy debate is one of the things Bill is looking for in proposing this new scheme that amounts to a corporate competency assessment programme. But first, let's consider what we have currently.

The SIA's approved contractor scheme now has some 650 members (with presumably more trickling in as we speak) who we are led to believe have achieved some degree or other of competency to operate within the industry and have been marked accordingly although what those company scores are remain a secret (unless individual companies decide to publish their score on their websites or marketing material). For individual companies seeking ACS approval there are some six separate choices of assessors who will happily come and look through your paperwork, talk to your staff, ask "searching" questions and generally decide whether you are up to scratch and able to be invited into this ever expanding club. Thereafter, you can utilise the dispensation notices scheme (has usage of dispensation notices reduced now? I would suggest that it has and therefore isn't the great attraction that it once was), put a logo on your official material and proudly state that you have achieved the quality mark that the SIA uses to judge professionalism within the security industry. Subsequently, periodic (well notified in advance) inspections seek to ensure that you have maintained if not improved on your first score and lets not forget the cost to join and remain in this exclusive club (£17 per annum per person plus anything between £400 and £2,400 as an annual subscription fee) and of course, this doesn't take into account the fees that any auditing company will charge.

Bill would have us believe that we now need to have another assessment scheme where ACS approved companies would be examined further to ensure that continuous improvement and, according to his blog on the VSG website, "The assessing body (yet to be decided upon) will be looking for evidence of best practice in areas such as corporate governance, terms and conditions of employment, employee welfare and, of course, training at all levels." I would suggest that procurement departments may well include questions in PQQ's and tenders that ask for evidence of these from competing companies at pre contract award stage but don't do much to quantify the answers given. I'm at a loss to understand why any additional assessment scheme that would, on paper, allude to a company having achieved recognition in these areas would attract a hard pressed procurement officer to verify these answers above what he (or she) currently sees.

Bill's blog goes on to state that,

"Service delivery will also be evaluated in detail, as you might expect, and we anticipate that the assessors will give particular attention to things like the number of portfolios handled by front-line managers, the number of visits managers make to each of their assignments and the content of those visits. Out-of-hours supervision and support, together with escalation processes for all types of incident, especially in the way the 24 hour Control Room is operated, will also play a major part in the inspection process."

Would a company be marked down for having clients that operate by the "I don't want to see you but I will call you when I want a meeting" (and we've all seen those clients)? I would be interested to understand how the "content of site visits" would be evaluated. It suggests that one standard would have to be applied when I would suggest that there are no two site visits that are the same. The site visit requirements for a one person site 30 miles from the nearest civilization are vastly different from a 20 person per shift site in a multi tenanted office building in the City of London for example. I accept that some of the issues may be the same across both sites but they are vastly different challenges.

Let's turn now to the one question that I would suggest most of those 650 ACS approved suppliers want to talk about. What's the cost? Bill blogs as follows,

"For those companies that already follow best practice - that is, those in the top tier of security providers - these costs will be negligible, because they will need to make only a few if any changes. For other companies whose service delivery and quality standards are lower, then the costs may well be significant, but they will have a clear choice of spending no money and staying where they are, or making the investment and moving into the premier league."

This is a borderline offensive and almost certainly a patronizing statement inferring as it does that if you qualify as a "top tier of security providers" (by what or whose criteria??) you're essentially fine but the rest of the industry is not! Whilst the costs may indeed be negligible for Bill's "top tier" this is all relative. It could be argued that SME's can't afford these costs but they are still providing what their clients perceive to be quality service delivery very often with flat management structures where it is significantly easier to directly contact a Senior Manager or Director rather than go through multiple layers of management in large companies where the individual layers retain little or no decision making or sign off authority.

I had to read his statement three times before I decided that I had read it correctly the first time. We already have at least a two tier system (if Bill is to be believed) and there are companies who don't operate to the same perceived high standards of the "top tier" but we all know there are still what are referred to as "cowboys" out there but the very definition of a cowboy operator is one that doesn't play by the accepted rules and has no desire to do so. If the ACS scheme hasn't wiped them out how on earth will another scheme that requires them to invest more money that they have absolutely no intention of spending achieve this?

In fairness to Bill he freely admits that this scheme was born out of a brainstorming session, doesn't actually have a name yet, may come to absolutely nothing and could barely be described as crawling let alone walking but as it stands at the moment I would agree that it probably deserves to be discussed and then perhaps filed under "good idea but incapable of being applied fairly across the board and not likely to go anywhere".

Implementing a second level of differentiation runs the very real risk that procurement departments will be enticed to make decisions and base their selection of a guarding supplier on what could be argued is essentially the same as the Governments educational league table system rather than a serious examination of service delivery capabilities. Let's not muddy the waters even further. Better that we should be looking at those currently approved to assess and validate the ACS scheme, and tighten the criteria they use to assess us by. Let's make it more difficult for individual assessors to interpret the ACS workbook in individual ways or to be lead down preferred routes by those they're sent to audit and just maybe consider revisiting the full 89 point ACS workbook more often than it currently is?

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