Continuing my tour to centres which share and fuse information in order to enhance maritime security, two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the UK’s National Maritime Information Centre, in short: NMIC. The center is located near Portsmouth, a place it moved to last year in September, having been based prior within the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Northwood. The centre itself was created in 2011 in the run up to the London Olympics. Initial it was meant to facilitate the protection of the UK against threats from the sea during the event. The core idea behind the centre is hence that the rapid response to emergencies at sea is enhanced through a shared information infrastructure. Yet, the work of the center was soon extended to focus on improving the information available for regular law enforcement in ports, coastlines and the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. All of the ten ministries and agencies of the UK that deal with the sea are participating in the centre whose role is to facilitate conversations and joint actions among these.
NMIC started as an institutional experiment. Yet, its work was institutionalised with the conclusion of the UK’s first ever National Maritime Security Strategy (NMSS) in 2014. The NMSS provides an overarching framework for maritime security in that it identifies a range of maritime security risks, sets out the institutional architecture to respond to these. It also outlines four core tasks the architecture has to perform: understanding, influencing, preventing, protecting, and responding (UK 2014: 11-12). As the director of NMIC explained the centre primarily contributes to the task of understanding by collecting and sharing information, but also providing a space for the joint interpretation of what happens at sea. The centre however also works closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a collaboration which intends to contribute to the task of influencing. If this wasn’t foregrounded by the director, the center also contributes to prevention, which according to the NMSS implies the sharing of information with international partners (NMSS 2014: 11).
NMIC has quite a unique governance structure in that it is not directly responsible to any ministry, but to the inter-ministerial National Maritime Security Committee which provides oversight and decides over its budget. Such a structure was chosen to clarify that no single ministry “owns” or “controlls” NMIC. As a consequence NMIC does not have an independent standing budget but is maintained by the contributions (finance and in kind) by ministries and agencies. NMIC consists of a relative small core management team of three staff members (a director, a co-director and a science advisor), while the other nine staff members are seconded by agencies and ministries.
As I have argued in a recently published article, Maritime Domain Awareness centers face a range of socio-political challenges, which can be structured around three questions: Which Actors are involved in MDA? What Information is shared? How is the Information interpreted? NMIC works in the first instance with the diverse UK governmental bodies that deal with the sea. As my interlocutors highlighted overcoming the diversity of organizational cultures and creating trust between governmental bodies is not an easy task. Creating trust required considerable efforts and strong inter-personal relationships needed to be build to ensure that NMIC can actually facilitate the discussion between bodies. The fact that NMIC is institutionally independent, and that it is predominantly a civil environment ( staff members do not wear uniform) were key enabler in overcoming divides. My interlocutors also highlighted the importance of a positive learning experience. For the director, NMIC started as an experiment, and the benefits were initially unclear. Over time, however, NMIC has proven its value, a success which became a core enabler for information sharing. NMIC relies on the one side on commercial AIS based tracking software, but is also involved in building up its own software package titled the Maritime Event Tracking Info System, in short METIS. Like other MDA systems also METIS is work in progress and requires to be continuously improved. In addition to METIS incident data is interpreted and facilitated through the liasion officers send from each agency to the center.
In short, the UK has developed a unique MDA system, which has the potential to become a role model. Yet, much of it remains in an experimental stage and it will be interesting to observe how NMIC further develops, the relations across the diverse maritime security agencies strengthen and coordination is improved.