Based at Gioia del Colle air base, Civil Secretary Jim McBride and his team have the job of ensuring that all ‘in theatre’ expenditure is managed as efficiently as possible:
A financial team was on the ground straight away,” said Jim. “PJHQ [Permanent Joint Headquarters] sent a team in to set it all up and were out here for a week or so, and then they parachuted in a team that they managed to pull together from people that had previously been on their books.
Brought together from MOD establishments around the UK and cared for by the MOD’s Support to Operations team, Jim’s team are there to make sure everything that can’t be sourced from the UK is made available quickly and at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer.
With around 600 RAF and Army personnel deployed at Gioia del Colle alone, and no accommodation available on base, the first task facing the team was to find suitable accommodation, which they did in a nearby hotel:
We have been quite successful in reducing costs on the hotel contract,” Jim explains.
The team is also responsible for food, white fleet (hire cars) and any other services or products that need to be procured locally, which includes items that can’t be sourced through the military supply chain and time-critical items:
We are currently out buying some emergency drugs in the local chemist because they can’t be sourced through the normal supply chain quick enough,” said Jim. “It’s all that quick reaction stuff that we have to do.
Innovation as well as a timely response are key qualities needed for the role. For example, when the RAF engineers based at the far end of the base required a means of transport back to the main areas, Jim provided them with bicycles:
It was far cheaper to get them bikes than to hire more vehicles,” he explains. “It was also popular with the guys, as they like to keep fit, and has the added bonus of being environmentally friendly.
The Civilian Secretariat team in Italy is currently made up of four people: Jim McBride, Tommy Phelim, Matt Kelly and Maria Grazia Curtis, an interpreter.
McBride and Phelim are both veterans of deployments to Afghanistan, but the expeditionary nature of this deployment has offered new challenges for both of them:
The operational context is really different to Afghanistan and Iraq,” Jim explains. “How you achieve life support structures are completely different. Here we are trying to tap into a European/EU economy to provide what we need. And if, for instance, we are told we are going to be here for a year there are things that could have been done in terms of providing life support in a different way.
But all we have been given is that we are here for as long as it takes. We have been working to a rolling 90-day planning horizon, so basically we are ready to get out at any time, and that limits what we can do.
The UK, unlike other allied nations such as the USA, employs civilians in the procurement role, which, according to Jim, brings definite benefits:
This is what we do,” he says. “I have been involved in this type of role for 20 years so clearly have got good experience and good grounding.
To procure items you have to be a trained and accredited commercial officer. And, as we are outside the military system to a degree, if there are disputes we refer them up a different chain, but I am glad to say we don’t often get disputes and they are generally resolved locally. But there is the red card system whereby if we disagree we can pass it up the chain and I think that is an advantage.
He also feels it offers a personal advantage, and after tours of Afghanistan and Iraq it is something he hopes to do again:
It does bring a huge sense of fulfilment. When I did my Afghanistan tour it was probably the best six or seven months that I have had at the MOD. You really do feel that you are achieving something and contributing something and you see instant gain in what you do.
The downside is you are away from your family for extended periods and that is very painful. But if they could come up with some way of ameliorating the impact of being away from your family I’d do it all the time.