Blog: Disciplined thinking and clear focus on the future: interview with Brian Johnson, CEO, Maritime & Coastguard Agency

Decarbonisation, future fuels, safety, digitalisation, technology, skills and training – the key words that stand out from a conversation with Maritime & Coastguard Agency CEO Brian Johnson will come as no surprise. However, what underpins them is equally crucial – service, relationships, partnerships, building trust and disciplined thinking.

The MCA says it has changed – and is changing very quickly – in how it performs its role, as well as in the scope of its work. Its focus is firmly on the future.

Does that mean a change in direction? Johnson says not: “We still deliver all the safety aspects of our role and hopefully do them increasingly well. However, the spectrum of what the MCA does is already incredibly broad. We are unusual in government agency terms in holding a lot of deep technical expertise – and that puts us in a really interesting position to be able to influence the maritime sector both domestically and more internationally. Through that influence, we can create a benefit for the UK by attracting shipping in its various forms into the UK maritime economy, because we can make the connections.”

Johnson, who was appointed CEO in 2018, says it was important to ‘stand back’ and make some assessments; the conclusion was “there is an opportunity we are not fully grabbing”.

The UK flag is important in its own right, he notes, but it can also be used to attract far more shipping-related business into the UK. “Another tool is tonnage tax; we are very involved, along with Maritime UK and others, in getting the tonnage tax reforms through the Treasury.”

One of Johnson’s first encounters with the MCA was ten years ago when, as a keen sailor, he discovered the challenges of registering a personal location beacon. Now he says: “Six months ago, this process was still paper-based, with a six-month waiting list. Now, you serve yourself online.”

That is part of a major overhaul of IT in which the MCA has propelled itself into the 21st century in terms of technology, he says. “Most customer service can now be done online, and that is a big change. We had a production line of these customer-facing projects that we have been delivering quite steadily over the past 18 months – there has been a huge amount of work on IT systems.”

Covid-19 has, of course, accelerated the move to digitalisation across maritime and in every industry. For the MCA, this has included updates to seafarers’ certification documents, increasing the use of simulators in seafarer training and the creation of a digital UK Ship Register.

A headline launch came during London International Shipping Week when the new Shipping Concierge Service was unveiled. A sort of ‘one-stop-shop’ for shipping companies, the service is being hosted by the MCA on behalf of the Department of International Trade and provides advice and guidance for ship owners and operators considering their options in the UK market, including tonnage tax benefits.

“We have had a lot of enquiries about this, including from some quite unexpected quarters,” says Johnson. “Once the tonnage tax details are finalised over the next month or so, we will start to see companies working through the service.”

Decarbonisation is, of course, the overarching and enormous topic for the MCA, which can look at the issues from both regulatory and engineering standpoints.

The MCA is a founder member of the Maritime Technology Forum, a group of four classification societies – ABS, DNV, Lloyd’s Register and ClassNK – and the maritime administrations of Japan, Norway and the UK. This group is ‘getting facts on the table’ about decarbonisation and alternative technologies, he says.

Meanwhile, the Maritime Future Technologies team set up by the MCA is pushing forward research, including into regulatory change, and supporting innovation. It is preparing to launch a new technology matrix which will enable users to compare different technologies in relation to decarbonisation.

“There are a large number of proposed alternative solutions for decarbonisation – one of the things we have been very keen to do is to find an objective way of comparing the technologies,” says Johnson. “That is important because what I don’t see happening in a really disciplined way is the discarding of options which don’t have long-term viability. It is crucial that the international shipping sector starts to converge on what we think is a relatively limited number of potential solutions for decarbonisation. The technology matrix has been developed so that technologies can be compared objectively side by side.”

He clearly feels strongly about the need to make some concrete decisions. “We need to decide – which are transitional fuels, and which are end-point fuels? We need to understand how adopting transitional fuels can create a pathway for solutions with long-term viability. As a sector, we need to be much more straightforward about this.”

For example, he says: LNG delivers some NOx and SOx emission reductions but only marginal benefits in terms of CO2 emission and global warming. Biofuels are attractive because they can be used for engines running on conventional fuels, but about 50% of the world’s arable land would be needed to grow enough crops to meet the demands of aviation and shipping. There are ambitious claims for methanol but most of the routes to producing and using it generate CO2, while those that don’t are ‘breathtakingly unviable’.

It’s worth remembering that Johnson’s original carer was as a chemical engineer – designing, building and running ammonia, hydrogen and methanol plants.

Ammonia and hydrogen are two obvious contenders for future fuels, he says, but there are many challenges around storage, temperature requirements, costs, efficiency, safety concerns, supply in ports and regulations.

“There is such a lot to do in getting real rigour into our thinking. But we are at the point where we have to start building ships using end-point technology very soon.”

Who is going to be operating the ships of the future? There is a renewed focus on creating the next generation of seafarers, and the skills that will be required to match the rapid change in technology.

“The Maritime Skills Commission ran a group looking specifically at cadet training,” says Johnson. “A lot of the feedback from shipping operators was around the need to modernise the syllabus, which they saw as pretty outdated. The recommendations were about improving technical ability, leadership and self-awareness. Ship owners want their officers to be able to go seamlessly to compete with others for jobs onshore – they emphasised the need for less hierarchical leadership and more of the leadership skills we use in day jobs on shore.

“We are also clear that we need to change the way that sea experience is done – and that is a job for us as regulator. It has to be a useful learning experience for the cadet, and not just a rite of passage they have to go through.

“Overall, shipowners emphasised the need for better and better talent, and that includes attracting more candidates with honours degrees – otherwise we are missing out on a lot of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent out there.”

The MCA has always had good people, says Johnson. The difference now is that “we are much more forward looking now – less looking over our shoulders, much more looking towards the future”.

“We are very engaged in a whole range of partnerships outside the agency, whether that’s in government or commercially or with interest groups or internationally. One of the core skills within the organisation has become these partnerships and stakeholder engagement. We have worked hard to make sure the MCA and the DfT (Department for Transport) work collaboratively together and we feel it is a relationship that is working well.”

Overall, the past two years have been about building trust, relentlessly delivering on promises and ‘no surprises’ for stakeholders or board, “If there are difficult things going on, we talk about it” he says.