GoCo is off the table and so we come back to the hoary old issue of MoD reform, the same set of easy sound bites about pen pushers, Wellington’s staff, the IDF having three people and a cat doing the same as DE&S and bla bla bla has been trotted out by all the usual suspects but the perception of Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) as a shabby collection of useless and incompetent fools remains hard to change. So hard in fact that we seem blasé about cost over runs, it is almost as if it is expected, the norm.
But buying complex military hardware is not like nipping down to Tesco’s and buying a pint of milk is the oft heard defence and whilst only an idiot would think otherwise some of the billion pound cockups seem incompetent in the extreme.
It doesn’t need saying but am going to say it anyway, every Pound we waste is a Pound unspent on equipment and support and as was obvious in Iraq and Afghanistan, this waste resulted in service personnel losing their lives and limbs. I don’t for one second buy into the excuse that Iraq and Afghanistan presented unique challenges and threats and there is no way the MoD could have prepared itself.
To be perfectly honest, that is insulting.
It is insulting to those personnel injured and the bereaved, and it is certainly insulting to anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge. The leadership of the Army should especially ask itself why an organisation with probably more experience of mines and IED’s (even including South Africa) than any other tested, purchased, deployed and disposed of solutions in past conflicts that would have been better than it went to war with in 2003.
Let us also be very clear, the UK does not have a small defence budget.
So effective use of defence funding is not an abstract concept, it is a serious business with serious consequences.
In its defence, DE&S has to deal with a number of issues that make the job difficult.
Politics; Probably the hardest thing DE&S has to deal with is the MoD, specifically the political guidance, steering or interference (depending on your perspective). Whether it is ‘the Scottish issue’, the ‘our brave boys’ factor, EU influence or raiding the MoD’s budget for political expediency, they all make the job difficult.
Industry; Most people would agree that it is in the UK’s strategic interest to retain the ability to make the tools of its own defence and maintaining skills and capacity for complex weapon design and manufacturer adds significantly to the nations wealth. But what next, well of course that means supporting that industry through a defence industrial strategy and putting ones cash where ones fine words is. It also means resisting the temptation and clarion calls to buy ‘off the shelf’ because whilst that would have some short term benefit the long term picture is not a pretty one. DE&S has to manage the demands of industry (who have to make a profit), the need to maintain and develop strategic capabilities and the simple fact that in many cases, someone else already has the kit we are developing available on their groaning shelves.
Service Nonsense; Corrosive inter service politics and a lack of joined up thinking means we often end up buying the same thing twice and despite the volumes of defence standards still cannot seem to find commonality in many areas. In 1982, the RAF Harrier’s went to war without their SNEB rockets because they weren’t compatible with shipboard operations, as I understand it, the Brimstone missile isn’t either. You think we might have learned. We are now spending half a billion quid on a maritime conversion for the Merlin HC3/3a’s instead of a very small increase at the build point, why are we so piss poor and buying for the armed services as opposed to buying for a service?
Public Sector; I certainly don’t want to come over all Daily Mail but in common with all public sector organisations there is a gender, sexuality and ethnic equality aspect that pervades everything it does. No one is arguing with the need for equality, far from it actually, but anyone with any experience of public sector organisations knows full well that this can have subtle and insidious effects on efficiency. Another huge factor is the remuneration and ability to recruit the right people for the right job. In some areas, public sector pay is good and certainly comparable with the private sector but in others, the rigid grade structure means key roles simply do not pay enough to attract quality candidates. This was one of the attractions of GoCo, the thinking being that one the TUPE hump had been crossed, personnel could be shifted and new people bought in with the correct skills and experience, paid the market rate, a flexibility not available to the 1930’s era employment practice in the civil service.
Military Fashion; I might be being a bit harsh here but there is an element of the Emperors New Clothes with many projects and there is no doubt in my mind that military fashion was the main reason the original (and relatively sane) MRAV, TRACER and FFLAV projects were binned in favour of FRES. A billion quid spunked up the wall and we seem to have come full circle.
Is it any wonder that having to put up service nonsense, political interference, the demands of industry, military fickleness and the drag of public sector employment practice that DE&S has problems.
So what has happened is a classic deflection.
Politicians are quiet happy to hammer the civil service because after all, they are so productive and faultless and they are bedazzled by gold braid.
The service chiefs are happy to hammer the politicians because, you know, its all about the cash for our brave boys and if the civil service get a spot of friendly fire, who cares?
The media don’t know their arse from their elbow so blame whoever the service chiefs and politicians tell them to and lets be honest, fat arsed penpushers are an easy target when compared to someone with a chest full of bling.
What then happens is we mess about with the structure, do smart procurement, roll out lean six sigma, outsource, de-skill, cut costs, be an intelligent customer, succumb to whatever fashion the big consultancy firms are pushing this week and indulge in constant transformation because the grown ups in Government and the services can kid themselves its going to make a difference and it is all someone else’s fault.
More consultants, more transformation, more ‘doing stuff’ and yet despite all this activity we still end up spending huge on wasteful projects.
After decades of process transformation the money spent on farting around with cats and flaps could have funded the running costs of Largs Bay for 7 years for example. Who was responsible for that one, some project manager at Abbey Wood, not having a Six Sigma Black Belt in post or not enough attention on a balanced score card, think not.
There is of course always room for improvement, better processes and better people, we would be idiots if we thought an organisation like DE&S cannot be improved. Having spent just under £20m on the GoCo process, or 2 years running costs for Largs Bay or 20 Foxhound vehicles, lets hope we get some value from it, or as Phil Hammond said, invaluable insight.
However, the real heavy hitters when it comes to procurement cockups are not the people at the end of the M4.
They are mere amateurs compared to those in the Palace of Westminster or churned out by Sandhurst, Cranwell and Dartmouth.
Perhaps MoD reform should start there.