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An open relationship

Angela Owen
Defence Management Journal
1 March 2011

With significant staff reductions expected at the MOD, open dialogue with unions and staff is crucial, urges PA Consulting Group’s Angela Owen.

Staff at the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) are facing one of the most uncertain times in recent memory. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) laid out a planned reduction of 25,000 civil service staff (approximately 30 per cent) by 2015. The Defence Reform Unit continues its work to develop a new, more cost-effective model for defence management and the Defence Acquisition Reform Programme is working to implement reform within the acquisition function. Two base closures (RAF Cottesmore and RAF Lyneham) have already been announced; RAF Kinloss will no longer be needed by the RAF although no decision has yet been made about its future. Meanwhile, Defence Equipment & Support is preparing for a reduction of one in three civil servant posts.

Staff at the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) are facing one of the most uncertain times in recent memory. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) laid out a planned reduction of 25,000 civil service staff (approximately 30 per cent) by 2015. The Defence Reform Unit continues its work to develop a new, more cost-effective model for defence management and the Defence Acquisition Reform Programme is working to implement reform within the acquisition function. Two base closures (RAF Cottesmore and RAF Lyneham) have already been announced; RAF Kinloss will no longer be needed by the RAF although no decision has yet been made about its future. Meanwhile, Defence Equipment & Support is preparing for a reduction of one in three civil servant posts.

An early release scheme has been announced, stating that as many departures as possible will be under voluntary rather than compulsory terms. However, very few civil servants have a clear understanding of what this means for them. For leaders, the possibility of trade union disruption coupled with a potential reduction in motivation presents a risk to the MOD’s ability to support operations.

Key to a sustainable and successful outcome will be early and consultative engagement with the MOD’s trade unions (PCS, Prospect and FDA are the MOD’s largest non-industrial unions) and staff to help shape and deliver reform.

Early and ongoing involvement with unions and staff

Early and open union involvement, be it formal or informal, seeks to build trust and mutual respect. It is often tempting to delay engagement until a comprehensive change programme has been devised, as entering discussions without a well thought-out solution can be daunting. This approach is nearly always unsuccessful.

Jointly tackling issues as they emerge does not guarantee agreement but does mean that difficult conversations are handled more productively, often with a commitment to problem resolution.

Union input can improve programme outcomes. In a Unison survey, 89 per cent of respondents stated that union involvement had secured outcomes that were satisfactory or better, the majority being positive.1 Experience shows that staff are more likely to trust and accept changes if they know that they have been professionally represented in the decision-making process. Presenting a ‘done deal’ increases the chances of rejection, as the reasons for decisions may be opaque and the inclination will be to believe that a better solution could have been found.

Building an understanding of key issues and concerns

Union and staff concerns must be understood to avoid incorrect assumptions. Timely and candid dialogue between all parties prevents misunderstandings as concerns are not always universal, for example, ease of reemployment can vary by region. Staff facing redundancy in Scotland with a headline unemployment rate of 8.7 per cent may find it harder to find new roles than in the South West of England, with a lower rate of 5.7 per cent.2 In some areas, whole communities will be impacted by the closure of bases that significantly support local economies. Support offered, such as reskilling or help with job searches, should be tailored to meet local needs.

Continuous, regular and effective communication

Effective communication helps to minimise uncertainty. Face-to-face meetings can be more powerful than written communications as unions and staff can make their own judgements on candour, transparency and commitment. Scheduled meetings should not be cancelled, even if there are no substantive updates; cancellation creates rumours that staff are being ‘kept in the dark’.

Ultimately, by engaging early and continuously, the MOD will increase the likelihood of the solution being accepted, while reducing the risk of disruption to operational commitments at a time of substantial change in UK defence.


Angela Owen is a defence expert at PA Consulting Group.

To get in touch with Angela, please click here to send them an email.

To visit PA's defence pages, click here


1. Mark Bramah, Malcolm Wing and, Nicola Carroll of Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), ‘The value of trade union involvement to service delivery’, a UNISON report: www.unison.org.uk/acrobat/19226.pdf

2. Source: Office for National Statistic Regional Monthly data for December 2010

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