Driving change from within UK defence

By Peter Lovell

UK Defence continues to face critical and evolving challenges. With the pressure on budgets unlikely to relax and the need to perform more diverse operational roles in a volatile environment, it is clear that things must be done differently to yield a more fruitful outcome.

The government along with senior leaders in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in their attempt to address the current defence challenges have implemented a number of substantial changes to organisational structures and freedoms. For example:

  • The UK military will have an increasing proportion of Reserves organised in new structures aimed to provide a more cost efficient and flexible military and humanitarian response
  • Management of the Ministry’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation has been outsourced to private sector organisations providing it greater freedom
  • Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the department’s procurement arm, is now an arm’s length bespoke trading entity
  • The department has been fundamentally reorganised under Defence Reform following the Levene report1 that has given greater responsibility to Front Line Commands.

However, if there is to be a substantial impact for defence, genuine change will also need to come from within and can not just be imposed from the top. Historically this has been missing. This is compounded by a sense of change-fatigue across defence that results in changes routinely being waited out rather than embraced and realised. The culture of hierarchical decision making and a perceived sense of safety in accepted process add to the barriers for genuine change. So strong is the belief in current practice that today only 33% of civilian MOD personnel think it is safe to challenge the way things are done in the department2. The current prescription for defence - providing greater freedom to its organisations and people can only work if people exploit these freedoms. If this does not take place the new freedoms and structures will have little impact on performance.

There are a number of myths that hold people back and, while there may be elements of truth underpinning these myths, accepting them in full constrains the thinking and confidence across Defence. The MOD must confront these myths to provide the driving force and momentum to exploit new freedoms and make the changes required.

Defence myths to be challenged:

  • Public sector constraints limit the capability of MOD and entities such as DE&S. The MOD has always had substantial freedoms to appoint, accelerate development, and move people within its organisation, but these freedoms have rarely been exploited to create high performing teams, in order to get the most out of its people
  • Defence cannot innovate as quickly and effectively as the commercial sector. The pace of innovation and exploitation of new technology applications, however, can rival the best of the commercial sector – for example, in delivering new Force Protection capabilities to rapidly changing threats in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Diverging from process and tailoring standard practice is not worth the risk. Despite common perceptions, tailoring of standard practice is permitted but requires confidence, ability and persistence. The successes in delivery and cost can be substantive – DE&S’s delivery of Urgent Operational Requirements such as the PANAMA rapid delivery programme is a prime example
  • Contingent operations make Defence planning intrinsically unpredictable. The uncertain timing and the nature of future operations does introduce unpredictability. However, much of the Department’s activity is repetitive and predictable with modest year-on-year changes. Where good practice is used to plan, measure and forecast activity, predictability can be used to drive down cost, for example in support to Armoured Vehicles.

If people can be given the confidence and ability to challenge accepted thinking and the way things are done, change from within can begin to match the ambition at the top. There is no silver bullet, but there are some priorities around which effort can be focused.
In order to do this, defence must:

  • Expand and sustain the pockets of successful new practices and thinking
  • Recognise that people are part of the solution, not the problem
  • Promote and reward doing the right thing, not just the safe thing
  • Acknowledge that some things will fail but be visible in recognising and implementing the lessons learned from failure.

Senior leaders clearly have their part to play. The MOD and its private sector colleagues must equally focus on releasing the change from within, from the people delivering Defence in the UK. Without this the new structures and freedoms will be as underused as the current ones.

1. Defence Reform, An independent report into the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence, June 2011

2. MOD Civilian Continuous Attitude Survey – Autumn 2013

About the authors

Peter Lovell PA Global Head of Defence and Security

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