How can the UK Ministry of Defence collaborate with wider Government on innovation?

By Henry Appleton

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) is pursuing “radical innovation models to drive change”. To help with this, the MOD asked PA to study Whitehall’s wider innovation landscape, identify its common themes and highlight where the MOD and Central Government could more closely align. So, how can the MOD collaborate more effectively across Government on innovation, and what are the broader opportunities for Government as a whole?

Collaboration is key to innovation

We found the MOD’s approach to innovation to be relatively mature, which isn’t a surprise given the operational imperative of the work it does. However, 38 per cent of the people we spoke to around Government said the MOD wasn’t easy to work with on innovation.

Enhanced MOD and Central Government collaboration would generate collective value through rationalised resource investment. This would create an environment for innovation to flourish. As Figure 1 (below) shows, there’s a broad, fragmented innovation landscape in Government that would benefit from greater alignment. The expertise exists – it’s a case of using it effectively.

Figure 1. Existing innovation and technology departments

Our research highlighted three routes to making this happen:

1. Focus on technology

There’s a strong appetite across Government for working with defence on future technology innovation. While the specific technology needs of defence limited collaboration in the past, there are areas of technological overlap available to explore. Central Government’s focus on autonomous vehicles, for example, overlaps with MOD work – the market might be different, but the technology is similar. The same is true of artificial intelligence (AI) and additive manufacturing.

Austerity has also driven technology innovation as departments look to reduce costs and meet service delivery requirements. Many are exploring Robotic Process Automation, for example, but a lack of collaboration limits the effectiveness of such initiatives.

Aligning technology would create multiple exploitation pathways, driving value.

2. Develop existing market routes

Few Central Government departments deliver services directly to the public, so they focus on stimulating and facilitating industry innovation. With its engaged military audience, the MOD offers a competitive route to market for these new innovations.

Industry innovations around artificial intelligence, cyber security and 5G could all take advantage of this market route. And as the MOD is free from fragmented commissioning arrangements, such as delegating accountability in policing to both Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners, it could deliver results efficiently.

By aligning the MOD’s innovation challenges with Central Government activities, we could increase exploitation of the industry innovation that other departments are stimulating. Aligning the MOD’s current data analysis and autonomous systems priorities with the Government’s AI Sector Deal is a perfect example. Together, they can work towards an economy that harnesses the power of both AI and big data.

3. Establish innovation as a function

Innovation adoption within Government is a recent development. Of the 33 teams interviewed for this study, most were less than three-years-old. And while many were achieving some success, they were also finding it difficult to create meaningful success metrics and were contending with levels of bureaucracy that stifle innovative behaviours.

Elsewhere, traditional processes hinder progress. Finance and commercial operations in the Civil Service are a prime example, with the insistence on in-year budgeting a key challenge to the flexible financing of successful innovation projects. While individual teams are already ‘super-charging’ processes to force change, their limited success is neither scalable or sustainable.

For real change to take root, new approaches need to be embedded. Adopting the ‘Lean Start-up’ approach is one antidote to the existing culture – by installing tools and techniques alongside a think big, start small, scale fast mentality, some have experienced success. These teams are now providing training elsewhere.

The importance of senior leadership in this process can’t be understated. By getting support from senior Civil Service sponsors, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs succeeded in gaining cross-department engagement when developing Earth observation technology for Copernicus. It’s vital other departments follow suit for success to stick.

By encouraging and adopting innovation skills, processes and behaviours into a common innovation approach, Government departments will have the best chance of nurturing an innovation culture.

The MOD can facilitate innovation

The key to these three solutions lies in one word – collaboration. Many examples are already scattered across Government, yet Government-wide innovation can only happen through the breaking of silos and changing of habits.

The Ministry of Defence can take a key role in enabling this. Through its existing resources and by shedding its non-collaborative image, it can assist in embedding innovation at the very heart of Government.

About the authors

Henry Appleton PA defence and security expert

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