26 Jul 22. You may well be surprised to know that I don’t particularly like being overly controversial but when I read a number of twitter newspaper feeds and an article in The Times this morning saying that ‘Defence Chief behind what it calls a failing quango had been given £100,000 bonus – I felt my blood pressure rising.
Why? Simply because the reality is that the outgoing CEO of Defence Equipment & Support Sir Simon Bollom had justifiably been awarded this bonus for his part in making DE&S more efficient and user friendly and for his extremely hard work, commitment and patience over the past four years in a very difficult job.
Sadly, press and social media articles this morning made no mention of the very much improved state that DE&S is in today than it was when Simon Bollom took over the role in 2018.
As the primary procurement operation of the MOD and based in both Abbey Wood, Bristol and Main Building in Whitehall, it was a brave former RAF senior officer who took on a role than many would probably suggest was little short of being described as a ‘hornets’ nest’.
To be fair, considerable effort and much needed change of strategy and operation within DE&S began to occur during the period when Sir Bernard Gray was, in what at that time, termed as Chief of Defence Materiel. Bernard Gray wasn’t popular with everybody including senior defence ministers. But he did his very best to effect change following his appointment and which had followed the Coalition Government acceptance of a report on Defence Procurement commissioned by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.
Gray fought government all the way for what he believed was needed at DE&S and he never stopped challenging. Gray didn’t actually get all that he wanted – his ideas in relation to effectively privatising or should I say, moving elements of DE&S out of the civil service structure so that they could be paid on the basis of competing with industry.
But at least he began a process of ensuring DE&S would be fit for purpose and have staff who deserved to be there rather than, as had arguably been the case for years, don’t know what to do with this member of uniformed staff so send him to DE&S.
Bernard Gray was succeeded by Tony Douglas and who became the first formal CEO of DE&S. A man with considerable experience of running airlines, sadly I can find very little to commend his relatively short tenure in office before he departed and I believe went back to the Middle East to run an airline. Douglas’s decision to leave DE&S came as very little surprise and following a short gap in which responsibility of running DE&S fell to Michael Bradley for five months, it was announced in 2018 that Sir Simon Bollom had agreed to take on this extremely difficult challenge.
Defence Equipment & Support has since April 2007 been a trading entity that was formed out of the Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation. When founded, the organisation had a mix of military and predominantly civilian staff in the region of 30,000 but since then numbers have been cut by one third. All primary defence equipment procurement and through life support contracts for the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are handled from Abbey Wood. Other important figures in the running of DE&S include Chris Bushell (Air) Vice Admiral Chris Gardner (Ships) Vice Admiral Sir Simon Lister (Com Fleet and COM Submarines) and Adrian Baguley (Deputy CEO).
I am not here an now going to talk many of the hundreds of thousands of individual contracts that DE&S is responsible for but I will mention some of the larger one’s including the £5.5Bn ‘botched’ Ajax light armoured vehicle programme and which press innuendo suggests has been a problem solely on Sir Simon’s watch. Allow me to set the record straight. The so-called botch referred to by press is certainly exactly that – perhaps one of the worst procurement botches since the then GEC Marconi’s Nimrod AWACS design botch and which led to cancellation in the late 1980’s. But allow me to remind you that the lies and deceit spun by the likes of General Dynamics to its MOD customer on Ajax have quite probably been going on since the initial programme started back in around 2009. It is Sir Simon Bollom and his team that have been left to pick up the pieces and do the very best that they can to at least see whether this ‘botched’ programme can be saved or whether it will now need to be scrapped.
It is of course relatively easy for the quality press such as The Times newspaper to look back on the DE&S files and then wheel out some of the many problems. Defence procurement is, never was and probably never will be perfect. Problems are manifest and sometimes because those that are involved in the initial process -in the case of Ajax – the Army had no clear understanding of what it was they wanted and why. And as time moved on those that were involved whilst in the military in the original process left or retires and some even joined the board of GD.
I am not attempting in any way to suggest that DE&S shares some of the blame and maybe sometimes because it doesn’t have a level of necessary consistency that industry often has – that of retaining the same people. At the core of an organisation such as this is a ‘collegiate process’ and one that often boils down to too many people being involved, too many changes being required without taking sufficient notice of how this may impact on other parts of the programme and that so often cause delays and additional problems, the left hand not knowing what the right is doing and industry stuck in the middle. I hasten to add that Ajax problems are way beyond anything that I have suggested in this paragraph!
Given the size of MOD requirement, through life contracts and support required, experience of people involved and often a lack of skills, it is no surprise that UK defence procurement still has a long way to go.
It isn’t only DE&S that gets the blame – government does too and often rightly so. Defence projects as all other government departments are, are overseen by a variety of organisations such as the NAO, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee amongst others. They are all rightly vociferous with their respective views and rightly so but they do not always get it right.
Sir Simon Bollom and his team may only be half way through effecting change right across the DE&S structure but in the four years he has been at the top of DE&S he has made a terrific impact and he leaves it next week in a much better state than he found it.
Sir Simon, will shortly hand the CEO role of DE&S to Andy Start and who I have recently met. It has been interesting to observe over recent weeks how Simon Bollom has been taking Andy Start around the organisation and industry customers to meet him and establish the type of relationship that can move DE&S further forward. Yes, there is a long way to go yet and it may take several more years but of all the things that DE&S needs now it is consistency of its people, motivation from government and industry and incentive to once and for all bury the myth that DE&S is not fit for purpose.
I wish Andy Start all the best in this very challenging job. He will I am sure do well but once again, time will be required for him to make his mark.
As to Sir Simon Bollom who I have known for many years, he has many skills to impart and to following generations and he is far too young to retire yet. Whatever, thank you for what you have done.
CHW (London – 26th July 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785