What follows is not all about defence although I will start with that particular subject! And in saying what I will, I do not expect all of you will agree!
Getting right to the point as it does, Labour’s accusation this week that the Ministry of Defence has wasted £13 billion of taxpayer’s money since 2010 is, even on the basis that on a Department the size of Defence, it can hardly be described as being fully evidence based, can hardly be disputed. And just to avoid any accusation of political bias on my part, let’s be equally clear that when Labour was in Government between 1997 and 2010, a similar if not larger figure would likely be the case.
Politicians are of course partly to blame themselves. After all, there raison d’etre is to do things on the cheap if they can in the name of getting bets value for the taxpayer. But we all know that taking the cheapest price is not necessarily the best value for the taxpayer. Politicians have a habit of changing and delaying projects, adding to both time and cost. Governments also have a habit of making cuts that often lead to departmental civil servants who carry the highest level of skills taking early retirement leaving the department junior personnel who have insufficient skills. Examples of bad contracting agreements are manifest not just in defence and I well recall the occasion when, because a hapless Secretary of State for Transport had removed vital experience from the department that a rail franchise was given to the wrong company.
Yes, the MOD has a very poor record and needs to do better but waste in government spending isn’t just about defence it is rampant through all government departments. And one of the largest problems that leads to cost and waste of resource is the whole system of promotions and pay scales -not just in the MOD for example but across all sections of the military as well. In the military and in particular in areas related to equipment procurement and through life support in order to get on military personnel are often moved every two years – just about the time that they have got the hang of what they were doing and making a useful contribution. In comes the new member of the team and it takes as long as six months to get them trained before they can even start to make a reasonable contribution and have met everyone else concerned on the project they are working on.
Labour says that it would make reform of the MOD a priority first by commissioning a National Audit Office investigation into waste and then by making the MoD the first department subject to a new “office of Value for Money”. The former idea presupposes that the NAO has sufficient members experienced in defence to carry out such an investigation and the second simply beggar’s belief although anything that might put another spanner in the works is bound to be good news for our would-be enemies.
We are fortunate to have an excellent Minister for Defence Procurement at the moment in the form of Jeremy Quinn. Open and honest, he has and is tearing down out of date barriers. Philip Dunne was also an excellent Minister of Defence Procurement in the Cameron Government but of his successor, less said the better. And that’s a big problem for defence – it takes months to get a new minister up to speed and just as they are making themselves useful, they either get sacked or moved on. Lack of consistency (in regard to personnel) remains a big issue for defence as it does within the military itself and that goes right to the very top.
I am not suggesting that the NAO looking at cost and waste would not be a good idea provided it is given sufficient resource but in order to do the job properly, visiting every aspect of defence within military bases, Defence Headquarters all other interested parties could take two to three years if the job is to be done correctly. It would also have to look at all the individual military trades and discover how the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force do their work as individuals within what is still sometimes to referred to as an archaic system that is as flexible as a piece of steel.
And that is before it gets to the other big problems – poor communications and respect, lack of transparency, shortage of necessary skills, projects not yet funded and thus delayed, changes being made to originally agreed requirements, bureaucracy, regulation and as often as not, far too many different individuals being involved, each with their own specific requirements that causes further delay and change, poor and costly legacy agreements, cancelled contracts, an oft misguided belief that you have got everything you need including through life support and upgrade within a specific contract when the reality is that, particularly on equipment bought from overseas, you clearly have not.
At the other end of the scale the situation is equally bad.
Andy Netherwood who I know and respect gave some interesting examples of what I mean within several tweets yesterday:
“The MoD allows service leavers to claim travel to house/job hunt in the place they’re going to resettle. On that basis I applied for a rail ticket to where we now live. I had to fill in several forms and obtain 4 separate signatures: resettlement advisor, line manager, budget manager & travel manager. This took about a week. Using its ‘huge buying power’, the MoD got the ticket for £116 through its travel agent. My wife wanted to come too so we bought her ticket ourselves. It took less than a minute on an app and cost £84. Same train, same day (We sat next to each other)”
The above provides an example of how the MOD gets so easily ripped off and I wonder how many people were involved in ‘’arranging’ Andy’s ticket?
Back in my youth the age of the large IBM, ICT, Honeywell and Univac computers was gathering pace and we were told were heading toward a paperless society. What a nonsense that was. Today bureaucracy and regulation requires various systems of checks – all of which add to the cost. There is not only any room left for trust or my word is my bond but neither is there for simplicity or common sense. Indeed, I often think to myself when visiting offices, what on earth do all these people do and I wonder what they would have done before the cart was allowed to be put in front of the horse. And it is not that long ago that I recall being told by a new Chief of the Defence Staff that I want you to go on a fight against bureaucracy because it is strangling us.
Yes, it is the same in other departments including the NHS. I well recall when in taking a break from the ‘City’ in 1993 I designed and set up London’s first GP Out of Hours On-Call service in Kensington. It required GP’s from various practices working together to provide patients who called their surgeries during the out of hours period to gat all the help they needed. It was though I say it myself, brilliant and I went on to do others. But as with all good things that relied on well-thought through protocols combined with common sense, it fell foul of academics who saw these as something that they were not in control.
The NHS is riddled with bureaucracy and heaven only knows how many thousands of unnecessary hangars-on are involved within the system. Indeed, I recall back in 1993 at St Charles Hospital in Kensington one respected GP who was working one of our shifts storming in and saying that ‘we are all just collectors of data’. As if they are not busy enough, every GP in the UK has to go through a ridiculous annual process of having an appraisal by another GP. Hours of additional work are required and while I accept that it may well be correct that GP’s are appraised surely it should be every five years rather than every one year. We are required these days to form fill in excess, nothing it seems can be simple anymore and sadly, there is no room left for common sense.
CHW (London – 7th January 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785