In Defence of the Budget

There’s been a budget?

It all kind of slipped me by yesterday. I suppose that one of the benefits of being in service to the Crown means that I’m somewhat detached from the direct impact caused by slashing of this and raising of that. And, with that service being in Defence, I’d probably go as far as to say that it’s pretty safe to gamble on no drastic cuts and plenty of job security for some time to come… (Unless this blog gets me into the same hot water as Gen McChrystal which I seriously doubt!)

I’m not sure why though? If the truth be told then Defence is probably one of the areas in which Mr. Osborne could have saved billions of Pounds without there being much impact on current service provision.

“But what about the equipment shortages we hear so much about?” I hear you cry. Yes, the news still has seemingly regular stories about the shortcomings of the Defence procurement strategies and the dreadful impact those failings have at the ‘sharp’ end. If you read more carefully however you’ll see that most of these stories relate to shortcomings identified in 2003 when we initially deployed to Kuwait in preparation to invade Iraq. I can also confirm that, at that time, the equipment we were issued was woefully below the standard required for working in such an environment. I know this because I was there. During those early days of the Iraqi occupation we were known by US Armed Forces simply as ‘the borrowers’ and it was a well deserved moniker.

Jump forward to 2010 and the kit we use in Afghanistan, and are issued personally, is second to none. I know this because I’ve been there, and I’m going back.

So, if the use of the Defence budget has been so wisely spent over the last few years, why am I promoting the reduction of that same budget? I’ll tell you why; the actual expenditure now has nothing to do with the equipment currently being brought into service, that’s already been paid for, the money being spent now is for equipment, systems and services we may need in the future.

OK, so why should we cut it if we’ll need it in the future?

The problem lies deep in the system of procurement, project management and planning of these long-term projects, and the contracts which are awarded to develop, support and maintain them.

If, as a market leader and innovator, you had a project which (through the contracted consortium’s own fault) had failed to reach those targets set in simple documents like the ToR or Feasibility Study (assuming they exist, of course) and so you decided to stop charging the supplier as the project had run out of time and  money, therefore accepting a unservicable (mission critical) system, which you’d continue to pay service fees for as it is to be considered an ‘incremental’ release. Would that be considered a financially sound decision? I think not.

An MoD report from 10 years ago stated

There is significant evidence that the ineffective
management of technology is a major cause of
procurement under-performance. Insufficient
investment in technical feasibility studies and
technology demonstrators is occurring in the
early stages of projects

And let’s not forget the fact that this same consortium are the lead on several concurrent contracts all of which have functional overlaps with each other and yet are dealt with as entirely separate entities meaning that the grail of true convergence will remain nothing more than a pipe-dream. And here’s me thinking we were trying to get away from stove-piped service provision?! (Did I mention that they are all also either late, failing and/or over budget?)

What makes matters worse is that we don’t even go with the best solution for our problems. We tend to go with the cheapest option that provides the most British jobs and gets us ‘close’ to what we want.

As the Father of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day stated:

You don’t actually think they spend $20,000.00 on a hammer, $30,000.00 on a toilet seat do you?

The service provision fees for Defence’s IT systems are exorbitant. Yes, the service that is provided has improved markedly over the last 12-18 months, but that doesn’t excuse the ridiculous clauses in our contracts which mean that we have to pay the service provider for the privilege of moving a terminal from one desk to another, especially when we pay thousands of Pounds in training our own specialist tradesmen to do just that!

Add to this the fact that our Defence procurement regime (even in theses days of ‘smart’ procurement) is so archaic and lethargic that, by the time we eventually have a product which is fit for service, it is so out of date as to be considered ‘legacy’.

And these are just small examples of the inherent failures in Defence project planning and management.

It’s not all bad. The support of Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) due to current operations means that we do get to ‘push’ through upgrades, changes, and sometimes even the introduction of new equipments while avoiding all the usual beaurocracy, but these are small and very often as a result of the shortcoming of an existing project.

The benefit of these UORs is that they are generally using COTS products with little or no proprietary impact and are therefore able to be implemented quickly. Add to that the fact that they are generally the result of someone who is actually carrying out the task, and therefore knowing what is really required (now there’s a novel concept), which leads to them actually being fit for purpose.

As an example I’d like you to consider the following:

During a recent degree course I was tasked with carrying out a feasibility study regarding the introduction of a new CND system to the Defence Fixed Network. I duly carried out my research and offered my solution which was met with great joy by its sponsor, derision by the academics and incredulity by the holders of the purse strings. Why?

My solution had two options. One of these was free and the other incurred nominal costs in the initial phase of design and implementation while remaining free for its continued life in service.

The preferred solution (I was not informed during my degree that this was actually out to tender!), albeit part of a larger project, was actually forecast to cost in the region of £1.5Bn.

You do the maths.

Having said all that, I can certainly see why Mr Osborne made the decisions he did. Can you imagine the public outcry should he have announced, in the same week as the 300th loss of life was confirmed in theatre, that he was cutting spending in Defence?

Far better to cancel the increased tax on cider and raise the minimum earnings limit for the basic tax rate in my opinion.



(It’s three years old, but this RUSI document will make for interesting reading if you’re not already asleep!)

If you write something and, before hitting ‘Publish’, you read it back and wonder if it will get you into trouble, it probably will.

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