Procurement in the UK Ministry of Defence – Introduction

A neighbour of mine is a quiet, slim, unassuming gentleman in his 60s.  It’s only when you go into his home and see the pictures of him in full uniform, and another of him on top of Everest, that you realise there is a bit more to him than meets the eye.

He was a senior Army officer, including a spell in the SAS, but he was also a senior logistician.  He’s talked to me a little about some of his experiences, including when he commanded logistics staff in the Falklands during the conflict of 1982.  If you ever think supply chain is just the same for the military as it is in any organisation, have a chat with someone like him.  His stories of horrendous casualties amongst the Logistics Battalion serving in the Falklands, or the effect of supply chain and procurement decisions back in Whitehall on front line logisticians and troops; these were real issues in the Falklands and still are in Iraq and Afghanistan.   This isn’t quite like anything else.  Lives are at risk as well as national reputation and political careers.

And that is one of the reasons why getting military procurement right is both so important and so difficult.  There are issues here that don’t come into play in any other part of public or private sector procurement, and that’s not just the importance of what is bought to the front-line.  There are also issues of national security, as well as jobs,  (local versus non-UK suppliers for major equipment for instance) tied up with MOD procurement decisions.

Before Christmas, the Times featured a series of ‘shock horror’ articles about MOD acquisition.  They were quickly followed by the announcement of Bernard Gray’s appointment as Chief of Defence Materiel, putting him in charge of the 20,000 Defence Equipment and Support staff, which includes procurement, logistics, design and support and a whole range of other related activities.

It was suspiciously coincidental timing; were the Times articles designed to prepare the ground for Gray, and perhaps to diffuse any potential critics who might have claimed that he is both a Tory party adviser, and someone whose cv (in operational terms rather than as a commentator) does not obviously suggest a fit to this job (as we discussed here)?  The Times was certainly very positive about his report of 2009, which, having personally looked through it again, does contain much that appears perceptive and convincing.

We’ve been talking to friends and acquaintances since the Times articles; people who are in MOD procurement; have worked in or with MOD, either as employees or consultants.  That has led us to put together our own take on matters.  As you’ll see over the next week or so, we don’t by any means disagree with what Gray or the Times said in many areas.

But, as one of our contacts said, “one of the problems is that people in MOD can’t answer back to the criticisms”.  So in a couple of areas, I hope we might be able to put the other side of the story compared to the criticism that MOD procurement and related staff often seem to get.

And we should perhaps start by asking whether the process is in fact broken? There are arguments that suggest the focus on a few (admittedly important) defence equipment projects that haven't gone well masks a generally strong performance by MOD procurement.   A number of our contributors feel that against international benchmarks, the performance of MOD acquisition is actually pretty good.

Certainly, and I have personal evidence of this, in some areas MOD procurement is leading edge in public or even private sector terms.  In terms of strategic relationship management, contracting for availability, supporting SMEs (smaller firms) in the supply chain, or some aspects of training, they have actually taken action and achieved results that most organisations still only talk about.

But of course the public image is conditioned by what is probably a small number of high profile delays or issues; and there is no doubt that the projected cuts in budget are going to put further pressure on both equipment affordability, and the resource available to execute successful procurement.   So it seemed a good time to add our thoughts to the pot around these key issues.

We’ll start our analysis properly tomorrow therefore by looking at some of the more strategic or underlying issues facing MOD acquisition.

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