MOD info and logistics get a hammering from lean, mean fighting machine MPs…

With all our MOD excitement last week, we slightly missed the Public Accounts Committee report into the “use of information to manage the supply chain to frontline troops” which focused heavily on supply chain issues around Afghanistan.  Information is clearly not fit for purpose, but issues will apparently be addressed through the “Future Logistics Information Services” project, expected to be implemented by 2014. We hope.

Here’s Public Finance:

The system used by the Ministry of Defence to supply the armed forces is now ‘at critical risk of failure’ and could leave frontline troops short of crucial equipment within a month, MPs have warned. ... The Public Accounts Committee points out that the deficiency in the system has been raised in a serious of reports since 1986. It says a more efficient supply chain would also free resources for frontline operations.

And this is where, Alix Partners or not, we have a lot of sympathy for MOD.  I’ve been dealing recently with one individual – a procurement / supply chain professional – who is currently in Whitehall but is about to go back to Kabul for a second period out there. Now, he’s actually looking forward to it (he's clearly mad, very brave, or both), and I admit, the prospect would terrify me.

And it’s very easy for MPs sitting in a nice warm meeting room in Portcullis House to hold forth about these issues.  They criticised MOD for holding too much stock – yet, as Colonel Richard Kemp (retired) pointed out on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, it’s hard to predict what exactly is going to happen next in war, so stock control is a difficult task.  And you can imagine how horrified MPs would be if MOD was running out of stock.

Mind you, Kemp then went on the say that Tesco had a “greater logistics problem than MOD” which strikes me as ridiculous.  OK, let’s get Tesco to deliver to locations where the Taliban are lobbing shells in every evening, and that terrified Burka-clad “woman” begging for shelter is actually a suicide bomber. See how Philip Clarke and friends cope with that.

A friend of mine is a retired senior soldier and logistician. I read a report he wrote, post the Falklands conflict, where he saw (very) active service, and the bit that sticks in my mind was his description of logistics staff unloading boats while being fired on by Argentinian planes. Many were injured or died. It’s not like delivering toilet rolls to Bracknell.

But there is no excuse for suppliers not performing, and Kemp and the PAC made accurate comments about the culture in MOD meaning that poor performance – by staff or suppliers – is rarely punished. That clearly isn’t good enough. So can Bernard Gray, appointed Chief of Defence Materiel this January, and in effect Head of Defence Logistics, change this?

By all accounts, he’s an impressive, ferociously bright and determined character. But his career to date has encompassed banking, journalism, being MD of a publishing company, and a special adviser to politicians. His military experience is solely around writing reports on MOD, and he’s not a supply chain man, or a programme delivery type, or a manager of highly complex systems. Can he deliver?

There have been few signs yet that the transformational changes he proposed in his last report are actually happening, but a close, intelligent and unbiased observer of MOD last week told me he thought Gray would succeed  – “give him till the end of this year, you’ll see him getting things more as he wants them”,  was his comment.

Gray has also made Les Mosco the “primus inter pares” amongst top level MOD procurement staff – not a formal promotion we understand, but he is now clearly the procurement lead for the Department. Which is a good move, as he’s an experienced, capable and very straightforward procurement professional.  (We should also say that we’re pretty sure Mosco had nothing at all to do with the Alix Partners contract).

So let’s see what Gray, Mosco and colleagues can come up with to address the concerns that the PAC (and many before them) has about MOD supply chain matters. And remember, it’s not like Tesco, or NatWest, or Mars – we are literally talking matters of life and death here.

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  1. Jon Harvey:

    Good article – although Bracknell on a Saturday can be a scary place!

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