MOD Procurement – part 2

Yesterday we looked at the major strategic issues around MOD acquisition.  Today we’ll focus on more specific procurement issues that were highlighted by our experts who contributed to our research for this series of posts.

1. The uniformed / civilian staff issue

In military acquisition – all the way from specification and requirements, through tendering and contracting, project management and delivery, the MOD uses teams that mix civilian experts with uniformed staff from the three services.  This brings a number of problems.

Uniformed staff generally only have a 2-year tour of duty; not long when projects can run for several times this period.  They often think that civilians don’t understand the pressure of front line troops, while the civilians think that the military just want the most expensive stuff, now, and don’t understand the technicalities of procurement or EU procurement processes.  While this conflict can be creative and useful, often it isn't.

2. Specialism versus generalists

Even amongst the civil service staff, the system does not encourage specialism.  It creates generalists who, in themselves, move on frequently from function to function in order to gain promotion.  We’ve heard it suggested that many of the gains made by MOD procurement around 2005-7 through the introduction of category management – and extensive training – have been lost partly because of this.  And at the top levels, the most knowledgeable about acquisition and procurement don’t always end up leading the key organisations.  (And we question whether in this regard Bernard Gray is any different from previous Chiefs of Defence Materiel, who were also not experienced procurement / programme management / logistics people).

3. Lack of accountability

The MOD, like many other large organisations, private or public, suffers from layers of committees, reviews and audits, which can make it hard to allocate real responsibility.  And of course, the more MOD is criticised, the greater the tendency there is to avoid making decisions and protect yourself by ensuring that any blame will be widely shared!   It was sad to see so many comments on websites when issues like the aircraft carriers hit the press along the lines of “we should give people clear responsibility, they should be dynamic and risk-taking – oh, then we should sack them if it goes wrong.”  This is the paradox – the more criticism of MOD acquisition there is, from Gray, the Times and others, then the less and less likely it is that people are going to take risks, accept personal responsibility, or stick their heads above the parapet.  (And as we said earlier, civil servants cannot respond publically, even when they believe that some of the recent newspaper accusations are “incorrect and borderline defamatory”).

4. Systems and technology

Others, including Gray, have pointed out that the use of technology in areas such as project management and procurement is inconsistent and patchy.  As we said yesterday, MOD performance in a number of areas spans everything from real leading edge practice to something much less impressive - and this is true of use of technology.

5. Structures and leadership

Our contributors who have worked with MOD without being civil servants agree that there are some very capable people in senior MOD acquisition roles.  There is then a whole batch of people at operational level who basically ‘do what they are told’.  Some are capable of change; others are not.  But the top people, who do understand what is needed, have difficulty getting their message through to the ‘troops’. That may be a sign of overly long management chains; or cultural problems; or the need to address a mid-level cohort of 'change blockers'.

6. External vision

Linked to that last point, it does seem that there is limited movement in and out of MOD procurement. Being based largely in Bristol does not help; Abbeywood must employ about half of the total Bristol population of procurement professionals! The culture of a comfortable job for life does not help drive change, and even though in my personal experience there are many good people there, more cross-fertilization with other public and private bodies would help the level of experience and confidence in the procurement team.

So, having diagnosed some of the key issues, both strategic and operational, over the last couple of days, what can be done?  Stay tuned for thoughts on that tomorrow.

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First Voice

  1. Bill Davie:


    I am Head of Prison Industries part of the Governement supply chain.

    Prison Industries have a large numebr of textile workshops. We have just agreed with minister a significant groawth plan for Prison Industries. Could you advise who I should talk to about securing soem MOD textiles work for Prison Industrie.

    It is our legal understanding that the crow is a single legal entiy and therfore you can do bisniess with us without going to competition. We do inderstand that our prioces and delivery must be compedative.

    Bill Davie
    Head of Prison Industries.

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