Taking the Politics of Government out of Procurement?

First published: 20th June 2011 | Dr. Alexander Clarke

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This work explores other methodologies of defence management, specifically the idea of putting procurement and budget under the control of the legislature (Parliament in the case of the UK) to provide for a longer term[1] strategic overview/oversight to support and control procurement; and what possible benefits such a system might bring to the UK.

America is of course the major example of this practice; and is also the chief beneficiary, whilst by no means all its programs are sainted examples of how things should be run…the fact is that, by the virtue of their constitution, taking defence oversight from the purview of government and granting it to two powerful committees of the legislature[2], the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, has allowed America a far longer vision and far more balanced system…there is little see sawing, or programs being chopped and changed every time a new government or minister comes into power – which has meant that programs are generally speaking, more stable, which in turn usually means they are more likely to come in on time and on budget[3]. After all for a minister concerned with promotion and getting re-elected, when thinking about how to allocate the available funding, might muse momentarily on the ideas of…

why buy a warship, new series of armoured vehicles, or helicopters which will be in service for the next 20-40 years, when we may not need to use it in the next five years? That is our term of office, and perhaps we won’t even be the government, and certainly not in the MOD, when it is needed so then some other person will get the electoral kicking/blame which will follow the losses that its lack could well bring about?

Whilst that’s only a hypothetical and only a cynical person would accuse any politician actually thinking like that, it does have an unfortunate logic in a political sense…especially when considering the time lag between the 1998 SDR declaring Britain needed two Aircraft Carriers and 12 Destroyers, and taking delivery of 6 Destroyers and the two Aircraft Carriers only just under production with no idea of what aircraft are eventually going to be flown from them. The difference when strong committees have oversight backed up by actual powers to block government decisions (as opposed to the UK where they just have oversight) is that they have to think long term, because they might be that government which needs that equipment, and they would not even be able to play the old game of blaming the other party.

There is another advantage to Legislature Committees when they are composed of representatives from all parties and are charged with the duty of making sure that the long term interests of the nation are being properly protected. There are occasions when their decisions clash with those of the government but that is important as it prevents defence becoming subject to a particular party’s ideology or short term reactionism. For example the current/most recent SDSR could be seen to reflect the small government[4] and Thatcherist post-Cold War view of there being a defence dividend, which, together, think that cutting defence is perfectly natural, and that the money saved can be used to buy ‘votes’ now, either by reducing taxes or supporting those things which the average voter is more exposed to – i.e. the NHS, the Police, Education; all worthy things, all of which require and deserve funding. Whilst on the other hand the pre-election Labour government went around spending money on everything with the idea of borrowing & building its way out of deficit & recession…without thinking about how the money should be targeted. Both ideas have their merits and problems, and in reality Britain’s defence procurement probably needs to be somewhere in the middle – but most of all it needs consistency and recent governments have not provided that.

This last point is important because consistency is what makes this system make sense from a financial point of view. Whilst American programs are no cheaper than Britain’s, they tend to be far more often delivered on time, on budget and if not it’s not usually the US taxpayer which ends up paying the bill. There are of course other advantages for America when it comes to long term planning, like Japan[5] they have obvious flash points which, unlike Britain’s Overseas Territories, are rarely slotted into the ‘out of sight out of mind’ category. These help to focus defence debate on what is necessary, what is needed for national security and for national strategic security as well. Defence debate though is something we are lacking in the UK and, perhaps because it is unlike education, the NHS or the police, we so rarely allow the serving personal to freely express their opinions on the topic[6]. This is the final benefit of the Legislature Committee system where the Chiefs of Staff not only get to speak out regularly but are expected to; to defend their service and its role in the nation’s defence, to defend their programs and to explain publicly why programs are not working, as Admiral Roughead[7] and all the other previous Chiefs of USN have had to do. Such a hearing gives the services in America a chance to make their case on an even ground – in fact, they are legally obliged to for their service and its capabilities free (to an extent) of government interpretation or coercion[8].

Finally, it should be noted that history and democracy are factors in this. It was, after all, the Committee of Imperial Defence which, although only charged with advising government, was in fact key to British procurement policy from 1902-1939. It achieved this position by conducting long investigations, thus providing a forum for debate and formulation. There was no seeking of quick solutions even at the height of the 10 year rule[9]. It was able to do this by having an extensive power base for the purposes of gathering information and witnesses but was still limited by not controlling any bureaucracy or having the power to direct officers of the crown[10]. Therefore, whilst the committee under consideration in this work would have more formal power than the Committee of Imperial Defence did, and wider scope/remit than the current House of Commons Defence Select Committee does, it is not without precedence within the British system. In addition to this there is the Democratic value. As was pointed out, leaving defence just to government leaves it open to short-termism, but also to political predications of a particular party. This can include the focusing of defence investment such as pre-2010 election spending of the Brown Government[11]. Such decisions are not really fair or democratic. However, there are questions which must be answered before a full analysis can be done.

So here are the important questions –

Could it be done? Yes – there is a committee already in existence, which with a slight increase in support staff (mainly researchers) has the democratic standing needed to fulfil the function. Therefore, all it would really require is a bill passed through parliament to the effect “we the government hand over equipment procurement, project approval and defence budget control to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee”.

Would it yield benefits immediately? No – it would take a while for the system to bed in, but a year or two down the line a difference would probably start to be noticed, 5-6 years and Britain could be looking at a vastly improved strategic posture. 10-15 years from now, whilst there is no doubt there will still be disagreements over what should and should not be procured, Britain would most likely have a far more balanced and appropriate force/force structure for its requirements.

What disadvantages are there?

• The British system of government would take a while to settle down, which might lead to disruption, at least in the short to medium term.

• If not carefully managed there could evolve a two-centres of power situation, as exists between 10 Downing Street and the Treasury. This could ultimately be even more ruinous for defence.

Are the disadvantages insurmountable?

• There will never be a ‘good time’ to change. As the Libya conflict has shown and the 9/11 Attack on the World Trade Centre, conflicts do not emerge to a timetable. They often appear out of nowhere, so it therefore becomes a choice of whether to have a reactionary defence policy or to try to have preparatory one.

• The way to avoid having two-centres of power is to make sure that positions, responsibilities and the roles of the various institutions are well defined and organised in order to avoid the development of points of friction.

What advantages are there?

• Longer-term planning; resulting in better economies on projects, and better management/oversight of projects.

• Development of clear strategy and raison d’etre of national forces/structure.

• Greater parliamentary understanding of security and defence matters.

• Cash savings…not to the extent the programs would be cheaper, but to the extent that instead of paying for 12 and taking delivery of 6 destroyers…12 destroyers would be purchased; instead of keep extending the requirements and capabilities required of vehicle program, that program would be built rather than just being cancelled because it has taken too much time; to keep programs on track and to procure the aircraft the nation needs when it needs them not 20 years late – making them more affordable and more relevant without massive expensive upgrades immediately on entry into service.

Should Britain do it? Yes, but this is something that will be gone into in more detail at a later date. This system is good and would suit Britain’s needs but it also needs a brake – it needs to be held in check, and that is why the analysis of statements went out first; because it would be more advisable to combine both systems than just have one. Primarily this is due to the fact that with Britain not having (and unusually so considering its history) that wider level of defence and security debate that is hall mark of America, Australia & Japan, something is needed to provide both the committee, the public and the services with a guiding light if you will– a bench mark, or something from which all else must be drawn.

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