Our attention bandwidth has been pretty much occupied by Covid for the last two years now, with some small space left for assimilating news about trips to Barnard Castle, Downing Street parties and maybe the goats in Llandudno for a bit of light relief.
That has led to many of the usual issues that might have got more media coverage slipping through the net, including some that might have been featured here as Bad Buying cases studies. Outside pandemic-related stories, government procurement has not really hit the headlines. Yet huge sums are still being spent, including in the defence arena.
The UK Labour Party recently published a “Dossier of waste in the Ministry of Defence 2010 – 2021”, a report looking at the projects that have cost the taxpayer “at least £13B in taxpayers’ money since 2010”. Many were fundamentally procurement-related and the report is a depressing litany of write-offs, overspent procurements and contract cancellations. Often this sort of report is light on the analysis and heavy on the politics, but I must say that this one is worth reading – it appears to be thoroughly researched, using reputable source material and non-sensationalist analysis.
However, although the report covers the period starting with the election of the Tory-led coalition in 2010, the truth is that Labour has not historically had a great record on defence spending either. It has been a challenge for every government. Indeed, programme lead times are often so drawn-out, it is virtually impossible to pin the blame accurately on anyone – politician, official, consultant or supplier side.
For example, the Nimrod maritime patrol and attack aircraft “waste” of £3.7 Billion quoted in the report, based on 2013 MOD accounts and arising from final contract exit in that year, relates to contracts let way back in 1996 in the dying days of the John Major Tory government. But the significant issues and problems through the development phase happened under Labour, before the coalition finally (and probably sensibly) pulled the plug in 2010.
The other issue with this new report s that it is much stronger on putting numbers to the problem than it is in terms of offering solutions. The final words from John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, are these;
This Government shows no serious intent to get a grip of these deep-seated problems. So as our first steps from day one, Labour in Government would:
- Commission the NAO to conduct an across-the-board audit of MoD waste
- Make the MoD the first department subject to our new Office for Value of Money’s tough regime on spending decisions.
Reforming the department will not be easy, but this report takes a crucial first step in revealing the unacceptable scale of waste in the MoD.
Well, he is certainly correct to say reform won’t be easy. But I’m not sure what an NAO “across the board audit” will achieve. NAO can do little more really than verify the numbers. The organisation does on occasion also offer recommendations for performance improvement, but has no resource to follow that through into implementation. And it is far from clear what the new Labour “Office for Value for Money” is actually going to do that Cabinet Office, Crown Commercial Services, NAO and Treasury can’t already. (Although I am polishing up my application to be its CEO, of course).
We’ve had (and still have) some very capable procurement leaders in MOD and people such as Bernard Gray – who had his foibles, but possessed a first-class brain – have had a go at running the totality of Defence Acquisition. They haven’t managed to improve matters much, because the issues are clearly deeply engrained in the whole of the military ecosystem. Problems go way beyond “acquisition” or “procurement” into very high level and fundamental issues such as the three services split, uniformed/civilian tension, the pressure on military leaders to lie to secure budget, arguments over domestic industry capability, and the unhealthy proximity of the buy-side and the supply-side in UK defence.
If these tough challenges aren’t addressed – and they probably won’t be given the short-term nature of British politics – then I’m afraid “waste” and “procurement failures” will continue. That applies whichever political party is in charge and whichever Defence Minister has his or her couple of years pretending to run things.