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In its investigation of the Army’s outsourcing recruitment to the company Capita, the National Audit Office confirmed what has been painfully obvious for some time: we face a recruitment shortfall, and the labyrinthine, allegedly dysfunctional, and severely delayed online recruitment system has failed to solve it. Since 2012, Capita has managed to recruit between 55–79% of the Army’s annual requirements.
The cost inflicted on the Army goes far beyond gaps in the ranks. In an attempt to drive down spending, the Army closed just under half of its recruitment offices, with the process taken over by a centralised system. The result is a loss of contact between communities and the armed forces, which affects engagement with the reserves, and gives the Army little opportunity to reverse course.
There is a serious risk, however, that the nuances of the problem are missed in what has become a highly politicised issue: outsourcing to the private sector to drive down costs. The parliamentary opposition is liable to see this as an opportunity to argue that the government’s austerity agenda has undermined national security, a case made with some effect during the 2017 general election in respect to the police, and often returned to.
As Conservative MP Mark Francois noted in a report to the Prime Minister in July 2017, the Army faces a ‘perfect storm’ with regards to recruitment. An aging population, students extending their time in education, the rise in obesity, the draw-down from Afghanistan, a reduced military footprint in society, and record employment which provides plenty of other opportunities, all drive the number of recruits down. Indeed, the Army was not meeting its targets before contracting its recruitment process to Capita.
But there are other elements at play. Take the question of record employment in the economy as an example. It is often pointed out that a growing proportion of employed people are working part-time, are on temporary contracts, or are self-employed. Moreover, the rate at which people switch jobs is increasing, so being nimble and fast in recruiting is of the essence. However, the onboarding process for the Army takes between 200 to 400 days, with half of applicants waiting an average of 321 days to join. It is therefore hardly surprising that 47% of applicants voluntarily dropped out of the process.
The blame for this cuts both ways. Those who have interacted with Capita’s recruitment system will tell you that it is deeply frustrating, with large parts of the automated online system done manually, without information as to timeframe or progress. But the duration of the recruitment process is – as the NAO report states – also a product of the Ministry of Defence’s failure to streamline its procedures; the Ministry included over 10,000 requirements in its contract with Capita.
A similar story emerges with the development of the online recruitment system, the implementation of which was delayed by 52 months. The eventual product delivered by Capita certainly falls below expectations, but the length of the delay was exacerbated by the Ministry of Defence’s failure to meet its contractual obligations in providing IT infrastructure for Capita’s software. The shortfall in recruitment has been the calamitous culmination of Capita’s allegedly inadequate expertise and the Ministry of Defence’s insufficient flexibility.
The good news is that the situation can be improved. The process can and must be streamlined to retain applicants. The IT system is now operational. Moreover, while savings have been less than anticipated, they have nevertheless been made; the National Audit Office suggests that the Ministry of Defence will have saved £221 million by 2022, rather than the £267 million promised.
It should also be pointed out that the Army could reduce its requirements for new recruits by improving its retention of personnel. With fewer – and increasingly repetitive – exercises, and a significant real-term decline in pay, units are seeing an outflow of personnel that costs the military the investment made in their training, and the expertise they have gained during their service. Improving exercises, and reducing the bureaucratic hurdles on experimentation and activity, would improve retention and reduce the recruitment burden.
Finally the government has recently lifted restrictions on applications from Commonwealth countries. This should greatly expand the pool of potential applicants, while improving the diversity of the force. Beyond the tactical advantages of expanding the range of perspectives in units, increasing the proportion of Black, Asian and Middle Eastern personnel may help the Army reach broader communities in the UK, which currently provide proportionately fewer recruits to the Armed Forces.
BANNER IMAGE: Members of the British Army 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, C Company, march on their way to a hangar for an up-close look at an F-15E Strike Eagle at RAF Lakenheath, 25 May 2012. Courtesy of US Air Force/Cory D Payne
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.