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The MoD’s track record on acquisition reforms does not inspire confidence

Commentary, 3 December 2008
Law and Ethics
The Ministry of Defence points to the recent success of some acquisition projects as it defends itself against criticism made in ‘Changing the Dinosaurs Spots’. But the key issue is not the relative success or failure of individual projects but the overall performance of the MoD’s acquisition organisations and how their cultures affect that performance.

The Ministry of Defence points to the recent success of some acquisition projects as it defends itself against criticism made in ‘Changing the Dinosaurs Spots’. But the key issue is not the relative success or failure of individual projects but the overall performance of the MoD’s acquisition organisations and how their cultures affect that performance.

By David Kirkpatrick, Associate Fellow, RUSI

The response from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to Bill Kincaid’s latest book on the UK’s performance in defence acquisition follows the classic Civil Service pattern of a smokescreen followed by promises of improvement. It states the scale of MoD expenditure both on the current programme of equipment acquisition and on efforts to satisfy the Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) for ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. These facts are widely known and are not in dispute, though it is pertinent to wonder whether the £4 billion expenditure on UOR is cause for congratulation or whether it reflects the MoD’s failure to prepare adequately for the type of campaign envisaged a decade ago in the Strategic Defence Review.

The second paragraph of the MoD’s response insists that it is making significant efforts to improve its own performance by reforming its organisation and procedures and by placing additional emphasis on urgency. It also claims to have improved working relationships and transparency between its own branches and with its suppliers (although some of the latter say that they remain dissatisfied). But the response provides not one iota of evidence that the MoD’s recent reforms have actually made its acquisition procedures more effective or efficient.

It is only fair to acknowledge the existence of some recent success stories, notably the ATTAC project for improving the efficiency of supporting fast jet aircraft. Such successes are welcome, and the MoD and industry personnel involved deserve due credit. But the key issue is not the relative success or failure of individual projects but the overall performance of the MoD’s acquisition organisations and how their cultures affect that performance.

Normally it would be reasonable to give an organisation’s promises of reform the benefit of the doubt. But the MoD’s track record does not inspire confidence. After the MoD had for several years trumpeted the virtues of the 1998 Smart Acquisition reforms, the National Audit Office (NAO) found no significant difference between its performance on ‘Legacy’ and ‘Smart’ projects, and the MoD itself admitted that most of the reforms had not actually been implemented.

In recent years the MoD has used creative accounting to put an unduly favourable spin – concealing the scale of cost overruns – on the data presented to Parliament and tax-payers in the NAO’s annual report on major projects. Furthermore, the MoD response to Bill Kincaid’s ‘Changing the Dinosaur’s Spots’ chose to play the man rather than the ball by commenting that the author had retired from the MoD some years ago. If retirement really invalidated an individual’s views, the complement of the House of Lords could be substantially reduced; it would have been more fitting for the MoD to address some of the principal issues raised in the book.

All of the stakeholders in UK defence acquisition, not least Service personnel and taxpayers, must hope that the MoD’s recent flurry of new initiatives (in ‘Enabling Acquisition Change’ and in the ‘Defence Industrial Strategy’) deliver some real improvements in its culture, and that the MoD will be able to demonstrate the effect of those improvements by publishing a scrupulous analysis of its own performance.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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