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The plaque outside the South Door of the Ministry of Defence Main Building in Whitehall, London. Courtesy of Ministry of Defence.

The UK Ministry of Defence’s Adoption of the Government-Wide System for Project Approvals, Part II: Risks and Hopes for the New System

Trevor Taylor
Commentary, 16 July 2020
Defence, Industries and Society, Defence Management, UK, UK Defence
In the second in the series of articles on the new approvals system being introduced for MoD projects, we point to the risks and opportunities apparent in the new ways of working.

Last week’s Commentary described the new approvals system being introduced for MoD projects and compared the Treasury Guidance with that available inside the MoD itself. An initial consideration for the new ways of working is that it will take time for officials to familiarise themselves with their new responsibilities and the specific information they need to generate. There is substantial guidance material from the Treasury to absorb (the Guide is 120 pages) as well as JSP 655 covering Defence Investment Approvals. Moreover, the five dimensions of the business cases and the requirement for SMART objectives mean that staff across the user organisations, the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) and MoD Head Office, including scrutineers, will need to be involved and prepared.   

Although the Treasury documentation stresses the availability of formal training and accreditation for the new system, there has been no formal training programme across government defence to ready people for the new system which came into force on 20 April 2020. It is understood that individuals concerned with the first pilot projects are being mentored on its operation, but there is no formal education or training programme for those who will be expected to contribute, not least to the early stages of a project.

The new system is not being applied retroactively so projects that have passed Initial Gate will remain in the old system. This means that, for a considerable time, at the very least senior staff dealing with more than one project will need to be able to work with both approvals systems. The new system may therefore take time to bed in as officials across defence learn how to use it. 

The New System Will Press the Mod to Resource Better the SRO Function  

The Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) is an established position in generic project-management thinking: ‘the individual responsible for ensuring that a project or programme of change meets its objectives and delivers the projected benefits. The person should be the owner of the overall business change that is being supported by the project’.

The SRO in defence is normally a person from the sub-section of a command that is expected to benefit most from what is being acquired. Thus, the SRO for a new artillery piece would likely be the head of the Royal Artillery. The SRO’s letters of appointment make clear that they are also responsible for the safety of what is delivered, a major consideration with much defence equipment, and the original SRO priority was to check that all the non-equipment Defence Lines of Development (DLoDs) were made available in a timely fashion as equipment was delivered. 

However, the new approach places explicit responsibility on the SRO to prepare the OBC on a pan-DLoD perspective from the earliest stage of a project. This should mean recognition of the possibilities for trading among the different lines of development, going beyond questions such as what new people and infrastructure will be needed. The SRO could be expected to view all the DLoDs as variables and to define the best mix to yield the most benefits over time. As an example, a more technically complex and even expensive solution might be preferred if it required fewer people (of moderate intellectual capability) and a lower training bill.  

Thus, the new system puts more pressure and responsibility on the SRO, but this is a role that the National Audit Office, the British parliamentary watchdog, has already recognised as problematic in defence in terms of SROs being often part time and overworked. 

Significantly, the individuals concerned have responsibilities and can be called to account by parliament but have few or no financial resources and certainly no power to instruct DLoD owners. While an SRO might recognise that a project needs more people with computing aptitude and qualifications, they cannot direct the Adjutant General’s staff to make this happen. While they are told that they can escalate issues upwards, an experienced army officer told the author that doing so was not thought to be career-enhancing. The government concept and training provision for SROs emphasises ‘leadership’ as the key attribute for making things happen rather than giving them the authority to direct the use of resource. Although the role of the SRO is defined on a government-wide basis, the practice of loading responsibility but not power and resource on an individual may need review. 

Acquisition Processes Could Become Quicker or Slower

The essence of both the new system and the Strategic Outline Case (SOC) is that a holistic view of a project is required to be generated from the beginning. In an era of rapidly moving technology and potential adversaries with quickly advancing systems, any extra time required for the collection and analysis of information across the five dimensions could well slow projects further. 

The slow speed at which government acquisition machines often make decisions is already recognised as a particular problem for the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are viewed as the likely sources of major changes. They often lack the resources needed to establish a contract with a slow-moving customer, especially one that either expects them to take part in time- and resource-intensive competition or will significantly limit the profit they can make on their expertise. If the new business case and approvals system further slows down the MoD, it will add to the reluctance of businesses not currently serving defence to get involved with the sector.

On the other hand, there are hopes in some parts of the DE&S that senior MoD and uniformed figures will get more involved at the SOC stage than they have tended to do at Initial Gate. This would reduce the risk of later questioning from figures on high on matters such as requirement details and acquisition strategy. There is thus a hope that projects may take longer to start but then proceed more rapidly through subsequent processes. This point is especially pertinent to the larger platform or weapon-focused projects that involve large resource commitments.

However, it is not easy to see how this approach of more exploration before launch can help with the need for very rapid acquisition in areas such as surveillance, communication, data analysis and command where technology development is moving very quickly. Even with the old two-gate system, the problem at the MoD is that by the time a requirement and then procurement and support strategies have been agreed, technology in this area has already moved on. Any further brake on acquisition processes to make sure all is in order will exacerbate the issue. There is a real question as to whether the new framework is at all suitable for the Defence Digital area run by Strategic Command through what was formerly called Information Systems & Support at Corsham. 

‘Disruptive’ Innovation May Be Even More Elusive

Taking an explicit pan-DLoD view from an early stage and demanding even outline military and wider answers from the beginning may make it harder to bring in radical innovation and introduce a ‘disruptive technology’ into defence that would involve significant changes to organisational structures, training, the sorts of people that would be needed and the particular experience that is valued. Handing responsibility back to the single services under the Lord Levene ‘delegated’ model changes had already made such changes less likely because individual services are organised around valued core systems and ways of working. Hence the three-stage approach suggests that consideration of innovations that involve significant change to ways of working are likely to be limited at most to sub-systems rather than major platforms. 

Conclusion

The pan-government project approvals system is centred on the idea that projects should be well defined and understood for their implications before serious money is devoted to them. But projects are by definition risky activities because they have a significant element of being unique, and thus it is a matter of how much and what sort of risks should be reduced before being tolerated and monitored. Most government projects are not defined to cope with an assertive and ambitious adversary that has a risk appetite and involve technologies that are moving on a monthly rather than a yearly basis. 

The MoD runs a very wide variety of projects and it is debatable if the new system can be applied in similar ways across all of them. In the broad world of information in particular, user demands and thus requirements are hard to pin down.  

The SRO role is front and centre in the revised system, but more attention needs to be paid to how it is resourced and rewarded: who would seek out a long-term posting (which limits promotion opportunities) in a role that carries responsibility and accountability but not authority or power? 

The MoD is currently seeking to allocate more work to SMEs because it believes them to be more agile and innovative than the rather bureaucratic, process-driven beasts that are the big primes. But to take advantage of what SMEs can offer, the MoD itself needs speed and responsiveness. 

A key success factor for the new process will be if the new SOC does not slow acquisition, especially in areas where technology and adversaries are moving quickly. Everyone should understand that delay can increase knowledge but also cause damage.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: The plaque on the Ministry of Defence. Courtesy of MoD.

Author

Trevor Taylor
Professorial Research Fellow, Defence, Industries and Society

Trevor Taylor is Professorial Research Fellow in Defence Management at RUSI, where he heads up a research programme in Defence,... read more

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