The Art of the Covenant: The Armed Forces Covenant and the Role of the Commercial Sector

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An Armed Forces Covenant programme office should be established to enable businesses to better support the armed forces and their families. Championed by a senior member of the Royal Family, the office would be based in the Cabinet Office or 10 Downing Street, rather than the Ministry of Defence.

The Armed Forces Covenant (AFC) sets out a view of the desired relationship between the military and the government, and the military and broader society. It is based on the premise that, in addition to the government, the nation as a whole has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces, past and present, and their families. That obligation is two-fold:

  • The armed forces community should not face disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
  • Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given the most, such as the injured and bereaved.

After the 2010 election and the formation of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, a commitment to the AFC was made in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of that year. The Armed Forces Act of 2011 committed the government to report annually on the implementation of the AFC.

The Corporate Covenant is a component of the AFC. Companies who signed up to the Corporate Covenant thereby pledged their support to the armed forces community in line with the goals of the AFC.

This Occasional Paper is partly based on a survey of some 100 businesses that have signed up to the Corporate Covenant. It finds that the convening power of the AFC is considerable, especially in relation to the private sector’s commitment to defence. It suggests that a properly staffed Armed Forces Covenant programme office, with a mix of civil servants, secondees from businesses, charities and volunteers, could be formed as a body separate from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), funded by both government and commerce.

Amongst its findings, the paper found that 61% of businesses felt that they could not navigate the multiple public and private organisations that comprise the UK’s defence extended enterprise. When businesses express a commitment to the armed forces through the AFC, there is an expectation that the MoD or another part of the government can help the company to navigate the service charities sector, in terms of making donations or offering other forms of support. Businesses sometimes express astonishment that the government is unable to articulate or prioritise preferences for support when these are offered. The paper found that half of the companies felt that the MoD should actively manage the broader defence portfolio, and especially assist in guiding long-term support to service charities.

As such, this paper calls for the creation of an AFC programme office that would be responsible for delivery and measurement of progress through rigorous data-gathering, and a forward programme, issues log, risk and opportunity management plan, as well as engagement strategy.

The paper suggests that a charismatic, overtly engaged and challenging senior responsible owner for the AFC should be considered – perhaps from the younger generation of the Royal Family.

Other key findings:

  • Less than a third of businesses (29%) thought that the AFC was a success, while 26% disagreed.
  • A small number of companies (8%) reported that they believed the AFC to be a de facto kitemark rather than an active commitment.
  • For some signatories, the AFC was viewed as a matter of public relations and corporate publicity: almost half of the sample pool (47%) claimed to have been motivated in part by national and local media coverage. Moreover, while 61% of businesses thought that having made a pledge would be positive in the eyes of clients, only 29% judged it important to the company’s brand. More than 40% thought it explicitly unimportant, while just 32% believed that it would make a positive impression on current and future staff.
  • Some 81% of businesses thought that the AFC was unimportant for sales and profits, while 19% considered it significant.
  • Only 19% of companies thought that the AFC helped to recruit and retain, while almost half (48%) felt it had no effect.
  • Just over half of businesses signed the AFC because competitors had made an earlier pledge. A similar number committed to the Covenant because they believed it was expected of them by the government. This motivation was thought to be stronger among those firms doing a lot of business with the public sector and defence in particular.
  • Significantly, 56% of the businesses surveyed claimed that they would consider developing bespoke products and services for the armed forces alone. Conversely, 41% stated that they would not focus on specific products for military personnel and their families.

The research for this paper was sponsored by the Nationwide Building Society. Nationwide was interested in finding ways to ‘operationalise’ their support for the armed forces community once they had committed to the Corporate Covenant.


Professor John Louth is Director of Defence, Industries and Society at RUSI. He supervises PhD students at the University of Roehampton Business School and is a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.

Professor Trevor Taylor is professorial research fellow at RUSI and Professor Emeritus at Cranfield University where he teaches at the Defence Academy. He also teaches at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

Dr Lauren Twort is a research fellow at RUSI and teaches at the University of Roehampton Business School. She is a partner in Twort & Thompson Consulting Ltd, a defence research advisory business.


Professor John Louth

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Trevor Taylor

Professorial Research Fellow

Defence, Industries and Society

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Dr Lauren Twort

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