t is highly unlikely that scholars in the Middle Ages actually debated how many angels could stand simultaneously on the head of a pin – though Thomas Aquinas did postulate that more than one angel could occupy a place at the same time. However the aphorism is a useful metaphor for an inordinately pointless intellectual debate, which brings us to parts of the recently released Black Review, titled “Improving personal and institutional accountability in Defence.”
2nd Sep 2011
It is highly unlikely that scholars in the Middle Ages actually debated how many angels could stand simultaneously on the head of a pin – though Thomas Aquinas did postulate that more than one angel could occupy a place at the same time. However the aphorism is a useful metaphor for an inordinately pointless intellectual debate, which brings us to parts of the recently released Black Review, titled “Improving personal and institutional accountability in Defence.”
The author, Dr Rufus Black, is a brilliant ethicist, scholar and theologian who also has some exposure to the private sector. His report has many good points but at its heart it reads like a university text on organizational behaviour, or one of the works of the great economist and sociologist Max Weber. It is possible to remove the word “Defence” from his study and substitute the name of any other large organization – BHP Billiton; Coles Meyer; Medicare; NSW State Railways – for most of the observations and conclusions to remain valid. While this is no bad thing, it seems strange that a report about the restructure of Defence never once mentions things such as warfighting, combat, force projection or peacekeeping – let alone death.
In grappling with the task of improving processes so that debacles such as the Super Seasprite programme do not occur, the Black Review studies issues of personal accountability for decisions, a theme which has previously been popular with a number of Ministers, including the present incumbent. Where everyone seems to miss the point is that there is not a lot of use making individuals accountable for things if they are not at the same time given the authority to make decisions. One without the other is not a good solution and partly explains what appears to be the present level of paralysis in the force development and acquisition system in particular.
At several points, the review mentions the need to reward good organizational behaviour with recognition and promotion and to punish negative actions. But here the study bumps into the reality of a Government organization where no one can be sacked – look at what happened when Dr Gumley tried to do so on a single occasion – and that failure is punished with promotions and medals.
The report is at its most useful when it occasionally deals with practical realities, such as the horrendous number of committees, steering groups and workshops within the Department – there are so many as to be beyond count and the review speculates that they are in the thousands. Individual services have hundreds of committees and many lack a clear purpose. A welcome recommendation is the introduction of a 1-year sunset clause so that after that time any group which cannot justify its purpose is automatically dissolved. The review suggests a pragmatic simplification of the higher structures, though we observe that the ‘Defence Committee’ still has a minimum of 18 members, or more than the Chinese Politburo.
A truly startling section of the report deals with Defence’s self-assessment of its senior staff, with more than 95% of people being rated as “fully effective”, “superior” or “outstanding”. Defence has many people who are highly intelligent, well qualified, thoroughly trained and extremely hard working. However a self rating system which includes 0% of “not effectives” in the light of massive problems with amphibious ships and Collins Class submarines, an inability to purchase trucks, the debacle of the grenade launcher cancellation and the return of $1.5billion of unspent funds last financial year lacks credibility. Unfortunately this level of self-delusion within the Department is symptomatic of a wider problem – a view that problems are caused by everyone else.
A positive is the recommendation to reintroduce internal contestability, particularly as it relates to equipment. Defence used to have the Force Development & Analysis division, which would rigorously examine each and every proposed acquisition well before it went from the Department to the Minister. This arrangement was scrapped in the early 1990s as a way of keeping military people happy and the entire process has been the poorer for its absence. Since that time the capability development process seems to have become sloppier, with a tendency towards the purchase of big shiny things from the United States.
As an aside, one picture is said to be worth a thousand words. However, this is turned on its head for much of the Black Review with each diagram requiring a thousand words to explain it. Furthermore the confusing and in some cases meaningless illustrations are referred to as “Exhibits” rather than Figures or Charts – as if using the jargon of the court room somehow gives them extra authority.
Finally, there is probably never a perfect time to change the structure of a Department but the level of resultant short-term chaos will now be exacerbated because we have new service chiefs, a new secretary without a strong background in bureaucratic structures and soon a new head of DMO – unless of course the Department applies its own procurement principles to the selection process.
The recommendation likely to do the most harm is the addition of two Associate Secretaries. As we have written previously, this is like watching a mouse trying to drag a brick – and then adding another brick.