Twin track: How bobsleigh kept one of the UK’s most senior military officers from following in the civil service ‘family tradition’
General Sir Chris Deverell has just retired from one of Britain’s most senior military positions. He tells Richard Johnstone about the unique role of civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and how winter sports kept him away from Civvy Street
Hurtling downhill in a cramped space without any real control over where you’re going might sound like a Ministry of Defence military training exercise, but General Sir Chris Deverell is not recalling his time on operations.
No, he’s remembering his time as a bobsleigh competitor when – in the Army – he travelled the world representing both the Second Royal Tank regiment and Great Britain. Indeed, it was this daredevil sport that kept Deverell, who recently retired as head of Joint Forces Command, in the military.
Having joined as a young man to benefit from the Army’s university scholarships, he planned to stay for the five-year payback term before moving on.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do thereafter, but the civil service might well have been an option,” he says.
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Such a move would have been following in family footsteps. His grandfather Sir Colville Deverell had been a colonial administrator, serving as governor of the Windward Islands in the West Indies and then governor of Mauritius, while his father John Deverell was a director in MI5 when he was killed in the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash in June 1994.
This heritage means Deverell has “always approached the civil service from the perspective that it’s been a family tradition”.
However, as his time in the Army approached the planned half-decade limit, he found himself doing something rather more exhilarating.
“At the five year point I was doing something interesting – in this case, it was bobsleighing for the Army and then for GB,” he says. “So I stayed.”
Deverell spent a year perfecting his skill with the skeleton, “a sort of tea tray and you go down head first on a bobsleigh track”, which saw him take part in the European Championships. Then he transferred to the bobsleigh, competing all around the world for the next five years, mostly for the Army.
Despite the near miss of moving into the civil service, working with officials has been a constant part of Deverell’s life since his career stopped going downhill, as it were. “Civil servants have been really fundamental in doing some of the things I wanted to do,” he tells CSW in the final days of his time in charge of JFC in the MoD Main Building in Whitehall.
Among his roles, he worked as assistant private secretary to the defence secretary in the late 1990s, and later as chief of staff to the senior British military adviser at US Central Command during the build up to and invasion of Iraq. He also worked closely with officials during a stint at the MoD arm’s-length body Defence Equipment & Support before he began his three-year tenure at the head of JFC in April 2016.
The close relationship between officials and military personnel is the MoD’s “great strength”, he says.
“The MoD has something very precious in that it puts practitioners and civil service together in one organisation. We’re unusual. If you go into lots of other government departments, you don’t necessarily find practitioners in government departments. Whilst you will certainly find some doctors in the headquarters of the Department of Health, you wouldn’t find as many as you find military people in the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. The same would be true in transport or business.
“Sometimes there are ructions, inevitably, but there will be just as many ructions between different bits of the military, frankly, as there are between the military and the civil service. The overall net effect of the relationship is massively beneficial.”
“I’ve always approached the civil service from the perspective that it’s been a family tradition”
The tradition of a military officer working in the defence secretary’s private office emphasises the close nature of the relationship. Deverell served in this post in the late 1990s when George Robertson and then Geoff Hoon were the secretaries of state, and it was clearly a formative time.
“I learned a hell of a lot,” he recalls. “I was really well treated by senior civil servants in the department, who could have looked at this lieutenant colonel, as I was at the time, and just seen me as an irritation or somebody who got in the way between them and the secretary of state, but that isn’t what happened.”
He has fond memories of working with civil servants in the private office and wider department such as Julian Miller who rose to be deputy national security adviser, Edgar Buckley who went on to become NATO’s assistant secretary general for defence planning and operation and Margaret Aldred, who later became deputy head of the foreign and defence policy secretariat at the Cabinet Office.
The posting of a military figure inside the private office allowed for translation of military jargon into, if not plain English, then at least Whitehallese, he recalls.
“Quite often the department is awful about providing advice to ministers that is written in military speak, which you have to be extremely expert in to understand. So having somebody there to translate to the secretary of state – and to the rest of the outer office – what something meant was important, as was having a connection between the secretary of state’s office and the military.” Deverell adds that both Robertson and Hoon have subsequently told him that the presence of a military person alongside their private office civil servants was “good for them as ministers”.
The collaboration with civil servants has continued at the Joint Forces Command. The organisation was created in 2011 in order to link up services – medical, training, intelligence and technology – shared by the three big military commands of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army. Like the head of each service, Deverell was a member of the UK’s military chiefs of staff, with responsibility for ensuring essential capabilities were developed and ready for deployment. JFC also runs Britain’s overseas bases and houses the directorate for the UK’s special forces.
“Our purpose is to enable, integrate and lead defence’s response to two things,” he says. “The first is the onset of the digital age, and the second is our response to what we’re calling an era of constant competition. What we mean by that is that we can obviously see Russia in particular, but not just Russia, seeking to damage our interests at levels below the threshold of conflict and defence needs to be able to respond to that.
“All the tools to do that are in Joint Forces Command. Similarly, the tools that enable us to respond to the digital age are a big part of what Joint Forces Command does.”
Deverell is proud of how his organisation is helping orchestrate military logistics overseas, pointing out that Britain is today conducting more operations abroad than during the peak of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan: “They tend to be smaller, but actually they are more frequent.”
He is also proud of how he has helped JFC boost military innovation. Deverell says that when he arrived at the organisation, he and colleagues “decided to make innovation a big part of our strategy”.
This led to the creation of a unit known as the J Hub in London’s Tech City, which has been able to speed up the deployment of new tech for the military.
In Deverell’s words, the results have been “extraordinary”.
“That unit got 12 projects into the hands of the user in the first year of existence and 27 in the second, and it’s on track to do many more than that in the third. It’s been a really successful model – they’re averaging 10 months to contract for new capability, which is much faster than the norm in defence. And they get things into pilot in nine weeks on average, which is absolutely fabulous.”
Some innovations are classified, but examples Deverell is able to talk about include tech which can mean the difference between life and death. He cites a blood fridge that can be taken on patrol, a portable x-ray machine, and a device which takes vital signs from a patient and transmits them back to hospitals in the UK for quicker diagnosis and treatment.
“We can see Russia in particular, but not just Russia, seeking to damage our interests at levels below the threshold of conflict. Defence needs to be able to respond to that”
“There’s a whole range of innovations delivered by the J Hub that are changing how we do the delivery of defence medicine and are increasing the likelihood of survival for our people,” he says.
Deverell’s experience in defence procurement in both the Army HQ and at DE&S, where he was chief of materiel from 2012 to 2016, proved crucial to developing the new model.
“I’ve been a requirement setter, a fleet manager, a procurer in Defence Equipment & Support, and an equipment programmer for the Army in various different guises over the course of the last 40 years of my career,” he says. “That has taught me that we need a way of seizing opportunities in defence, and that’s what innovation has done for us. It has enabled us to go out and find opportunities that we haven’t even dreamt of and then bring them quickly into the hands of users.”
Here too working closely with civil servants has been critical, with officials making up 6,700 of JFC’s 22,000 headcount. “A really significant proportion of the work in what is a military command is actually executed by the civil service, and the civil service in defence has been a big part of the innovation we’ve done.”
He highlights one example. “We have a commercial officer inside that innovation unit and she is utterly central to making sure that we do these contracts in the right way. Without her, we wouldn’t have had the outcomes that we have,” he says.
“That is generally true of the MoD civil service across the piece – all around the department you see examples of civil servants making a difference to the ability of the armed forces to do their job.”
Now that he has stood down from JFC, what’s next?
“I want to do work I’m proud of and I think a big part of that might be around innovation. That’s the thing that most interests me and where I’ve done things that excite me with people I like, so that’s a good precedent.”
But what about that close call with a career in the civil service? Maybe now is the time. “You’d have to ask the permanent secretary,” he says with a chuckle. Perhaps Main Building hasn’t seen the last of him yet
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