Why the military needs civil servants: incoming chief of defence staff General Sir Nick Carter on the bravery of officials in combat zones

Written by Richard Johnstone on 11 May 2018 in Interview
Interview

An innovative scheme has brought Army officers and MoD civil servants together to improve training and development opportunities. Ahead of his appointment as the UK’s top military officer, General Sir Nick Carter tells Richard Johnstone why this has been a priority

In the popular imagination, the idea of government officials on the frontline of a warzone doesn’t feature as prominently as army soldiers, air force pilots or navy sailors. But the importance of having the skills of civil servants in some of the world’s least hospitable places is not underestimated by the UK’s most senior military officer, General Sir Nick Carter.

In one of his final interviews as chief of the general staff of the British Army before moving up to the top post as chief of the defence staff in June, Carter tells Civil Service World about the vital role – and bravery – of the officials working alongside officers.

Civil servants have a key role in providing “diversity but also challenge” to the military thinking both in and out of combat zones, according to the man who will soon be the UK’s most senior military figure.

“I have done tours of duty in all of the theatres of war in the last 15 to 20 years, and I have worked very closely with a number of very courageous civil servants who have added value in all sorts of ways because they bring more diversity to the thinking,” Carter says.

In conflict zones, civil servants working for the Ministry of Defence and other departments such as the Department for International Development can be found supporting stabilisation work as well as providing financial and political advice and intelligence – all while “taking the sort of risks that we have to take on the battlefield in a courageous way”, he notes.

Carter highlights working closely with Lindy Cameron (in centre of picture, left), now DfID’s director general for country programmes, when she was director of the UK-led Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan from 2009-10 and he was commander for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force covering the province.

Such relationships are “something that soldiers benefit from hugely”, he says, and since being named head of the Army in September 2014, he has worked to strengthen the relationship between officers and the estimated 10,000 officials working for the Army to provide that diversity and challenge – something that was also a key recommendation in the Chilcot report into the 2003 Iraq war.

“I believe these different perspectives are where we take most benefit from our civil service colleagues,” he says. “It allows the opportunity to innovate and provides challenge that is crucial in the decision-making process – particularly post-Chilcot.”

A key part of this effort is the Army Advanced Development Programme (AADP). The two-year training scheme has been specifically designed to bring the two sides of the Army workforce – military and civilian – closer together.

Carter says the joint venture, developed over the course of 2017 with its first cohort comprising 15 lieutenant colonels and three senior executive officers who are civil servants, is “an exciting opportunity to forge new relationships and make tangible changes to how the Army operates”.

Up to five more civil servants will join the next intake in September. “I remain committed to improving the development opportunities available to civil servants working in the Army TLB [top level budget, the administrative term used for the Army as an operational unit],” adds Carter. “AADP is a prime example of but one of the steps we are taking to maximise talent and realise the genuine business benefits the mix of military personnel and civil servants can bring in support of delivering our outputs.”

The scheme was developed for two reasons – to ensure the Army had the skills to “run the business” and to improve its offer to civil servants.

“When Peter Levene did the reforms of defence, we ended up becoming responsible for our 10-year forward programme as service chiefs, and there was a realisation that we needed to upskill ourselves to be able to ‘run the business’,” says Carter.

Levene review

The 2011 review of the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence by former chief of defence procurement Lord Peter Levene set out the challenges of the unique relationship in the department between its military and civilian sides.

“The uniqueness comes from the fact that it consists of two parallel groups of servants of the Crown, both made up of able, talented and determined people,” Levene said. “What I found was that when they combine together well they are able to achieve some pretty remarkable and successful results. However, what we used to call ‘creative tension’ can sometimes lead to internal disputes with the two groups appearing to be at odds with each other and often under close public scrutiny.”

Among the key recommendations was a call to allow military service chiefs to focus on running their service and empower them to perform their role effectively, with greater freedom, as well as using senior military and civilian personnel more effectively.

Carter says that this recommendation has formed a key part of his work as head of the army, including in the development of the Army Advanced Development Programme, and he says progress has been made to bring the two sides together.

“I think we have got a much better workforce than we had, we have just got to properly embed it now, because a lot of it is about culture and a lot of it is about genuinely showing those who are in appointments now that they are going to be invested in and that they do profit from the experience in those appointments, and that will take two to three to four years to see through.

“We are unified by the common bonds of teamwork, and a clear set of values and standards. This allows us to face increasingly complex challenges worldwide. The civil servants working for the Ministry of Defence are part of this team, providing crucial support in overcoming those challenges.”

“We appreciated that task was perhaps better done by the civil servants on our team than the military. There are a number of areas where we have military people who bring lots of capability but they tend to do it only for a couple of years – there’s not a great deal of continuity. And they don’t really have things like programme management, commercial, data analytics, finance, and the ability to write as clearly perhaps as civil servants do, inherent within their skill set.”

This realisation that the Army probably needed “more civil servants rather than less” also informed the second reason behind the AADP programme: providing a positive message for the civil servants working across the Army – both in headquarters in Andover and further afield.

“When we exited the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2015 there was this sense that we need to reduce civil service numbers, but I felt very strongly that you couldn’t just do that, because that would send a really negative message,” says Carter. “What I actually wanted to do was to send a positive message – that I was restructuring my workforce to try and make it better, not just to take savings out of it.”

Alongside launching the AADP, other examples of this include Carter opening up more of the career structure in the Army to civil servants, allowing some top roles previously held only by military officers to be done by senior civil servants.

“I’ve done this to try and build a career structure that makes it possible for all bands, at whatever level, to see that there is a route through to a new era, and one in which the skillsets associated with the core civil service professions are recognised,” he says.

Carter’s view on the importance of the “complementary relationship” between officers and officials dates back to his first proper exposure to the civil service as a young major working at the MoD.

“I remember being very impressed by how the civil servants who I engaged with really didn’t care what your rank was or what your background was, what they cared about was your competence and your ability to add value,” he recalls. “I was also massively impressed then as a young major by the ability of the civil servants to express themselves very clearly and be very articulate in the way they communicated – that is something, as a solider, that one doesn’t spend as much time on as perhaps one should do, for obvious reasons.”

As Carter has worked his way up the chain of command, this value has only increased. “I have always worked on the basis that you should see things from the other person’s perspective and that there is a massive advantage in having a workforce that is non-insular and is as diverse as possible,” he says. “I have always taken the attitude that the civil servants who work with me have been able to provide a completely different perspective.”

This perspective will inform Carter’s approach to his new post, where he will head up the entire British armed forces “with an open-minded attitude and a desire to innovate and adapt”.

“The armed forces and defence offer government something that nobody else offers, and we should be proud of that,” he notes.

“Every hour of every day, our people are supporting operations around the globe, protecting Britain’s shores, developing world-class weaponry, and partnering with our international allies. And in the final analysis, when the ambulance men go on strike, or when we have to deliver fuel tankers at short notice, there’s only one place that the government can turn to – that’s to defence and to the armed forces as a whole.”

AADP scheme

The Army Advanced Development Programme is a 24-month learning and development scheme intended to grow the professional knowledge, leadership and advanced business skills and techniques needed to operate the Army among both top officers and officials.

The scheme is based on a 70:20:10 development ratio – 70% workplace application, 20% skills development and 10% mentoring and coaching. Each cohort is tasked with 12-week projects in key areas to support key priorities across the Army, with an opportunity for up to five senior civil servants at the MoD’s C1 grade to work with up to 15 lieutenant colonels.

“The skills we expect AADP members to acquire through the programme include: leadership, innovation, inquisitive challenge, business, financial and data analytics amongst others,” Carter says. “These skills will continue to be at a premium in our future civil service workforce.”

There are no prerequisite skills or qualifications required to enter the scheme, with recruitment for MoD civil servants through expressions of interest and assessment of applicants against a combination of civil service competences, skills and experiences.

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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