By Winnie.Agbonlahor

14 Oct 2013

Like every government department, the MoD must enact widespread job cuts – but its task is made uniquely difficult by the political sensitivities around armed forces redundancies. Winnie Agbonlahor investigates



 


Most people are wary of fire, but some people make a living out of it. Those who juggle fireballs, jump through flaming rings or manoeuvre burning swords down their throats face a risky and difficult task: they must work with precision, accuracy and pace, while maintaining the confidence of their team-mates.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has an equally tricky juggling act when managing its redundancy programme, which was announced as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010. Tasked with cutting 17,000 service personnel and 25,000 civil service staff by 2015, the MoD has to reduce its staffing levels with the utmost care and attention. For whilst civil service job cuts attract approval from both government ministers and media commentators, making members of our armed forces redundant is politically toxic: few stories are more damaging than those suggesting that ministers or administrators are callously sacking the brave soldiers who risk their lives for our protection.

‘Our Boys’
Most departments only cut civil service jobs directly, attracting little pity – indeed, sometimes gleeful hand-rubbing – in the press. But the MoD’s duty to cut armed forces jobs puts it in a difficult position. As one member of the Army Rumour Service, the online voice of the UK’s military community, notes: “There is tremendous political pressure [on the MoD] not to cut military people: you want to be seen as driving down waste, ie. getting rid of civil servants, rather than laying down ‘Our Boys’, meaning cutting soldiers”. Helen Kenny, the FDA union’s lead on defence, agrees, and adds that there is a “tendency within the MoD to keep the military on-side”. This is understandable, she says, because it would be “far worse to have a cheesed-off army than a cheesed-off load of civilians”. Jon Thompson, permanent secretary at the MoD, acknowledges the pressures, telling CSW: “I think we have to be acutely sensitive to what we’re doing. But austerity reaches all parts of the public sector, and the armed forces are no exception.”

According to Kenny, the need to cut numbers and the presentational risks around armed forces redundancies are combining to create peculiar outcomes: the MoD has been placing military staff in roles which could be carried out by civil servants, she says. Steve Jary, national secretary for the Prospect union, also says that the MoD has ended up “having to use military staff to do work that was historically done by civilians, to fill the gaps”.

This is bad news for both efficiency and capability. Military staff are considerably more expensive, Jary says, as armed forces pay grades are higher than their civilian equivalents. What’s more, he warns, military staff are much less likely to have specialist and technical skills in the kind of roles required within the MoD: “If somebody in defence infrastructure running the force’s accommodation and house building programme is a brigadier, what do they know about house building, surveying and land management, or running contracts? If you’ve never built a housing estate in the past, contractors can run rings around you.”

Thompson agrees there is a tension to manage, but plays down its urgency. “There has always been a debate within the organisation about who should carry out particular roles – should they be military, civilian, reservists or contractors? That debate has been there a very long time, and it continues now.”
However, he adds that “there are arguments that certain roles possibly could be done by civilians or indeed by contractors” – which is why the MoD last year launched an initiative called the Whole Force Concept. As part of this scheme, Thompson explains, it’s reviewing its entire workforce of 242,000 to determine “what the best roles are for the military, reservists, civilians and contractors”.

Skills gaps
A significant problem with the redundancy programme, according to Jary, has been the haste with which staff have been released under voluntary redundancy schemes. The political objective to reduce the number of civilian staff by 25,000 “became all-consuming”, he says: reductions were made “fairly indiscriminately” and “without a real understanding of the risks involved”.

While certain disciplines were protected, Jary believes that “by and large, if you were prepared to go on early release then you were allowed to do so, and it’s only now that the implications of that – a lack of skills – are being felt.” This problem, he argues, has its roots in the lack of a workforce planning mechanism: “There was a failure on the part of the MoD to understand what the shape and size of its workforce should be; it didn’t really have an idea of how many people and what mix of skills it needed to do the work required.”

While Thompson accepts that the MoD is short of some important skills, he rejects the notion that this is the fault of a flawed voluntary redundancy scheme: controls were in place, he says, to ensure crucial skills would be retained. In the scoring system set up to decide on applications for voluntary redundancy, he explains, 72% of the marks were based on people’s skills. “We think we made the right decisions,” he says. “I’m not saying we were great and perfect, but I wouldn’t agree with the trade union: our approach was very skills-orientated.” However, Thompson does acknowledge that the short timetable for redundancies created difficulties for the ministry: “There is an argument about whether the speed that the financial situation required us to go at left us with some challenges to manage, because we entered into the process without a clear workforce strategy in 2010.”

The MoD has now sharpened up its workforce planning, says Thompson, accepting that in the past it’s failed to identify and nurture the skills it needs. “We have not been great at workforce planning,” he says, “but in the course of this Parliament we have developed a workforce strategy, a talent management strategy and a specific skills strategy, and pumped more money into learning and development... I can’t say we were good at this – the National Audit Office pointed it out in 2012 – but we’ve been doing some serious work in this space. We’re in a much better place than we were in 2010.”

Skills shortages within the MoD affect areas such as engineering, project management and commercial skills, Thompson says. But he argues that the reasons behind these shortages largely go back further than the recent redundancy schemes: “We’ve never grown enough of those people in the first place. The MoD wasn’t really spotting that it wasn’t recruiting and growing enough engineers and commercial people.”

The GoCo model

One area where this lack of skills is particularly significant is the MoD body Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), says Thompson. The solution sought by Bernard Gray, the MoD’s chief of defence materiel, is to move the operation into the private sector under the ‘government-owned, contractor-operated’ (GoCo) model – an option also considered for estates management body the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO).

Dr John Louth, senior research fellow and director for defence, industries and society at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), argues that a move towards outsourcing DE&S’s core function of procuring military equipment is based on a dominant “political discourse that the public sector is bad and inefficient and the private sector is good and, by definition, efficient”. He believes that the case for a GoCo has yet to be made persuasively, and thinks it should be tested further before being given the go ahead. The MoD says it is examining both the GoCo proposal and its public sector alternative: a year-long assessment phase, an MoD spokeswoman says, will “test whether the private sector is more efficient than the public sector to run DE&S, and analyse whether a GoCo would give a better balance of benefits and risks”.

Under the model, the plan would be for the civil service staff of DE&S to move across to a private employer, while the military staff remain as armed forces personnel seconded into the new organisation. This would enable the MoD to demonstrate a reduction in civil service numbers while retaining military staff – a mechanism Louth calls a “neat trick”.

Thompson, however, rejects the idea that this forms part of the attraction of a GoCo. The MoD, he says, is on target to cut its civilian workforce – and even if staff transfers to a GoCo were to cut the civil service head count, the MoD would still pay for those jobs via payments to the contractor. “Let’s say we create a GoCo and 9,000 [DE&S staff] eventually transfer from the civilian [workforce] into that GoCo,” he says. “On the face of it, one number might go down by 9,000, but another number in the system somewhere else will go up. So overall they would still essentially get paid by the taxpayer in the end.”

So the MoD says it won’t be fiddling the figures: the job losses will be real, on both sides. Optimists, though, will find a saving grace in the fact that whilst workloads in many departments are rising, pressures on the MoD may be falling slightly. Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, points out that the rise of remote-controlled drones, as well as a cautious approach to any more long-term military commitments overseas, “make it easier for the ministry to argue that you can do these cuts.”
What’s more, he claims, Conservative-led governments have less trouble justifying cuts to the military than Labour-led administrations, because the Tories “already have that patriotic image and cannot be accused of being unpatriotic”. Troops, he believes, are therefore “generally safer under Labour than under the Conservatives”.

The reservists debate
One way to replace professional armed forces staff is by increasing the number and use of reservists, and the coalition plans to replace 20,000 regular troops with 30,000 reservists. “I think the government is saying: ‘We’re making military staff redundant but don’t worry, national security isn’t affected because we’re increasing the size of the reserves and they will be able to cover the gap’,” says the Army Rumour Service member, a former soldier. But armed forces personnel are doubtful about replacing a full-time soldier with someone “who is, say, a baker, and trains something like 28 days a year, as opposed to Monday to Friday 9-5.”

“Imagine the government decided to invade Syria, for example,” he adds. It would “mobilise these reserve forces alongside regular troops... in what is potentially a life and death situation. But if the bloke you’re expecting to call in artillery fire is a baker, you might be a bit worried, because typically bakers are not very good at artillery fire.” What’s more, he says, the MoD may struggle to find enough people willing to sign up.

Thompson plays down these concerns, pointing to a long-standing tradition of deploying reservists “on our frontline” and calling them “a definite strength in the armed forces.” The training offer to reservists, he accepts, does “not give them as much as if they were in the regular Army”, but it does provide a “significant amount of training and exposure”. He understands that people are “a bit nervous about” the plans, but adds: “We have a really good offer for people join up.”

The fear of the unknown
Louth highlights further uncertainties around the management of these reservists: “We don’t know yet how the reservists will complement the front line... We don’t know whether the agreement those reservists will have with their employers will be robust enough.” But Thompson insists that it’s a “medium-term plan”, and the changes won’t “happen next week or next month”. People will, he adds, “have to be a bit patient”.

The questions over the new reserves, Louth says, add to a sense of uncertainty within the MoD and armed forces. If DE&S is transferred into the private sector, he notes, the private company may soon decide to “streamline its processes” and cut staff numbers. Meanwhile, armed forces personnel are also feeling vulnerable: following three successive tranches of job cuts, says the Army Rumour Service member, “a big part of the problem is that nobody really knows where or when it’s going to end.” And on top of all this internal change and restructuring, Louth adds, the MoD is faced with “geopolitical uncertainty, because the UK won’t be saying goodbye to conflict next year.” The combination of global instability and staff uncertainty, he says, “may generate the perfect storm” in terms of staff morale and MoD capabilities.

Fighting back
Thompson addresses the concerns systematically. A private company will not, under the GoCo model, be able to make swingeing cuts to freshly transferred civil servants, he says, adding that the law protects such staff – at least for the initial period. “Would they reduce the workforce over time? I suspect they might, yes,” he continues. “Will we have control over that? That’s to be negotiated. But we don’t know where we are until we actually get some bids.” Thompson adds that he can understand why people are feeling uncertain, but “as soon as we’re clear about the outcome, we’ll tell them”. A decision on whether to go ahead with the DIO GoCo is expected early in 2014; on DE&S, it’s due next summer.

On civil service and armed forces job cuts, Thompson addresses the concerns directly. The civil service and two of the three arms of the forces are safe from any more job cuts, he says: “There will not be a further round of redundancies on the civilian side,” whilst redundancy programmes in the RAF and Navy have “essentially finished”. Ministers are currently considering whether another round is necessary in the Army, and Thompson promises to keep people up to date. “We’ve done a lot of work on communication and engagement and listening to people since I’ve become permanent secretary,” he says. “We’ve had a real drive in engaging people.” His internal weekly blog, he adds, gets around 80,000 views a week.

For hard evidence on how well the MoD is maintaining staff morale, we’ll have to await the results of the next Civil Service People Survey – due out next month. And meanwhile, the ministry will have to continue to tread with extreme caution as it sheds military jobs.

Like a fire artist, the Ministry of Defence has to perform with precision and dexterity, delicately performing its task and retaining its team-members’ confidence – or risk being burned by a conflagration of its own making.

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