‘The stars have aligned’: Exploring digital transformation in defence

The government’s flagship Integrated Review into defence has thrown plans for improving digital technology into the spotlight. CSW brought together a panel of experts to discuss the opportunities
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Leading figures in defence have set out the opportunity for the sector to embrace digital transformation to drive improved capabilities.

A CSW roundtable, held in association with Appian, heard about the potential benefits of creating a ‘digital backbone for defence’, including better coordination across the different branches of the armed forces, as well as the barriers that could hinder the development.

The digital backbone is a key feature of the new digital strategy for defence, and John Fitzpatrick, the director for digital enablement at the Ministry of Defence, set out the plan to create a system that drives integration and interoperability across domains and platforms.

“We’re looking at creating an ecosystem,” he told the event. “We’ve looked at our networks and the common capabilities that are needed, and how these can then be hooked into the backbone. Then our people and our teams – and our suppliers – know where to go [to get the information].”

There’s “a whole host of things” that need to be integrated into the backbone, said Fitzpatrick, such as data and cyber security, and the digital strategy is about setting some “explicit, accessible and clear” rules to help it happen.

Richard Spencer, the director of delivery intelligence and expeditionary services at the MoD, said the development of the strategy had focused on “people, processes, data, technology”.

“It's not really a priority order, but it is a way of thinking,” he said. “The tech sits at the end, because we know we can do most of these things. But if you don’t have the right people in place, or if you don't understand your business processes, or you haven't got a handle on your data, then don't worry about the tech.”

The development of the backbone will build from “the brownfield site that we've currently got”, says Spencer, “and then implementing the solutions at the right time with the right interventions”.

He highlighted that the government’s flagship Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy – which named digital and data as among the priorities – provided a commitment to invest in transformative and digital capabilities.

“It's not a case of throw it all away and start again, but ensuring that when we deliver in the future, we are thinking about integration from the start – rather than building lots of stuff and then working out how you join it together later.”

Fitzpatrick agreed that the backbone was “definitely an evolution of things that were being done already”, but with a clear new set of principles.

A key principle was to make sure that systems were being developed in a way that would keep them “evergreen”, he highlighted.

“Some of these things have a 15-year development lifecycle for major platforms, so it is important that we learn from that – keep an eye on legacy systems and make sure that we're future proofing as new capabilities are being bolted on to what we've already got.”

The importance of these principles was also set out in the conversation, which touched on some of the barriers to transformation.

Research CSW undertook in partnership with Appian found that the top three barriers to reform cited by defence officials were information and data sharing (71%), organisational culture (69%), and the technology and systems across government (67%).

Paul Hancock, the deputy head of project delivery professionalisation at the MoD said he “recognised all of those”, adding: “I’m thinking about behaviours that need to change across our delivery teams and beyond if we're to adopt increasingly agile ways of working and as a shift towards the DDaT [digital, data and technology]-type skill sets, from where we are today.”

Tracey Swinner, air portfolio governance manager at the MoD, flagged the importance of the new principles. A historical lack of mandation has meant that the air force and army develop technological systems separately.

“I think that complicates things, it wastes time, and it takes away the focus from where it should be. We should get smarter and somebody needs to wrap their heads around how we actually use digital systems to convey and share information.”

Spencer acknowledged that although people are buying into the digital strategy, there’s also a part of the military that doesn’t want to be first to adopt new processes “because I am really clear in what I want to do and I want to do it this way”.

“One of the things we're trying to do is say ‘at times, this might be more difficult for your project, because we're trying to optimise for all of defence’. And we’re trying to get the balance around that really clear.”

Charlie Thompson, area vice president for UK, Ireland, Middle East and Europe, at Appian, agreed this was “really important”.

“Conversations used to start by setting out how your business requirements were different. Now industries spend quite a lot of time understanding where that is really true – where they really benefit from being different, and where actually they can just standardise.”

Fitzpatrick highlighted that there “has been a really positive engagement” on common services. “There are bits where you have specific needs with users, but also other things where people seem to be much more optimistic and happy to share, and see the logic of that. My role is defining the core of the common technology architecture that enables it and it is shared and understood with industry. There's so much to do, but it's the right thing to do.”

Other opportunities highlighted in the session included the potential for automation. Hancock said the opportunities for automation were “wide, broad and deep”, including in reporting around project delivery.

Joanne Hamers, the head of the International & Industrial Capability Strategy at the MoD agreed.

“I think automation is such a valuable thing,” she said. “And whether that is pulling the Friday data [on equipment readiness state] together for senior officers, that is something on a very tactical level we're trying to do     .

“So automation has got to help with what we're doing. And we shouldn't be afraid to fail on something. But we need to learn from that failure, and I think we still have a tendency to be scared of failure. We've got to sort of get over that, I think, and challenge ourselves a little bit more. We're getting there, but it's just going to take a bit of time.”

Ray Wulff, the industry leader for global defense programs at Appian, highlighted that the US military had begun a similar automation process as described by Hamers.

“You're seeing the automation come in to find out what inventory they have – so they're pulling data from the system they are running that sets out the inventory from a readiness standpoint: who do we have where, what are their capabilities, and what are they kitted out for.”

There was also increasing use of automation in areas like procurement, Wullf highlighted, with the United States Air Force having saved over $90m just by automating the data used in contract writing.

Such back office examples, also including areas like expenses, are good ways to prove the concept of automation in the military, he added.

Overall, many contributors agreed with Fitzpatrick’s view that “it feels like the stars have really aligned” to drive transformation. “You've got the [Integrated Review] settlement, you've got the knowledge and maturity – and investment in – technologies and capabilities like 5G and automation,” he said. “That’s where I think we’re at.”

Spencer concurred, saying that “the stars have aligned around getting this digital backbone and the digital strategy. That gives us the support from on high to slow down some other activity, so that we can then eventually speed up all activity. And we're starting to win that battle, but we’re by no means there yet.”

Hancock added: “The stars and the planets do seem to be aligning, and I think there's a sense of anticipation within the organisation about what's going to come next, and a desire to really get on with it and get after it.”

And Thompson, for Appian, agreed: “There's great opportunities ahead, and we need to work out how to use the digital backbone to get stuff appropriately to decision-makers and war fighters quicker.”

This session was produced in association with Appian

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