By Tevye Markson

09 May 2024

The UK’s adversaries won’t wait for us to adapt to new threats. A fresh approach is generating excitement across defence, says DE&S's director of strategy, people, change and corporate

 

When Defence Equipment & Support released its four-year strategy in mid-2021, nobody was expecting Russia to invade Ukraine nine months later. As the conflict escalated, top officials at DE&S realised their strategy needed to change.  

But they didn’t think simply rewriting the strategy was the answer. Instead, DE&S leaders decided to take a new approach.

Since March 2023, the Ministry of Defence’s procurement arm has held regular workshops, getting thousands of its people – plus officers in the armed forces, representatives from the wider defence industry and think tanks – involved in redesigning the organisation’s operating model, a key part of the strategy implementation. 

Dr Jill Hatcher, DE&S’s director of strategy, people, change and corporate, is driving forward the reform. 

“What I love about what we’re doing is the fact that we’ve genuinely put people at the heart of the change,” Hatcher says. “It hasn’t been senior leaders deciding how the new organisation should be. Together, we’ve been designing the change. And I find that really exciting because it’s our people who know what irritates them, what isn’t working quite right and how things could be better. So we’ve been harnessing that. And it’s been like cultural change in action because you go into a room, and there’s more than 100 people in each workshop, and you have no idea what grade they are, they’ve just got a badge with their first name on it. Everybody has a voice. We haven’t brought hundreds of consultants in to help us; this is genuinely ‘by us, for us’.”

"We haven’t brought hundreds of consultants in to help us; this is genuinely ‘by us, for us’”

With detailed designs for the new operating model drawn up, Hatcher – who is its senior responsible owner – is getting ready to shift towards implementation. But the approach has already “generated genuine excitement across defence,” Hatcher says.

“The whole of defence is now looking at their own operating model, and they’ve taken the same approach of ‘how can we get everybody in the room?’” she says. “So it’s created a real momentum.”

A civil service veteran of more than 20 years and an HR specialist, Hatcher entered the civil service as a fast streamer in 2002, armed with a PhD in chemistry. Her first decade was spent in a variety of defence roles, initially in science-related positions. During her first spell at DE&S, at the organisation’s dawn, she helped to implement the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency with the Defence Logistics Agency. She began to specialise in HR, rising up the ranks of the profession in an eight-year spell outside of defence. This included spells at the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Home Office, where she developed a people strategy for 35,000 officials.

Hatcher returned to DE&S in September 2021 as HR director, a few months after the organisation published its 2021-25 strategy. This was an “opportunity to come home,” she says. 

Around a year later, DE&S leaders decided a new strategy was needed. Hatcher worked on it alongside the wider executive committee and the then-director of strategy and corporate operations, Jim Higham, who retired upon its completion in June 2023. Hatcher then took on responsibility for implementing the strategy in the expanded role she holds today.

“People joke that as soon as you produce a strategy, you need another one. Because nothing ever stays the same,” Hatcher says. “But of course we had the really horrible events of Russia invading Ukraine, which made a fundamental difference. We were back in state-on-state war after a period of relative stability. So that required us to think, are we focusing our energies on the right things?”

The strategy – which was made public in September 2023  – talks about delivering what armed forces “need today”, being “prepared for tomorrow because the enemy won’t rest”, and acknowledging “that we can’t do that alone”.

To keep up with the UK’s adversaries, it says DE&S must significantly improve the way it operates by reducing duplication, friction and delays, while driving greater pace.

UK defence procurement has regularly come in for criticism for being too ponderous, and the need for speed has only become more acute. “Our enemies aren’t resting, they’re getting faster,” Hatcher says. “We ultimately always need to strive to be better, to be faster.” 

The organisation’s aspirations include reducing the time it takes to approve and place its contracts by up to 50%.

Hatcher says she is “really confident” that the new operating model will enable DE&S to keep up with its adversaries, because it is underpinned by mechanisms devised by the agency’s own people. One of these mechanisms is “the gateway” – a single access point or “front door” – for DE&S’s partners to engage with the agency, which will be the first part of the operating model to be implemented.

Hatcher explains: “At the moment, for example, our armed forces will say: ‘I want a tank.’ In the future, the gateway will work with the armed forces to say: ‘What effect do you want to achieve?’ And then the gateway will work with industry, with allies, to understand the threat picture. They’ll know how much money we’ve got, and our deadline, and they’ll generate options that a decision can then be taken on. So the answer might not be a tank,” Hatcher says. “It’ll be: ‘OK, if you want to achieve that and you’ve got that amount of money and you need it by then, here’s your options.’ By taking that approach, we’ll be able to make better-informed decisions which will mean we can deliver reliably and consistently for our armed forces.”

Another innovation in the strategy is the introduction of “sprints”. These are high-tempo, focused periods of activity that bring together high-performing, multidisciplinary teams of experts to solve problems and deliver specific outcomes. This way of working is based on so-called Agile methodology – a project-management practice that involves breaking the project into phases and which emphasises continuous collaboration and improvement.

“You might feel like you’ve got a big problem,” Hatcher explains. “But actually, if you break it down into chunks of six weeks, it generates an energy and a momentum and can feel quite empowering.”

Jill Hatcher, wearing a red, long-sleeved dress, sitting in an office with her arms resting on the desk in front of herTalking of big problems, DE&S has hit the headlines repeatedly in the last few years over its troubled Ajax armoured vehicle programme. The decade-long procurement project has been beset by delays and health and safety issues, although it has recently been revived. 

The Ajax Lessons Learned Review, conducted by Clive Sheldon KC and published last summer, found “systemic and institutional” issues.

“First of all, I’m really pleased that Ajax is back on track,” Hatcher says when asked how lessons from the programme have influenced the new strategy. “But you’re absolutely right about taking the lessons from when things haven’t gone to plan.

“A lot of work has been done to implement the Sheldon recommendations, but we’ve also taken those recommendations and ensured that they were holistically fed into the strategy.”

The Sheldon review found a “marked failure” by officials to escalate information about problems in a clear and timely way, particularly when officers trialling the vehicles experienced hearing loss and other injuries, with some reportedly left with permanent damage. Sheldon said communication failures were also caused by senior officials’ lack of appreciation of diverse and contrary voices, especially from those working on the “shopfloor”, who often had a better understanding of what was going on.

“The approach we’re taking to the operating model is that everybody’s got an equal voice,” Hatcher says. “It’s about creating a space where our people can really speak up, share their views and have their talents harnessed.”

This includes encouraging people to escalate concerns, but also asking simple questions like, “What is everyone worried about? What does everybody think about this? What might I have missed?” she says.

At the time of writing, DE&S’s parent organisation, the Ministry of Defence, is embroiled in a crisis over toxic sexual behaviour, with unions calling for an investigation after 60 senior women at the MoD wrote a letter to permanent secretary David Williams alleging sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the department.

CSW asks Hatcher how DE&S has responded to the reports. She says it is “awful that it has happened”. 
“It gives me great pause because no one should ever be made to feel unsafe. It comes back to my connection to the mission, about protecting the nation, helping it prosper – our mission is to make people feel safe.”

But she says she is “pleased to see the way in which leaders within the organisation have stood up and said that that is not acceptable”.

“They’ve been categorical. And I think role modelling what is acceptable and not acceptable is really important in these sorts of scenarios, as well as creating a psychologically safe space for people to raise a concern when they have it.”

The letter to the permanent secretary refers to issues at the department and not DE&S itself, but Hatcher says it is “only right and proper that when something like this happens, within defence or indeed anywhere, that you look at yourselves and think, could that be happening here? What do we need to do about it?

“We certainly need to make sure it’s very clear that that is not acceptable nor tolerable, and give people the reassurance that they can speak up,” she adds.

For Hatcher, diversity and inclusion are key to getting this right. “They are two different but mutually reinforcing things,” she says. “We certainly are getting better slowly within Defence, Equipment & Support in terms of our representation levels. But you need to have an inclusive environment for people to want to stay. You can have a representative organisation but if it is not inclusive that won’t last – everybody will just leave because it’s not a very nice place to be.”

"You can have a representative organisation but if it is not inclusive that won’t last – everybody will just leave because it’s not a very nice place to be"

While there are things to work on, Hatcher says she loves working in defence, and DE&S is a “fantastic place to work”.

She adds: “The mission is so powerful, protecting our nation and helping it prosper, and then DE&S’s mission is about giving our armed forces the edge to enable that to happen. I have such a personal affinity to that. And I think that is a really powerful attraction mechanism.”

While strategy is a big part of Hatcher’s role, her focus on people shines through: during our conversation, Hatcher mentions putting “people at the heart” of the organisation eight times.

Her efforts and those of her teams were recognised last year, with DE&S earning accreditation from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development for its “exceptional” commitment to nurturing its workforce. Having already helped the Home Office to gain the certification, Hatcher became the first HR director to win the status for two organisations. 

While her job title may lead with strategy, Hatcher’s workforce-focused approach suggests it’s the “people” part of her role that drives her the most.

“Everybody’s heard the statement ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, haven’t they? But it is true, and we have deliberately placed our people at the heart of change at DE&S,” Hatcher says. 

This interview first appeared in CSW's spring 2024 issue. Read the full issue online here

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