The Ministry of Defence says it has now completed half of the recommendations made in a review of the troubled Ajax armoured vehicle procurement programme, including creating more routes for officials to raise safety concerns.
Barrister Clive Sheldon’s Ajax Lessons Learned Review found that fractious relations between different defence agencies exacerbated safety issues in the programme and that there was a need for greater information sharing, trust and collaboration within the MoD. Some crew members' hearing was damaged during trials of the armoured vehicles due to high noise and vibration levels.
Sheldon made 24 recommendations, of which the MoD accepted 15 and agreed to the other nine “in principle”. In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee, MoD permanent secretary David Williams provided an update on progress in taking action to address the issues.
Williams said the department is making changes to the culture and processes across the department to “ensure behaviours seen in that period of time in the Ajax programme do not happen again”.
“Where work was not already underway to implement a recommendation, we have undertaken to making the necessary changes at pace,” he added.
The £5.5bn Ajax programme, which aims to deliver 589 armoured vehicles, has been plagued by delays and safety concerns, which left its viability in question and triggered a lessons-learned review. Earlier this year, the programme turned a corner, however, with a new schedule agreed, noise and vibration issues resolved and tests resuming.
The letter says the department has implemented the barrister’s recommendation for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to set up a formal and recognised escalation route for situations where Defence, Equipment and Support is “ignoring/not acting on Dstl advice on a project/programme in a way which Dstl considers is seriously wrong as to technical/safety/design matters”.
Sheldon’s report found “relationships between different entities within or associated with MoD were at times fractious and involved guarding of territory”.
He said this “friction” was most clearly seen in relations between DE&S, the delivery agent for the equipment side of the project, and Dstl, which provides scientific and technical expertise to the MoD.
“Although Dstl’s subject-matter experts were well regarded, the technical and safety concerns they raised were often not resolved to their satisfaction," the report found.
Dstl can now raise concerns about these issues to the MoD chief scientific adviser, the letter says. The MoD said it also created a mechanism to ensure senior officials are aware of safety issues that may affect delivery and equipment being safe to operate in response to an earlier safety review of the Ajax programme.
The MoD said it has also implemented the reviewer’s recommendation for better collaboration between Dstl and DE&S. It said: “The relationship and way of working between [the two agencies] is much improved since the period the report considers and this recommendation is already being addressed at multiple levels in the organisation.”
The department also said it is providing new guidance – expected to be in place by the end of the month – to ensure senior responsible officers (SROs) for programmes are kept involved in decision-making, after the review found issues with the relationship between DE&S and the senior responsible owner for the Ajax scheme.
Sheldon asked that the MoD ensure “full, frank and timely disclosure” on issues relating to delivery. His review found evidence that DE&S “misappreciated” the fundamental importance of the SRO position, and discussed and made decisions on significant concerns and issues without input from the SRO.
The department is also taking steps to make less senior officials feel more comfortable raising concerns. The review found a “marked failure” by officials to escalate information about problems in a clear and timely way, particularly when noise and vibration concerns were emerging. It said, often, personnel did not escalate concerns unless a certain threshold of risk had been crossed, or until they believed that a risk had materialised and become an issue, the report said.
"We are learning from this work to build and sustain a psychologically safe culture where issues impacting on delivery are raised and dealt with early," the department said.
The review also found communication failures were caused by a lack of appreciation of diverse and contrary voices by senior officials, especially from those working on the “shopfloor”, who often had a better understanding of what was going on. The department said it is making it "explicit" that all briefings should include a "balanced view, including dissenting views".
The letter also includes an update on progress with the 2021 David King Ajax Health and Safety Review, including confirmation that: vehicles in any future trials will be equipped with real time noise and vibration tools to ensure that any activity is stopped before potentially harmful levels are reached; that noise and vibration working groups have been re-established; and that a Noise and Vibration Centre of Expertise has been established.