22 July 2020

The civil service needs a military makeover


It turns out that Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s pin-up Prime Minister, is human after all. A politician who smiles through earthquakes – literally laughing in the face of adversity – has had to resort to the kind of action normally the preserve of mere-mortal politicians when they encounter a problem they don’t think they can fix alone: Ardern called in the military.

In an “unacceptable” breach of New Zealand’s properly “world-beating” test and trace system, two Covid-spreaders had managed to get into the country and began accidentally spraying their aerosols about. Naturally, the two travellers flew to New Zealand from London.

Ardern has appointed Assistant Chief of Defence Air Commodore Digby Webb to oversee quarantine measures and to manage isolation facilities. “Grip” is what the military does and it’s what politicians reach for when things are falling apart.

In fact, it is not just in aiding the life of a nation that politicians see the military as a safety net but in the lives of individuals too. Penny Mordaunt, the former Defence Secretary, wrote to one of her ministerial colleagues, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, to suggest that the oiks who desecrate war memorials – graffiti or urine – should be sent to a battle camp to see for themselves what sacrifices the military makes. “They are the armed forces”, her letter reads. “They should be respected and treasured.”

Both in the life of the nation and the individual, politicians view the military as a safety-net, a backstop to be used in a crisis – floods, terrorism, pandemics – to bring their skills, processes and logistical know-how to bear.

Yet why is it that the Armed Forces are used only when a problem rears its head? Why isn’t their approach to a task used as a template to defuse problems before they arise rather than as a rapid reaction to when they have blown up?

The coronavirus has exposed fault lines in the effectiveness and agility of the Government machine, with a few exceptions (HMRC and HMT spring to mind). Dominic Cummings talks about a “hard rain” that is to fall. Putting it more diplomatically, it is certainly true that the “Rolls-Royce civil service” needs an oil change.

There is absolutely no doubt that Whitehall has been overwhelmed by the complexity and intensity of the challenges it has faced throughout this pandemic. All too often, departments have been thrust together when previously siloed, demanding action from arms-length agencies, like Public Health England on testing, whilst central Government has been too removed from on-the-ground delivery. Competing interests and turf wars both between departments and agencies, as well as between the personalities involved, often lead to confusion, delay and misunderstanding as well as, occasionally, animosity.

None of this is new. The reasons for regular errors in governance are many and varied but distance from “delivery”, confusion over language, time-frames and aims, as well as a “cultural disconnect”, all play their part. In their compelling book The Blunders of Our Governments, the political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe dissect some of the most egregious missteps of Governments of all colours, from the Millennium Dome project, to the Poll Tax, to the public/private partnership to modernise the London Underground ( a “blunder-plus”, the authors call it).

There are common themes, they argue, as to how and why these mistakes keep happening: “No feature of the blunders we have studied stands out more prominently then the divorce between those who make policies and those charged with implementing them…Most of the policy makers responsible for the blunders…assumed they had done the hard bit when they had decided that Government policy should be. Clearly they were wrong”. In his Ditchley lecture, the Cabinet Officer Minister Michael Gove talks about the need to reduce the “distance” between Government and the people, literally in this case, by moving bits of government into different regions. That “distance” also needs to be bridged not just physically but operationally too.

To that end, why not bring in military expertise to act as a bridge between the policy architects and the builders? Furthermore, why not attempt to learn from and, where appropriate, embed military processes into Whitehall in order that planning and delivery become second nature, that situational awareness and framework analysis are commonplace, and that a shared language and culture is routine? During this crisis alone, we have seen the military build new “hospitals”, setup and run mobile testing units, deliver resources and – critically – are central to the Local Resilience Forums around the country; a “chain of command”, from the ground back up to central government, relying both on military process and delivery.

In his Policy Exchange paper, Chris Brannigan, who was until relatively recently the Defence Advisor to Prime Minister Johnson in No10, argues that the culture of trust and credibility embedded in the forces is “not always evident in some Whitehall bastions”. He says, “This may not matter much in normal times, but can create frictions and diversions in a time of crisis. The development of such a culture can only be introduced with comprehensive engagement by everyone involved and with exemplary leadership.”

The military does not always get everything right but their methods and processes, their working relations and mechanisms for delivery are rehearsed and assessed rigorously and regularly.  Rather than outsourcing delivery to expensive and transactional external project management consultancies who will understandably bring in new frameworks, language and command structures, the Government could use and then even embed, the already stress-tested processes, logistics and support of the Armed Forces to bring the policy concept into reality.

In his most recent speech, the Prime Minister talked about wanting to use “the zap and elan of the armed services” in distilling “the very best of the psychic energy of the last few months”. The Defence and Foreign Policy review will no doubt consider how, when and where Britain’s Armed Forces can be put to best use around the world. Now is the time for Whitehall to think hard about internalising that expertise rather than relying on the military to reassert “grip” after the crisis emerges.

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Tom Swarbrick is a broadcaster and former adviser to Theresa May.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.