Reviewing the Department of Defence (part 2)
20 Nov 2019|

Australian defence reviews always wail about fuzzy accountability and indirect responsibility.

The critique was immortalised by Defence Department Secretary Allan Hawke, back in 2000, when he decried ‘a culture of learned helplessness among some Defence senior managers—both military and civilian. Their perspective is one of disempowerment.’

Hawke described the problem this way:

Putting the budget/financial situation to one side, the most significant organisational issue we face relates to leadership. Not to put too fine a point on it, too many of our people lack confidence in many of Defence’s senior leaders. Justified or not, Defence’s leadership is seen as lacking coherence, as failing to accept responsibility and as reactive. Issues such as visibility and caring arise.

Far too often, it seems that wherever one sits in the hierarchy, all the problems besetting the organisation in terms of its management and leadership come from higher up the ladder.

Defence had ‘been through massive change that is often not well appreciated’, Hawke said. His version of the department as a big beast was that it was ‘far too inwardly focussed’. Yet the beast had trouble understanding its own ‘mission, vision and values’. The rest of government, he noted, was equally puzzled:

The reality today … is that there is widespread dissatisfaction with Defence’s performance in Canberra—from ministers, central agencies within the public service, industry, and even from within the Defence organisation itself. In essence, we have a credibility problem.

Many reviews later, consider today’s newest ‘learned helplessness’ attack. Hugh White’s How to defend Australia stirred so much controversy that not much attention was paid to his call for a ‘savage cut’ to the beast he once rode as a deputy secretary.

White sets up his assault with this aside: ‘It is a sobering reality that anyone attempting to understand defence management should start with the works of C. Northcote Parkinson, especially Parkinson’s Law.’ The law states that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. The naval historian built his satirical analysis on two sublaws: the Law of Multiplication of Subordinates and the Law of Multiplication of Work. Later he added further edicts such as one on triviality, observing that organisations spend disproportionate time and effort on minor matters.

White judges that Australia has a record of failed defence reforms. Benchmarked against Singapore, Israel and France, he writes, Australia doesn’t get value for money. The reviews ‘have not delivered big long-term savings and seem to have done nothing to redress the poor performance’.

A key reason defence is less efficient, White argues, is complacency. Our leaders and the military and civilian hierarchies have assumed ‘that Australia does not really face serious strategic risks, because we can always rely on the Americans’.

White wants to spend a lot more money bulking up the body of the beast, but make its head smaller:

One organisational reform which might make a real difference is a savage cut to the size of the civilian and military staffs in defence headquarters on Russell Hill … [W]e would get better decisions faster if a lot fewer people were involved. The big benefit here is not that we need fewer people on the payroll; it’s that we get better decisions about big strategic questions.

The beast has a fine record of discipline. Efficiency is tougher, not least because Defence lives in arcane and difficult places; that’s why private-sector business-based answers can offer only partial answers.

Rigour in the thinking matters because in conflict even simple things are hard. And that thinking has to reach beyond the best strategy to guard an affluent and stable nation with its own continent.

In an era of great-power contest, where the international system strains and sags, Canberra frets at ‘the most consequential changes in the global environment since WWII’ pushing at the prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific.

Australia needs its beast to be both strong and nimble. So, now for another review.

Because of the unpredictable times, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced Defence will do a ‘hard-headed assessment’ of what needs to change:

– What changes we need to make to our strategy;

– What changes we need to make to our capability [although Reynolds also said, ‘I do not envisage any changes to our major capability programs’]; and

– [H]ow we transform Defence into an organisation that can deliver on the national tasks for the decades ahead.

The buzz word is transformation. The aim is to ‘transform Defence into a truly adaptive One Defence’, Senator Reynolds said, to make it ‘a far more strategy-led organisation’.

The 2015 first principles review had got ‘the Defence enterprise aligned at the starting line of … an ongoing transformation process’, Reynolds said. ‘The next step is to define this new, more adaptive strategy framework, to ensure One Defence is agile in responding to current circumstances.’

The review will be delivered to the minister early next year.

The times demand more of the beast. Time, again, to transform the beast.