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Ministry of Defence: Can it Cope?

The dear old Ministry of Defence doesn’t half get it in the neck. A significant amount of ‘news’ and comment about it tends to focus on a belief that it is a very badly run government department. Pick up or read the Daily Mail, Telegraph or Guardian and you will quickly see what I mean.

But I have to make confession dear readers. I have a very soft spot for the MOD which is borne out of the 36 or so years I spent working there and I think when you work in an organisation for that length of time you do get a more considered and felt understanding of what make the place tick.

It has been something of a political football for pretty much most of my time there and no more so then now with its funding problems in the very demanding economic time that we are living through at present. Now anyone who has been a Civil Servant in say the last 30 or 40  years will tell you that they have always had funding issues because that is how Government and especially HM Treasury operate. Governments of all colours want departments to do 'more with less'.

The MOD has certainly been no different and it has suffered from what has seemed to its staff (both military and civilian) to have been almost continual change ('change fatigue') and persistent introduction of new reforms. Pretty much since it was formally established as a separate department of state in 1964 (prior to that it was split into the War Office (Army), the Admiralty (Royal Navy) and the Air Ministry (the RAF) there have been demands for cuts, reorganisations and efficiency. There would be regular spending restrictions to allow the government of the day to fund its activities (or find money for tax cuts if you are really a cynic!), moves to make budgets more accountable, defence cost studies for the ‘Peace Dividend’ in the 1990’s, Strategic Defence Reviews and 'Streamlining' exercises et al which takes us up to where we are now.

The new Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond announced this week that he believes that the MOD has now balanced the books- observers will be very sceptical of this assertion but what strikes me is that a major part of the strategy to address the ‘black hole’ in the MOD’s accounts have been and will continue to be, quite major staff reductions. Although of course you have to acknowledge that the MOD has to play its part in the general public sector reductions during this austere time, the level of personnel cuts that are happening and are being proposed are severe indeed.

Indeed, it was reported back in February -job cuts may leave the MOD lacking staff- that the reductions may be so severe that it the National Audit Office (NAO)'s view was that “without real changes to ways of working, cutting headcount is likely to result in the department either doing less with fewer people or trying to do the same with greater risk”

I think at the last count the MOD is committed to reducing its military numbers by 29,000 – a 17% reduction on current numbers and 25,000 civilians – a 35% reduction on current strength and with the MOD civil service strength at around 71,000 it is already a 18% reduction compared to 2010.

Overall, the planned reductions suggest that the current MOD manning of around 241,000 people could go as low as 187,000 by 2015 – a reduction of 54,000 people or a 22% decrease.

I think that any organisation would be ‘challenged’ to meet its demands, its outputs with those kind of reductions unless there is a very radical shift in either a) what it will do – i.e. less or b) how it does it, which is very much the NAO observation/concern.

My sense is that the MOD will really suffer trying to ‘do more with less’ -most of the 'fat' has now gone in my opinion and that the task it is being set will ultimately be beyond it .  If the Government is serious in keeping within the new budget constraints then it will need to accept that the department will indeed have to do less or I can foresee the newspapers revisiting the pledge that the MOD’s budget is in balance once more….