Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

Australia's Defence: A Review of the 'Reviews'

Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

Australia's Defence: A Review of the 'Reviews'

Article excerpt

The Australian Defence Force is held in high regard; the Department of Defence is not. Longstanding concerns about inefficiency, compounded by a succession of fiascos and bungles, have entrenched the perception that Defence is poorly managed. Earlier attempts at reform have yielded mixed, often disappointing, results (see Ergas and Thomson 2011), and the years since 2009 have seen a series of reviews aimed at improving performance, culminating in 22 defence-related reviews in 2011-12 alone.

Eight recent reviews deal primarily with the fallout from the so-called Skype incident at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), in which an ADFA cadet allegedly broadcast images of himself and a female cadet engaged in sex. While those reviews are of considerable interest and potentially significant consequence, they will not be discussed here; rather, my focus is on the reviews which go directly to the efficiency with which 'Defence' uses resources.2

The most far-ranging reviews are the Audit of the Defence Budget, undertaken by George Pappas with support from McKinsey and Company (Pappas 2009) and the Review of the Defence Accountability Framework, undertaken by Rufus Black (Black 2011). Others, such as the Collins Class Sustainment Review (Coles 2011) and the Plan to Reform Ship Repair and Management (Rizzo 2011), are more narrowly focused.

Despite the range there are some common themes. Central among these are deficiencies in Defence's management systems. Simply put, there are many plans, but no plan; myriad accountabilities, but no accountability. The result is a structure in which decisions are poorly integrated and in which individuals, while they know what they are intended to do, are not responsible for its being done. Moreover, while the structure generates torrents of data, the sheer scale and diffusion of information, and the lack of tight connection between decisions on the one hand and what is measured on the other, further undermine accountability. Coles, for example, notes an instance in which 'a junior officer [was] required to render a very detailed progress report every day which was sent to over 100 recipients', with presumably few reading it, and even fewer feeling any sense of responsibility for the progress it supposedly tracked. Adding to the lack of accountability is the reluctance of senior management, and of the leadership in the services, to use what powers they have to hold individuals to account for poor performance. The unsurprising consequence is a chronic failure to exploit opportunities for improvement, accompanied by periodic instances of acute breakdown.

The Collins Class submarine program: Murphy was an optimist

Nothing better illustrates the chronic problems than the saga of the Collins Class submarines, now in its twenty-fifth year. Astutely analysed in Lessons from Australia's Collins Submarine Program (Schank et al. 2011), this was a project which showed Mr Murphy, of the eponymous law, to be an incorrigible optimist, at least as far as major defence ventures are concerned.

Yet it would be wrong to blame bad luck for the Collins' difficulties. Rather, from the start, almost everything that could be done wrong was done wrong. As the Coles review puts it, 'the problems originate from the very beginning of the program when, perhaps without fully appreciating the potential consequences, the Commonwealth embarked on the acquisition of a submarine which, for good reason, is quite unlike any other in the world'. Many years later, Coles concludes, we are still in a situation where 'despite the fact that virtually all senior people we spoke to were clear that the Collins Class capability is "strategic" for Australia, there is no clear or shared public understanding of why this is a strategic capability nor of the implications this has for sustainability.'

As for acute breakdowns, those too have been in abundant supply, with the most recent being in September 2010 when the Chief of Navy imposed an 'operational pause' on the seaworthiness of the 'amphibious landing platform' HMAS Manoora,3 causing a collapse in Australia's amphibious ship capability. …

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