Yesterday was ‘R Day’ – the point where thousands of service personnel found out whether they were being made redundant or not. The process identified those at risk of redundancy many months ago, and based on the many military colleagues that Humphrey saw, there appeared to be three reactions:
a. Disappointment that they would be leaving HM Forces unwillingly
b. Delight that they had been selected for voluntary redundancy
c. Disappointment that they hadn’t been selected for voluntary redundancy.
It was telling that despite the difficult jobs market, 72% of those on the redundancy signal were volunteers. Many the author spoke to couldn’t believe their luck that they were going to receive large sums of money to leave the military, and spoke of being able to pay their mortgage off and never work again. For most of those on the list yesterday, there was real excitement at the thought of looking to start again, merged with a tingling of fear and discomfort as the reality of their decision set in.
It is ironic that almost everyone in HM Forces seems to have an exit plan. From day one people seem to talk about life after the military, and what they’ll do when they get outside. It feels at times that people see serving in the military as some kind of prison sentence, and that all they can do is complain about how bad it is. It is genuinely unusual to see people publicly admit to loving working in the military, and you often see people mutter about someone being ‘dangerously keen’. Life in the military is like working the worlds longest notice period – you know from day one when you will be required to leave the military, and this is perhaps reflected in many peoples attitudes.
That said, it is genuinely surprising to see just how many mid ranking officers (e.g. SO2-1*) have chosen to go in this round. It was seemingly without irony that the Daily Telegraph, which usually complains about the number of Staff Officers suddenly began referring to those affected in gushingly positive terms, implying the military would suffer from their departure.
There are a lot of good officers seeking to leave early, and this will hurt the military. While an attrition rate is inevitable – of the 500 cadets entering Dartmouth each year, only a fraction will ever make it to Admiral – it is still worrying that some very good officers, with the potential to go a long way have left. Although it will not in itself present a problem now, one has to wonder how the Armed Forces will be affected in 10 - 20 years’ time as a result of the people leaving now.
It is hard to see a way around the budget crisis though without moving to manpower cuts, particularly to the army. While the Navy and Airforce man the equipment, the Army has always ‘equipped the man’. An overheated equipment programme needs cuts in manpower to make savings on ground forces equipment. There is no point having an army of 100,000 if you can only afford to buy sufficient equipment for 80,000 troops. The reality is that military personnel are extremely expensive to recruit, train, employ, house, pay and provide good conditions for. When there are budget problems, often the only solution is to reduce headcount, as the associated savings are far greater than could otherwise be the case with just cutting the equipment programme.
There has been an inevitable amount of negative media coverage about these cuts. The papers seem to major on the losses to the Army, and note that yet more cuts will be required in order to bring the force to its future strength of 82,000. As usual there were lots of sniping comments about why no penpushers seemed to be going, and far too many articles failed to put in context the fact that 40% of the MOD civil service is being lost.
One MOD civil servant departure that was slipped out quietly, and which seems to have garnered little attention is the early departure of Ursula Brennan, the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS). The news that she is instead moving to the Ministry of Justice is a damning indictment of the decline of the MOD as a ‘great department of State’ in the civil service career structure.
It would previously have been nearly unthinkable for a PUS to leave MOD to go to a different department, particularly a smaller and less high profile one. The MOD was, along with Home Office, Treasury and FCO, one of the major departments where PUS did not usually leave to go elsewhere in the civil service, but instead they retired.
So why leave now? While the truth of the matter will almost certainly never be known, it is easy to speculate as to what prompted this decision. From the outset there has always been a suspicion that ‘Ursula’ (as she is referred to by many MOD types) was appointed simply because no one else wanted the job. Some civil servants known to the author expressed the view that she never seemed truly comfortable in the MOD. She didn’t join until 2008, and has only ever done the 2nd PUS and PUS job. She had no institutional background, and perhaps wasn’t seen internally as the classic ‘MOD civil servant’.
The MOD is a very different department of state to most Government departments. Its Civil Servants ‘go native’ for the Military. It is often said that some Civil Servants are more military in posture, language and dress than the Military. There is a very close relationship between the Civil Service, the Military, PUS, CDS and Ministers, and one in which there is a far more intimate sense that PUS is not a remote figurehead, but is someone who matters and is accessible to people at all levels. It would be fair to say that many of those who dealt with her found her a pleasant person, and very sharp. You don’t become a 4* civil servant unless you have some excellent skills. But, the author has heard from some of the nagging suspicion that for all she did, she didn’t come across to some in her department as someone who intrinsically 'got Defence'.
In her time at the MOD, she has had to oversee the slashing of budgets, the balancing of the equipment programme, and the delivery of the SDSR. In her role as the head of the MOD civil service, she’s overseen a programme of massive job losses and site closure. In other words, she has had to be the bearer of bad news to many people.
A departure now probably makes sense. A new appointee will probably not be in before late 2012. This gives them barely two years to be up to speed before the next SDSR, which already seems to be creeping into view. Given the Levene review was clear that senior figures should spend about five years in post, a new PUS now will be able to be up to speed, advise Ministers on how the next SDSR should be conducted, and deliver it ahead of moving on in 2016-2017. This gives their successor time to do the same for the 2020 SDSR.
Whoever replaces her faces a very difficult task. Let’s set aside the implementation of the 2010 SDSR, preparing for the 2015 SDSR and delivering success on operations while remaining in budget. They will be leading a department which has seen both its PUS and 2nd PUS leave in the space of a few months (with the 2nd PUS role abolished). They will be leading a workforce where morale appears to be extremely low, and who is recoiling from the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. They have to deliver a change programme which cannot promise a vision beyond more job cuts and more work for those who are left. Unlike the private sector where a promise of cuts today could mean expansion and more money in the near future, there is no bright light that can be offered. The workforce is demoralised, undergoing a three year pay freeze, demonised and feeling as if it is the whipping boy for the mistakes of others.
The PUS will need to try to take steps to reassure an aging work force (reportedly 60% of MOD is aged over 40) that they still have a meaningful career path. This is to be done when recruiting is frozen, promotion boards are on hold, and when HR no longer exists to guide staff on logical career development. They also need to try to work out how to hold onto people with niche skills and roles, such as project managers, procurement experts, and intelligence specialists and so on. They need to work out how to replenish this finite resource too, as with the recruiting taps currently all but turned off for new entrants; there will come a point when skills are lost forever.
It will be most interesting to see who steps forward to take on this role and what they do to try to keep the MOD as one of the best places to be a civil servant in Government. It won’t be an easy job, and most likely a thankless one.