When it comes to the risks associated with the privatisation of military materials procurement, few have the insight of Sir Charles Haddon-Cave QC.
Sir Charles Haddon-Cave QC, is the UK judge who found the deaths of 14 defence personnel in a 2006 Nimrod aircraft crash, a direct result of ‘organisational trauma’ and ‘outsourcing’ associated with “financial pressures and staff cuts” in the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
As rumours persist that our own Federal Government might move to privatise the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), several Professionals Australia members recently attended presentations by Sir Charles Haddon-Cave, to glean what he described as ‘a hard lesson for the UK military, but a free lesson for everyone else.”
Haddon-Cave said that there were seven lessons from his Inquiry, lessons that he said, “Should be taken on board and taken to heart”. These included: The need to look for “organisational causes” of major accidents; To beware of assumptions that things are safe; To avoid change for change’s sake; To avoid consensus, compliance and complexity; If you do have to outsource, do not outsource your thinking; Safety cases should be seen as an aid to thinking, not and end in itself and the age of equipment matters.
Haddon-Cave’s point of the importance of not outsourcing thinking is particularly relevant in Australia. Professionals Australia has been a long-time advocate of the importance of governments remaining intelligent customers with enough technical experts in-house, to ensure they know what they are buying.
Key among the risks of outsourcing Haddon-Cave said was that it can be seen as a quick-fix to get employees off the balance sheet.
However, outsourcing can lead to confusion as to where risks lie; it can corrode in-house skills, culture and organisational memory and can cede control over processes, thinking and decision-making. He said that sensible outsourcing required “intelligent and rigorous contracts” and “for the government to remain an intelligent customer.
David, a Professionals Australia member in Melbourne said that he was ‘heartened’ by Haddon-Cave’s statement that he “loves engineers” and that “there should be more of them”.
He was also interested to learn that Haddon-Cave felt that the most important lesson that came out of his Inquiry was that “individual engineers need to have integrity, the professionalism to do their job well and the moral courage to do what was right”.
In discussing privatisation, Haddon-Cave was dismissive of it saying, “it seldom works and it has many dangers; the most critical is that the outsourcing organisation loses its ability to be an informed customer.
He continued by saying, “There appears to be no sense in getting rid of people who have many years of experience in a field, having them employed by defence companies, who then turn around and hire those same people back to the government for several times the cost.”
At the end of Sir Charles’ presentation David was given the rare opportunity to ask a question. “I asked him, how can engineers, often at the bottom of the food chain, send a clear message to those who seek greater and greater “productivity improvements”, when engineers know that such actions will lead to detrimental or perhaps fatal consequences?”
“His answer was that we need to articulate our position in a clear manner, and outline the dangers inherent in taking their preferred route. For example, if a system needed ten engineers to manage it safely, then any moves to reduce that number should be clearly linked with the risks that such moves brought. If it were possible to make the politicians personally responsible for their decisions then that would make the system better. That is, if a minister knows that if he/she decides to undertake actions to “improve efficiency” against the advice of technical staff, then the minister would know that he/she would be personally responsible for the outcomes of that decision.
Did you attend one of Sir Charles Haddon-Cave's presentations in Australia? If so, we'd love to hear what you found valuable or interesting – post a comment below.
Professionals Australia CEO Chris Walton made a recent call for the need to build engineering capacity in government defence procurement in The Canberra Times, “For the defence of our nation; we need more engineers ”.
Sir Charles Haddon-Cave's Nimrod Review – Executive Summary