Progress has been made in improving the affordability of the Ministry of Defence’s equipment plan. However, improving the performance of Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) remains the most challenging element in the Department’s strategy for reforming defence acquisition, according to the National Audit Office.
The spending watchdog examined the Department’s progress in tackling the accepted weaknesses within DE&S, the progress in implementing the change needed within the organisation, and the challenges that remain within DE&S. The Department’s objectives in its reform of DE&S include improving the capabilities and skills of DE&S staff, the systems and tools available within the organisation and the way DE&S interacts with the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, and Joint Forces (known as the Commands).
Today’s report found that the Department has made progress in stabilising the equipment plan, and in clarifying the roles of Head Office, DE&S and the Commands. There is now a clearer separation of responsibilities between the Commands, which request equipment, and DE&S as the organisation responsible for delivering the equipment.
The Department’s preferred option for securing change in DE&S was through a Government-owned, Contractor-operated (GoCo) model – a company where the government controls the assets, but that would be operated on a for-profit basis by a private company. However, this model proved undeliverable, and was halted in 2013, by which point the Department had spent £33 million and two and a half years trying to implement reform at DE&S. Despite this, according to the NAO, the Department has gained a better insight into its business needs, for example, where key skills are needed and how staff spend their time.
In April 2014 the Department changed DE&S into a bespoke trading entity. Under this concept, DE&S remains in the public sector but with freedoms from and flexibilities over civil service pay rules. The bespoke trading entity allows the Department to retain greater control over DE&S, but the Department needs to ensure it can track benefits to establish whether the bespoke trading entity is delivering acquisition reform, and if not, take action.
To assess whether the structure improves DE&S’s performance, the Department will need to set robust measures of success. Being able to track the benefits of investing over a quarter of a billion pounds with private sector companies over the next 3-4 years will be essential to allow the Department to take any additional measures to improve performance, should it be necessary.