Army turns defeat into victory

By Oliver Wright

Of all the legacies of London 2012 it was perhaps the most incongruous and unexpected.

Just a few weeks ago when ministers announced they were calling in the troops to check bags and frisk spectators coming to the Olympic Games, it looked like an act of desperation by a Government caught on the hop. In many ways it was. But now it all looks rather inspired.

The biggest deployment of uniformed troops on Britain's streets since World War II (12,000 in total) was one of the defining and positive images of London in 2012. Army commanders - who back then were complaining about being overstretched and plummeting morale - are now delighted at the force's new profile.

And for their boss, the Conservative Defence Minister Philip Hammond, what started as a rather sorry affair has paid an unexpected political dividend.

He is the first to admit that he's rather thankful now that security firm G4S failed to measure up to expectations.

"It would be disingenuous not to admit that from our point of view - from the military's point of view - it has been a fantastic opportunity. In two weeks they've been able to do two years' worth of engagement with the public. It has humanised the face of the armed forces. In Afghanistan the image is of people in helmets, and kit, and tooled up.

But underneath all that are people you can enjoy a drink with in the pub or a bit of banter at the checkpoint."

The episode has curiously had another effect as well: it has changed the Defence Secretary's thinking about the merits of the public sector.

When Hammond was drafted in to replace Liam Fox a year ago many service chiefs viewed the change with trepidation.

A self-made businessman before entering politics, he had the reputation as something of an ideological bean-counter: someone who believed that the private sector was always more efficient, capable and preferable to the state. Military commanders feared they would not have a champion in Hammond - prepared to stand up to the Treasury to protect their budgets and always pushing them to do more for less or, worse still, getting someone else in to do it for them.

But, Hammond says now, "I came into the MOD from a private-sector background with a starting prejudice that we have to look at the way the private sector does things to know how we should do things in Government.

"But the story of G4S and the military rescue is quite informative. The G4S model says 'Here is a cost envelope within which I have to deliver an outcome and I have to do it incredibly leanly with very little resilience'.

"G4S were literally hiring people and expecting to deploy them three days later. They were trying to build up a management structure overnight and they placed a lot of dependence on the work force - for example, getting them to schedule their own shifts by accessing an internet site.

"The military came at it from the exact opposite extreme. 'What's the job that needs to be done? OK, we'll do it. Whatever it takes we'll provide massive resourcing.'

"And that's why everything has operated so smoothly. When you go through these search lanes everything hums. That's because for every three people doing the work there is one watching them and there are two other watching him."

Hammond gives another example. "When I asked a question recently about if we wanted to have a Typhoon aircraft available at point X in the UK - what would it take, the answer was we'd need to deploy four aircraft and 60 engineers. Why four aircraft, I asked? Well, you say one but we always like to have two and we need a back-up aircraft just in case and we'd need the fourth just in case something went catastrophically wrong with the back-up.

"Now if you asked G4S the question they'd have the aircraft and they'd probably fly it in with two blokes in case anything went wrong with it. It is a completely different ethos and way of operating."

So which does he now think is better? "That's the thing that I'm learning - that the application of the lean commercial approach model does have relevance in areas of the MOD but equally you can't look at a warship and say 'How can I bring a lean management model to this?' - because it's doing different things with different levels of resilience that are not generally required in the private sector.

"We ask the military to be in a position that, if we ask them to do a task, they are absolutely able to do it for us."

- Independent

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