The effort needed to change the Australia defence organisation—whether in pursuit of policy adjustments or in order to find $20b in savings—should not be under-estimated.  Experience from both public and private sectors is that organisations have to make a substantial investment in order to achieve, and obtain the benefits from, change. 

And Defence has particular challenges typically not articulated in organisational assessments or change strategies.

First, there’s the inertia of history and of accepted norms, as well as the usual political, institutional, and bureaucratic resistance to uncertainty, novelty and change.  I speculated earlier about competition of organisational forms.  If nothing else bureaucracies are dogged competitors determined to ensure their ongoing existence.

Second, there’s the sunk costs in the form of large, often Cold War-era platforms, plus the manning and skills needed to operate support them.  Force structure and procurement have become prisoners of tradition, impeding innovation, generating a disconnect between old configurations and new systems and so adding to the spiralling costs of capability (Luttwak 2007).   

But that’s not the only dynamic. Over time, systems—whether cars, submarines, or pay systems—experience ‘structural deepening’ (Arthur 1993).  They become increasingly more sophisticated and complex, requiring ever increasing maintenance and specialisation, further entrenching both costs and special interests.

Third, there’s the inexorable pull of business as usual, or BAU.  The constant press of events, the increasingly fragmented nature of work (Mark, Gonzalez et al. 2005), combined with the news cycle and 24-hour media has led to an attention deficit disorder.  Policy-makers and managers find it hard to pay sufficient attention to the slow, the distant and the unlikely—and the sustained focus needed for successful change management.

Fourth, Defence is not homogenous: at the sub-organisational level there are many competing sub-groups, special interests and a range of barriers to change, including information flows, inflexible technological systems and even physical layout.  The influence of IT systems as the scaffolding of the existing organisation and in enabling both good outcomes and pathological behaviour should not be underestimated (Williams 2002; Kallinikos 2005). 

Fifth, there are cultural factors specific to Defence.  Military culture favours continuity, conformity, discipline and collectivism over change, diversity, freedom and individuality (Smith 1998).  Not surprisingly, Defence civilians, many of whom have never worked outside the Department, tend to mirror such behaviour.

Defence has rarely been ‘mogged’—subjected to the frequent ‘machinery of government’ changes that split and merge entire departments and agencies.  While employees of the latter express a deep weariness of such change, they are accustomed to negotiating constantly their environment, priorities and processes to fit new circumstances, policy directions and colleagues in a way that Defence staff are not.

Sixth, reform in the public sector is always associated with job cuts.  But the unintended though entirely foreseeable consequence of reducing staff numbers is that the younger and better able staff leave first.  Energy is lost, caution is encouraged, the workforce ages, the pool of future leaders shrinks, the skills needed to understand and manage the levels of increasing complexity fail to reach a critical mass, and new ideas fail to make it through the doors at Russell.

That’s deplorable in itself.  At the moment we have very little idea just what is happening to the global economy and of the deep structural dynamics in the global security environment idea. 

But we do know that ‘on the other side’ it will be different—we cannot afford the false comfort of the linear and an imagined return of past conditions.  And so Defence needs to invest in human capability, imagination, analytical rigour and strategic thinking. 

Defence needs reform, but I am far from convinced the new program will achieve the change needed.  Why?  Because the White Paper and Budget both contribute to shoring up systemic problems—including an ill-fitting strategy and force structure. 

Restoring the strategy—operations—capability continuum would help.  That has been broken for many years in Defence, where operations and capability dictate resources, expenditure and influence.  But that’s the subject of a different post, some time later.

References

Arthur, W. B. (1993). “Why Do Things Become More Complex.” Scientific American 268(5): 144-144.

Jans, N. and D. Schmidtchen (2003). “Culture and Organizational Behaviour at Australian Defence Headquarters.” Australian Defence Force Journal 158: 23-28.

Kallinikos, J. (2005). “The order of technology: Complexity and control in a connected world.” Information and Organization 15: 185-202.

Luttwak, E. N. (2007). “Breaking The Bank: Why Weapons Are So Expensive.” The American Interest.

Mark, G., V. M. Gonzalez, et al. (2005). No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. CHI 2005, Portland, Oregon.

Smith, H. (1998). “Australian society: vanguard or rearguard?” Australian Defence Force Journal 130: 19-22.

Williams, R. (2002). Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.

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