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This needs to be printed and posted in every government department and agency in Canberra—and in Parliament House.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the transformation of the military is less to do with hardware, and terms such as ‘jointness’ or ‘multidimensional manoeuvre’, but about social and organisational structures.

And that includes the role of women in the military:

But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.

Perhaps the status, command and roles undertaken by women can be used as one indicator of the evolution of Western militaries beyond the traditional, conventional, Napoleonic paradigm—and even of willingness to engage in the heavy lifting of counter-insurgency.

Brought up as an old-school Army warrior, Mr. Baumann said he had seriously doubted that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear, the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat.

“I found out differently,” said Mr. Baumann, now chief financial officer for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “Not only could they handle it, but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in their abilities.”

Mr. Baumann’s experience rings true to many men who have commanded women in Iraq. More than anything, it is seeing women perform under fire that has changed attitudes.

These are not lessons easily learned, or transformation understood, by militaries that carefully constrain their involvement in such engagements.

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.

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The following statement is remarkable:

“There is not a murmur of dissent, I said to that collective group of defence leaders that they needed to sell this message, they needed to get on board or get out,” he said. (ABC 2009)

Frankly, given that ultimatum, it would be indeed surprising were there any murmuring of dissent at all.  Still, to be fair, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Defence Department in need of a submarine or twelve, and new pay system, must also be in want of reform*.  

I can understand the frustration of ministers and senior leaders trying to change a bureaucracy such as Defence.  Bureaucracies have inherently high levels of inertia: in a bureaucracy, constancy, certainty and sameness are prized qualities.  

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June 2017
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