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Stephen Lovegrove: The challenges facing the Ministry of Defence

The new Ministry of Defence change programme is a positive step to improving the department’s flexibility, but Robert Buck says significant problems remain around funding its ambitious equipment programme.

Stephen Lovegrove, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), came to the Institute for Government this week to launch a bold new change programme. While elements of the MoD’s culture may have been new to him a year ago – the surprise of being welcomed with “cold tea and rum” on his first day – Lovegrove seems to have settled in quickly.

Stephen Lovegrove

Modernising the MoD – still a long way to go

Lovegrove does not shy away from highlighting security threats, even going as far as to say there is “evidence that powers such as Russia are not unhappy with the idea of mass migration across the Mediterranean”. He notes that: “In troubling times people look to Defence...and there is no doubt that these are uncertain times…with a world which itself is transforming in new and sometimes alarming ways”.

With instability in North Eastern Asia, the threat from ISIS, and cyber-warfare, it is all the more important that the MoD modernises. Progress has been made since the 2011 Levene Defence Review, which recommended how Defence should be structured and managed.

However, Lovegrove is refreshingly frank in his assessment that there is still a long way to go. Issues at the MoD Head Office (which combines the roles of government departments and military headquarters) are down to neglect of long-term planning and strategy, a lack of innovation and an “overly hierarchical approach” that does not empower staff.

A strong focus on human resourcing

Lovegrove is confident that the new reform programme (what he calls the ‘Head Office Design Programme’) will address these challenges by having a strong focus on changes in human resourcing. This includes:

  • increasing the number of senior posts, including to strengthen policy capability
  • encouraging diversity
  • devoting expert resources to efficiency savings (£20 billion over the next 10 years)
  • flattening hierarchies by moving responsibilities down to the lowest appropriate level.

These changes will include aligning MoD grade structures with those in the rest of the civil service, an issue we have previously highlighted.

On networks and information, Lovegrove is committed to bringing an “expert and authoritative voice” to sit “at the top table of Defence”. To achieve this, it is important that the lessons highlighted in our recent report – Improving the management of digital government – are taken on board, including educating senior people on digital issues.

However, the discussion leaves four important unanswered questions:

1.  Resources

The 2015 Conservative manifesto committed to increasing the defence equipment budget by 1% above inflation each year, while the 2017 manifesto changed this to a 0.5% above inflation increase for the overall defence budget. Pressed on what this and the depreciation of Sterling would mean, Lovegrove says: “If Sterling stays where it is, then we will have to change some of our assumptions. Exactly what that will lead to is not clear at the moment.”

2. Army size

The 2017 Conservative manifesto dropped the 2015 commitment to keeping the army with at least 82,000 personnel. While Lovegrove stresses the opportunities of a more flexible approach by “reinvigorating and revitalising the regular reserve”, an audience member highlighted from their own experience major doubts over the Army Reserve’s ability to adequately replace regular military personnel.

3. Defence and security review

Lovegrove argues that the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review does not need a wholesale reassessment or replacement, but would require some tweaking and refreshment. What this means in practice is unclear, but this issue will need to be addressed soon.

4. Culture change

The MoD has a strong culture with positive elements but has proved resistant to change in the past. Although Lovegrove commits to improving the department’s diversity of background and thought, in part to address the issues raised by the Chilcot Report, it’s an open question as to whether the change programme will succeed where its predecessors have not in modernising defence. 

Lovegrove’s new reform programme is definitely a step in the right direction, but further efforts are needed to address these outstanding issues.

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