07 November 2017

The new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has plenty of critics he needs to prove wrong. Daniel Thornton advises him to learn from his predecessors.

Ministers usually serve as apprentices – junior ministers – before they run departments. Gavin Williamson has been appointed to his first departmental ministerial role as Secretary of State for Defence.

Several of the interviewees in our Ministers Reflect series describe the Whips’ Office as a “great training ground” for being a minister. However, as Defence Secretary, Williamson is now in charge of the largest public sector workforce after the NHS, with a budget of £35 billion per year.

The international environment remains unstable and the defence budget is under severe pressure due to cost over-runs and excessive commitments made in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This will require difficult short-term decisions about cuts, and longer-term ones for the spending review being led by the National Security Council in the Cabinet Office.

If Williamson wants to prove his critics wrong, he should draw upon the advice of his predecessors. And he won’t find a better source than our nearly 80 Ministers Reflect interviews with former Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. 

Williamson should set his own priorities – but not rush

Senior civil servants at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will have many issues they feel need quick decisions. But as a first step, Williamson must take the time to learn about the department and the armed forces: the MoD is a complex department, and often seems more so because of a world-class use of jargon.

Once he has found his feet, to be successful, Williamson then needs to set a manageable number of priorities and regularly follow up on them. This was a consistent theme from the Ministers Reflect interviews. For Liam Fox, speaking of his experience as Defence Secretary from 2010-11, that meant: 

“Knowing what you want to do and communicating it very clearly and not being ambivalent or ambiguous about it.” 

Williamson must make full use of the help available to him as Secretary of State

Driving these priorities cannot be done alone. Williamson must ensure he has an effective ministerial office. Ministers, according to the former Minister of State for Defence Nick Harvey:

“….have got to have a strong private office and they have then got to trust them to get on and make judgements on their behalf.”

Appointing effective special advisers is also important, and is often a priority that can easily slip down the list under the pressure of events.

Junior ministers are not always seen by secretaries of state as assets because of political rivalry. But the junior ministers at MoD have almost a decade of cumulative experience of the department. As the former Business and Housing Minister Mark Prisk says, a Secretary of State needs to see him or herself “as a team leader” of the other ministers.

Where the new Secretary of State finds effective decision-making structures, he should make full use of them. The Departmental Board, for example, brings together ministers and advice from the civil service, the military and non-executive directors, giving the Secretary of State a rounded picture. Mark Francois (Minister of State for Defence, 2012-15) found that:

“….the MoD Board was taken very seriously and was a genuine tool for exercising ministerial authority.”

Williamson must learn from Chilcot

A good dialogue with senior staff is important. Liam Fox, in his Ministers Reflect interview, remarked that:

“….the senior military, they had pretty much an open door. If they had a problem they could come and see me….I preferred them to come and tell me about their problems, rather than wading through paper.”

The Chilcot Inquiry showed how challenges to policy or accounts of what was really happening in Iraq were filtered out and did not always reach the top of the department. Williamson needs to challenge the advice he is given, and create an environment in which it is safe for others to challenge him and each other.

As Mark Francois says:

“If you go into the Ministry of Defence cold, with no military knowledge at all or no prior experience, it is a pretty steep hill to climb.”

We will find out how far Williamson has made it up that hill on 27 November at his first Oral Questions in Parliament. Williamson will need to put on a strong performance, particularly for his own backbenchers: many of whom consider themselves to be defence experts; and many of whom are critical of his appointment.

Further information

Explore Ministers Reflect, a collection of nearly 80 candid interviews with former ministers.


Above all, the new Defence Secretary needs to get a handle on the procurement process used by MoD to acquire military equipment.

It is instructive to look at the recent history of defence procurement in the UK – so that people can understand and appreciate the reasons why the Ministry of Defence is in such a mess right now.

Such was the intense focus of attention and diversion of resources onto examining alternative management models for MoD’s arms-length defence procurement organisation at Abbey Wood during the 2010-2015 Parliament, that the urgent need for the existing, flawed procurement process to be replaced by a new acquisition policy which deals with the usual delays and cost overruns, was completely ignored by the then coalition Government.

The main reason why the Government went down the GOCO route (the so-called Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated governance model) is that it was deemed not to have the necessary skills in-house, to undertake its procurement duties with confidence, and was accordingly persuaded to outsource this role to the Private Sector instead. However, the inability of the Government to find and install a Private Sector operator to run MoD Abbey Wood on a for-profit basis has left it in the worst possible situation – the status quo – which guarantees ongoing failure on defence equipment procurement programmes.

Indeed, the quality of management skills in the Public Sector is so poor that there is not a single person in the pay of the State who is equipped with the necessary blend of leadership/communication skills, specialist knowledge, cross-discipline expertise or prior experience to, not only correctly identify the deep-seated problems associated with the existing procurement process but also come up with simple, workable, easy-to-apply solutions which will tackle these shortcomings – yet, it is the responsibility of Government to shape, and then implement acquisition policy which will deliver equipment to the Armed Forces that is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life.

This lack of leadership talent and management capability in Whitehall would explain why there is a massive void in defence procurement policy.

In response to this deficiency, the governing elite has concluded that there is an urgent need to inject Private Sector skills and practices into the business of Government. However, the policy of replacing just the top man at MoD Abbey Wood with someone from a Private Sector background, in the expectation that the commercial acumen he brings will ‘rub off’ onto people around him has not worked at all, nor has it delivered dramatic improvements in efficiency hoped for, and demanded by the political elite.

What is urgently needed is injection of tried-and-tested Private Sector skills not only at the top, but right down every level of the hierarchy at MoD Abbey Wood – but especially at the coal-face level, where it matters most, in numbers large enough to make a tangible difference to performance outcomes.

In addition, this top man should be given the power to choose lower-tier post holders ‘in his own image’ (as well as releasing the existing lot) so that he can assemble a delivery-orientated management team which is focused solely on results.

A priority should be for the SoS to address the chaos in the MoD on who the MoD employs, this problem has been known about for years in the Department.

If Williamson has any sense, he will use his "new boy" position to best advantage. Asking the "idiot boy" questions, which many politicians are afraid to ask in case they look stupid or naïve. You often find some of the significant weaknesses in any organisation by building on simple, even naïve, open questions and pursuing them thoroughly. Seek a page of key facts and figures on each of the main military services and one on procurement. Speak to former Ministers. Ask questions and keep asking them. Behave as though you believe you'll be there for the next 4 years. Don't rush in to try and score some easy political points. Don't let MoD bog you down with paperwork and meetings. Give yourself time to understand what you are learning. Reflect. Then set your priorities and pursue them relentlessly. It's easy to get sidetracked.