Friday, 17 December 2010

Wicked procurement problems . . . ?

“Scandal of £6Bn squandered by the MOD" (The Times, lead story 14th December 2010). Even allowing for the Times ability to exaggerate and take the most conservative view of any numbers (after all they are stable-mates with the Sun these days), the numbers look pretty eye-watering. In fact, more noughts on a number than most of us – including me – can get our heads round.
So – what on earth went wrong?
I don’t accept simplistic explanations that ‘procurement processes need to be tightened up’. Or that individuals or teams are to blame; most public servants I come across work extremely hard to try and do a quality job.
The scale of the loss suggests to me that something more systemic is going on. And I found myself returning to a theme I have explored elsewhere – so-called ‘wicked’ problems.
These are problems that are complex, with multiple causes; problems that are emergent. That is, they are created by the conditions that give rise to them and constantly change as those conditions change.
It seems to me that defence in the 21st Century is all about wicked problems. Asymmetric threats from highly organised and sophisticated non-state players (like Al Qaida) sitting alongside more ‘traditional’ threats from states such as Iran or Russia.
So how do we tackle such threats? Well, like all wicked problems I suspect they are not amenable to a singular technical solution – some magic bullet like Trident or a new aircraft carrier (with or without planes to fly from them!).
So the threats the UK and elsewhere face appear to me to be wicked problems. However, I also suspect that recent solutions have themselves turned out to be wicked problems. This appears in part be self-inflicted; that is the nature of the solutions that are proposed are conventional and tend to be around bigger better, faster, more lethal TECHNICAL capabilities. Yet can those deal with wicked problems? Take the recent air craft carrier debacle covered in the Times. The threat was perceived to be state-sponsored conventional forces . . . so the solution was supposed to be lethal air strike capability deployable anywhere in the world – which requires planes that fly from concrete or floating platforms. Ironic then that the greatest threat at present appears to be non-state-sponsored unconventional so-called asymmetric forces. And doubly ironic that our lethal air strike capability may not include any aircraft . . .
Be that as it may – the proposed solution itself becomes a wicked problem; how do you procure capability that will take many years to become operational, by which time the world will have changed? And how do you make such procurement successful, in an organisation hampered by slow, cumbersome procurement that is almost certain to mean delivery occurs beyond the time horizon for which you have meaningful scenarios.
I’m no defence specialist, so my probably naive view is that part of the answer must be as for my related post; multiple approaches that are themselves meant to be emergent and able to adapt. Not a single, magic bullet capability.
But if the BIG capability is required, the procurement itself needs be handled differently – as a wicked problem. Working in collaboration with multiple partners in a way that allows the capability to evolve and adapt to a changing world. And I also suspect that a highly traditional command-and-control structure such as that in the MOD is probably incapable of dealing with such approaches. Don’t misunderstand me, I fully understand why command and control is needed in frontline troops when lives depend on the speed with which decisions are made and orders carried out. But put that into a (civilian) procurement context . . . how can the creativity required to deal with complex, multi-cause wicked problems be engendered from individuals who are in the thrall of leaders who have successfully led their forces into life-threatening situations? My contention is that it probably can’t.

So, MOD procurement appears itself to be a wicked problem. Ideally, lets not fall into the trap of seeking a single technical handed down ‘solution’ as a cure-all. But if we do . . . can we at least treat the establishment of that solution as a wicked problem?

Lastly, spare a thought for Bernard Grey the man charged with sorting all of this out. A non-MOD man - in fact a non civil servant; what advice would you have for him?
- how should he approach the challenge of dealing with such a large and byzantine organisation?
- does the system itself make the problem(s) worse? And how can the system be changed?
- are these 'wicked' problems - and if so how can large organisations respond to the uncertainty involved?

No comments:

Post a Comment