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The British Are About to Jump the Shark 

11  2,012 

By Harvey M. Sapolsky 

The British government is considering privatizing the Department of Equipment and Support, which is the Ministry of Defence’s procurement arm.

Tentative plans call for the use of a government owned, contractor operated (GOCO) arrangement, and come after a series of British weapon acquisition disappointments that include the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, the Chinook helicopter and the Astute class submarine.

The British justify the need for a GOCO arrangement on the grounds that the department cannot attract experts with the right technical and management skills.

Those of us fond of “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” know that Sir Humphrey, the permanent secretary-level British civil servant who starred in these BBC TV series, didn’t need anything more than his arts degree from Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) to run everything.

Here in the former American colonies, which supposedly suffer from the lack of a British style, elite corps civil service, we use GOCOs extensively, but not as extensively as the British are now contemplating. We use them to run laboratories like Los Alamos in New Mexico and to manage production facilities like the Lima, Ohio, tank plant. These are places that are too science-oriented or too businesslike for government to handle.

The British, however, want not only to outsource bomb design or tank building, but are outsourcing government oversight. Handed over to contractors would be the British equivalents of the Defense Nuclear Agency and the Army Materiel Command, the agencies which hire the contractors to manage laboratories or plants that make things.

Here is where the British seem ready to jump the shark. There are five potential managers of the weapon acquisitions process: politicians, military officers, technical experts, contractors and civil servants. Politicians are involved because they represent the political will of the citizens but cannot be expected to have more than general knowledge of what they supervise. They come and go with the change in administrations.

Military officers represent the interests of the combat users, but generally have limited technical knowledge. They, too, rotate in and out of programs.  Technical expertise is needed, but belongs on tap in laboratories or universities where the ability to manage anything is a rare skill. Contractors can bring the needed technical and managerial skills, but they appropriately have to put stockholder interest first.

That leaves the civil servants who are supposed to offer technical and managerial skills but also loyalty to the government’s interests, which in the case of weapon acquisitions, requires the balancing of political, military and contractor needs. Military projects must have political support, which legitimately includes doing things such as keeping locals employed and worrying about small businesses as well as serving some party’s concept of an American strategic need. 

Weapons have to work for the operators and be affordable to the taxpayers.  Contractors have to make money to keep in business. The civil servants put all of this together and provide the continuity of governmental supervision, the necessary accountability public programs require.

And if the civil servants have lost the skills required, they should not be fired. Rather, they should be given a chance to rebuild their skills. We have done the former since World War II, with the creation of federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) such as MITRE, the Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Aerospace Corporation.

FFRDCs gives government contract managers technical and managerial assistance from sources bound to the government’s interest and only the government’s interest. The zeal of the past three decades to contract out has caused some important deficiencies in the civil service.

The solution isn’t to do more of the same until the government is totally dependent on private interests. If that happens, the country has jumped into the shark tank, not over it.

Harvey M. Sapolsky is a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught defense and health policy courses and was until recently the director of the MIT Security Studies Program. He also is an occasional consultant to defense firms.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto
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