Friday, September 20, 2019

CDSN Workshop #1 With A Bullet: Defence Procurement

The Canadian Defence and Security Network has two basic parts: a headquarters that is running all kinds of activities to train, connect, and amplify (the website/twitter account/podcast are the first visible/audible efforts there with much more to come) and five research themes--personnel, procurement, operations, civil-military relations, and security.  Those five themes/nodes/groups/whatever will have workshops and other efforts each year that will hopefully build to five distinct research programs over the first three years of the grant, and then we will re-set and then have five new research programs over the last three years of the grant.

Yesterday, we had our first workshop, and it was within the procurement theme, organized by Philippe Lagassé--a fun irony that procurement moved most quickly.  It brought together individuals (rather senior ones) from the relevant agencies/divisions within the government, from academia, and from civil society.  We did not have any folks from industry, i.e., defence contractors, because that would have impacted what the government officials could say.  That plus Chatham House rules helped to produce a very robust conversation of the challenges facing those trying to get the "kit" to the Canadian Armed Forces, and the efforts they have made to overcome a variety of obstacles.

As someone who does not study procurement--I was there mostly in my capacity as the Director of the CDSN and not as a researcher--I was very much drinking from the firehose.  I didn't understand many of the acronyms, and it took me half of the day to figure out why the "colour of money" mattered (or perhaps not)--whether it comes from operational funds or capital funds.  I learned a great deal and so here are some of the things I picked up along the way.
  1. It works!!  That is, the CDSN is an effort to get academics and military and government folks together so that we can understand each other.  The officials gave up a significant hunk of time, which is a precious commodity, to hang out with the academics yesterday, and the exchanges were quite forthright.  So, the efforts over the past five or six years to build this network paid off, and, yes, I am very pleased by that.  
  2. The Defence Policy Review that produced the Stronger, Secure, Engaged report has been pretty meaningful.  While the exercise might have been aimed at producing certain results, it did lead to a greater focus and more resources on improving procurement.  The various pieces of that document have become signposts for policy-makers.  While procurement is hardly fixed, the SSE seems to have led to a variety of improvements that make spending more predictable, that have empowered folks at lower levels, and so on.
  3. A key aspect of this is that Treasury Board, which holds the money in Canada essentially, and DND have overcome much earned distrust from the past and have figured out ways to move projects, especially less risky ones, along faster.  
  4. I have a new favorite acronym: SNICR (pronounced like either the candy bar or a kind of laugh) or Snow and Ice Capability Recapitalization.  It refers to snow removal systems--snow blowers--that the military needs and procures.  
  5. Betterment is not just something advertised on podcasts, but language used by Treasury Board to refer to efforts to improve an existing system rather than procure a new one (I think).  I asked why not use "Improvement", but the folks in the room just go along with TB jargon.
  6. Talking about risk in this kind of setting is strange.  Why?  Because we can think of at least three kinds of risk--wasting money on a failed program, getting unwanted political attention, and people being at risk of losing their lives.  So, we need to be clear about what we mean by risk as some kinds of risk aversion make more sense than others and some kinds of risk acceptance might be necessary to move more quickly. 
  7. The politicization of procurement, as analyzed by Kim Nossal, who was at this workshop, is a real impediment to improving stuff.  Why? Because it creates an environment of risk aversion.  Innovation requires failure--you have to try a bunch of stuff and then keep the stuff that works and accept the wasted money on failed efforts.  But if there are politicians and parties out there willing and eager to blow up any mistake into a major political issue, it deters folks from taking risks and thus stunting innovation.  
  8. One way to handle this is to be far more transparent.  That most news stories gain traction after those in office deny that there are problems.  If the parties could agree (holy collective action problem) not to take every bit of procurement bad news and make it a talking point for the most simplistic soundbite in Question Period, we might create an environment where the folks doing procurement take reasonable risks that allow stuff to move faster.
  9. Oh, and why do we need to be more agile, moving faster?  Because defence procurement is ultimately about getting better stuff to our troops in the field, in the skies, and at sea so that they are not outclassed by our potential adversaries who are also innovating.  I am not so certain autocrats do procurement better/faster as in such systems, taking risks and then having failures can mean more than political embarrassment--people can get killed.  But still, moving slowly in a high tech environment is not a good way to keep up with one's allies and stay ahead of one's adversaries.
  10. Which leads to one conclusion.  We need to discriminate.  That is, we need to develop different procedures and different rules for different kinds of projects.  Stuff involving info technology probably needs a different set of procedures than boots or tanks.  One size fits all does not work, so the question is can we come up with procedures that vary, depending on not just the size of the project but the nature of the thing being procured.  Maybe sole sourced projects (no or little competition) makes sense under certain circumstances rather than being an excuse for one party to crap on another? 
Again, I don't know much about this stuff, but I feel like I have a much better idea of some of the big questions and challenges.  My hope and our plan is for this workshop to lead to not just another one in year two and another one in year three, but a pattern of sustained interactions so that we academics get better data, get a clearer idea of the questions, and that when we start to develop some evidence-based research and policy implications, that we have a receptive audience.  That is one way in which the CDSN research themes will work.  There will be other models in the other themes, where it is less your turn, my turn, your turn, and more co-creation.  The key is that there is a productive conversation going on, and I am so very pleased.  That Phil did a great job bring folks from various realms together, that the government/military folks put in much thought and were quite open about the challenges they faced, that there were great conversations not just between government types and academics but among the government folks themselves.  And that the students (MA and PhD) involved got a great deal out of it.

Money for value, indeed. 

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