Training to Fight and Win – the Royal Navy and Capita.
The Royal Navy has announced that Capita has won an almost billion-pound contract to deliver training on its behalf across 16 sites. This contract will play a major role in bringing together the delivery of a range of services across the UK to enhance training for the Royal Navy.
Although Capita are the lead bidder, the contract brings in a variety of different companies together under one consortium to deliver this, and at its peak will employ over 1,000 staff delivering training.
Is this a good outcome for the Royal Navy, or is it a case of scraping the barrel to save money in defence cuts?
One of the often-forgotten things about the RN is that at its heart the organisation is fundamentally a learning organisation. Training is hard baked into the DNA of the RN, from the very first day you join, until you come to leave the service years later, service personnel are expected to attend and participate in all manner of training and development.
When you consider the breadth of training on offer, you begin to understand the complexity of the RN as an organisation. Operating on, above and below the sea, as well as ashore, Royal Navy units embrace some of the most complicated and challenging machinery, technology and weapons in human history. The range of responsibility covers everything from nuclear propulsion systems, to advanced sensors through to avionics systems and nuclear warheads.
This technology is useless though without the core maritime skills embedded in each and every sailor, who is able to go to sea and operate safely and effectively in one of the most unforgiving and lethal environments on the planet. They also need to be trained in how to not only fight the enemy, but also the other hazards that can put themselves and their ship in danger.
A significant amount of training in ancient seamanship skills and maritime safety has to be delivered to ensure that ships can be sailed effectively, brought in and out of harbour, refuel and resupply at sea and in all respects be able to remain at sea and deliver maritime presence, and not be a dockyard wall fixture.
There is a need to train people to not only understand how to work as a team and under pressure, from initial new entry training through to more advanced leadership training and training in how to command at various levels.
Moving beyond the ships equipment and fittings, and there is also a need for training in the huge range of processes, policies and procedures that make up naval activity. This can range from supply officer training learning how to be responsible for inventories through to learning how to marshal aircraft on a busy flight deck or be a professional photographer.
Finally there is the need for wider academic training in how to work together at a staff level, for example at Shrivenham on the various Staff courses, or via academic placements to expand individuals knowledge.
When brought together the sheer range and complexity of training that the Royal Navy does is enormous. It has to cover operations from the depths of dark oceans all the way through to aviation operations and increasingly focus on outer and cyber space too.
For many years training has been delivered in a variety of formats, with a significant commercial provider role in delivering either the training , or supporting the sites facilities. Most RN establishments and courses will have already got some form of contract support, ranging from provision of hot meals and hotel services through to having contractors running training delivery on courses.
There is a well-trodden path for service leavers to take up posts in various sites as instructors, continuing in almost identical roles and providing a reservoir of training experience and advice to the next generation.
The move therefore to provide this to Capita is not that big of a shift – it is merely the next step in bringing together much of the work done already into a more coherent contract. There is much to be said for the benefit of having a more coherent approach to this sort of activity, and rather than having dozens of subcontracts, managed by multiple service providers, instead manage it on a more coherent level.
The award of the contract perhaps highlights the challenges facing MOD in general around finding the balance between Service, Civil Service and Commercial approaches to activity and training.
On the face of it, many people would wonder why the MOD is not delivering this training ‘in house’ through military personnel, and why is it asking a private contractor to take the risk on of operating and delivering training courses?
Part of this comes down to the challenges of headcount. The Royal Navy is, like all three services, short staffed in some critical areas and many posts in what could be seen as less vital roles are gapped (e.g. not filled). This creates the problem of both not having enough people to properly train others, and also increases pressure on the front line too if posts are gapped there to support shore roles.
By delivering this training through a contractor then, on paper at least, this should free up a not inconsiderable number of uniformed personnel to fill posts elsewhere that are currently gapped. In pure numbers terms, hiring some 1100 people to deliver this training is not far off 3% of the total Royal Navy/Royal Marine headcount. This represents a lot of extra resources becoming available to support training delivery in various roles.
Of course, this only works though if the right people are in the right roles, and a real challenge will be to ensure that the contractor hires and delivers qualified people in the right numbers. If there is a shortfall then the RN has the worst of both worlds – its paying for a service that will not be properly delivered, and it will need to find staff to bail the contractor out too to ensure training does occur. This is potentially one of the biggest risks for the contract.
The wider risk for the RN is that if some posts are civilianised then this may reduce shore opportunities for some areas. On paper this is great as it permits people to be drafted to sea going appointments and fill gapped billets.
But one of the big challenges historically has been balancing the gap between busy sea going appointments and time at home in ‘softer’ roles intended to provide family stability time and a chance to get a better work-life balance between sea going tours. Lose this respite and many people may vote with their feet – as the saying goes, the RN recruits sailors and retains families – it needs to ensure that families do not feel seen off by this.
A key benefit of this move is that it should, if fully delivered, provide the chance for the Royal Navy to improve the speed by which it can get sailors out to the front line. It should identify possible inefficiencies in the training process, and ways in which things can be made more efficient.
One advantage of having a commercial partner is that they are incentivised to find ways of working that are more efficient. Unlike most Government organisations where turnover and profit are not drivers (with the exception of trading funds), industry has to monitor and be driven by its financial bottom line. If there is a way to improve training by doing things more effectively, then they are strongly incentivised to do this.
Properly done, this may reap significant longer term benefits for the RN by improving its people situation and helping making its training processes far more effective. As anyone who has done a ‘five day course’ with padded out tea breaks, early secures and a Friday afternoon ‘personal study period’ will know -there is plenty of fat in the system that could be culled if the will is there to do this.
Another significant opportunity of this contract is the chance to modernise the training estate and make it fit for purpose. For all the talk of how MOD focuses on the front line, it is also an extremely large property manager, with over 2,000 sites and roughly 137,000 buildings or facilities on its books worldwide. The estate is diverse, aging and often historically old and not ideal for 21st century purpose.
If there is an opportunity within this contract to enable the reduction of legacy buildings and sites that may have a strong emotional lure, but little in the way of modern value, then this should be taken. The benefits for Defence of operating modern facilities with good accommodation, strong wifi and hot showers should not be taken for granted. The future will hopefully be fewer but more capable sites than lots of little ones – the public expects the defence budget to be spent on training to defend against threats, and not maintaining and repairing elderly listed buildings in obscure training sites.
There has been some negative coverage of the award due to Capita’s reputation over the handling of the British Army recruiting contract. Its hard to say whether this is deserved or fair – this was several years ago, many people have moved on, and the contracts are fundamentally utterly different in scope and content. It is hard to compare like for like here.
But what does matter for the future though is that the contract in place is not only properly written, but that it is run and operated in a way that works for the customer. If the contractor doesn’t have to do something, or delivers the minimum necessary service because that is the standard specified then the fault of that probably lies with those who came up with the requirement in the first place.
The (possibly apocryphal) tale of how the wake-up call with tea in shore-based Wardrooms was replaced when these facilities became privately run by kettle and teabags, because the contract merely specified provision of tea in the morning (but not how to provide it) is a good example of this.
The strident call of ‘Cry God for England, Harry and J8’ is unlikely to ever be widely heard, nor will ‘top third’ ACSC students tell their appointer that their pointy hand of command is best deployed in a contract management post working with finance types. That is perhaps is a shame because to get the best from a contract requires good people to know it and to hold the contract provider to account while working to fix challenges that arise.
It is traditionally not the done thing to advocate more Civil Servants (horrible vile things, best left undisturbed in the manner of a coconut flavoured Roses chocolate), but contract management is something that really matters.
Ensuring that properly empowered civil servants who remain in post for a long period of time, with good training and experience, and most importantly who are properly rewarded for their work and not incentivised to leave on promotion or jump ship are central here. Finance and contract management needs to be seen with the same importance, credibility and value as the punchy policy posts in Whitehall and attract the same top tier talent to compete for them.
If there is one thing that will make this most effective it is ensuring that proper scrutiny occurs, and that people feel that the holding to account function is as critical to delivery of national security objectives as more tangible defence outputs. Simply put, making sure this contract works is as important to the Royal Navy as any deployment of a warship abroad in terms of long-term impact and our national security.
Overall, this contract is an important step forward for the Royal Navy – it provides an opportunity to modernise training delivery, and ensure sailors get the best possible support and preparation to go to sea in a safe way.
It will ensure our ships remain able to stay on station far from home due to having engineers properly trained in repairs and maintenance, and most importantly it will ensure our people have the cutting edge skills, understanding and ability to engage with and defeat the enemy. It ensures the Royal Navy stays at the head of the pack as a world leading, globally focused navy whose training ensures it can go sea, ready to fight, and win whenever it is called on to do so.