Defence’s Biggest Capability Limitation is (Arguably) its Workforce

Andrew Balmaks, 7 min read

The Defence Strategic Review (DSR) brings into sharp focus the challenges faced by Australia with respect to strategic policy, defence planning and resourcing over the coming decades.

In particular, a discussion on future resourcing of Defence is an important outcome, adding weight to existing efforts and reviews within Defence that are aimed at creating a blueprint for workforce development for at least the next 20 years.

The multiple reviews and attention being afforded to the Defence workforce is no mistake. Arguably, there’s no greater limitation to Defence’s capability today.

The DSR appears to agree on that front, describing Defence’s workforce challenges as “acute”, “significant” and “severe”.

Of the three uniformed services, the challenges are most felt in Navy, but broadly speaking, “the ADF and Australian Public Service (APS) workforces [in Defence] are understrength,” the review states. Contractors, meanwhile, have become “the largest single component workforce element.”

While rebalancing workforce make-up is a policy goal for government, the question then becomes, ‘How?’

Defence’s Biggest Capability

The response is likely to be multi-faceted. At a high level, it may require initiatives around ensuring existing ADF personnel are utilised in a way that provides the greatest benefit and effect; re-engaging with skilled ex-ADF personnel that now sit outside of Defence to invite them back into the fold; and creating pipelines to attract and retain talent in the mid-to-longer term.

It’s worth considering each of these potential responses in a little bit of detail, but also with some urgency.

Geo-strategic circumstances at present have compressed the timeframe for Australia to find and secure an appropriately skilled Defence workforce.

As this is not the kind of workforce that can be grown overnight, some creative thinking and approaches will be required to locate and assemble the necessary skilled personnel, with action that can begin as soon as is practicable.

Using existing skills to best effect

An immediate area of focus should be identifying where uniformed personnel are best-placed to focus their time and effort – within their respective organisations, within Defence as a whole, or at-large.

Defence will need to review how it allocates its uniformed workforce, to determine the extent to which they are utilised on work that most closely matches their experience and skills. Also critical is the need to ensure that there is a balance that allows uniform personnel respite from operational postings.

On the flipside, the same review should identify where uniformed personnel spend time on less- or non-differentiating work that could be performed by others.

Activities that do not use the ADF workforce to the best extent possible may be those that are duplicated or replicated across the Forces. A shared internal function may be one way to solve this for areas where there’s a commonality or overlap in requirements; alternatively, it may be judged a candidate for outsourcing. Either way, some difficult conversations will likely be required to convince Forces to forgo control of the delivery of a certain function, particularly if it’s something they’ve done for some time.

However, given the findings of the DSR, it’s important that something changes.

Adopting a mindset or starting position where all workforce decisions are based on whether personnel are being utilised to their greatest effect would be a significant step forward. By definition, that will not be everywhere they apportion their time today.

The creation of the Defence Personnel Capability organisation, headed by Lieutenant General Natasha Fox is the first step in this process to bring together some of the like personnel and career management functions carried out within the Navy, Army and Air Force. What needs to happen now is to validate where further rationalisation of skills and therefore workforce is required based on like functions which are carried out across various areas in Defence.

Re-engaging ex-ADF personnel

The review also recommends setting up and leveraging the national support base to fill skill and capability gaps.

A positive for Defence is that this national support base of skills already exists, albeit not in a formalised or structured program. Former ADF personnel contribute to Defence capability through their involvement in Defence and other support industries and through technical and consulting professional service providers to Defence directly.

There are also many people with uniformed experience that sit in the private sector and the APS outside of Defence that could be enticed back to Defence. Appealing to them to re-engage with Defence again could be a realistic response to addressing critical skills shortages.

A specific strategy to engage ex-ADF personnel will need to be drawn up and acted upon. Again, it would be ideal for work on this to start relatively quickly, as it may take some time to seed, build and mature. Other nations offer models for accessing the national support base and these might be a good place to start. Most importantly, consideration of re-engaging ex-ADF personnel must be broader than just getting them back in uniform. There are many roles ex-ADF personnel could undertake that would provide significant value to Defence – one example being training. The flexibility of employment they offer where they can move rapidly from task to task without the constraints of the posting system, should be used to optimal effect.

Building new talent pipelines

In the mid-to-longer term, Defence will need to build and maintain a talent pipeline that can help the department – and Australia – to meet its long-term strategic needs and objectives.

The demography of the nation is changing, and this demands a change in the mindset if the ADF is to remain representative of the Nation it defends. Further, and more importantly, the motivators for that section of the population the ADF is most attracted to are changing; and therefore, the ADF’s value proposition needs to change.

Boosting ADF numbers has been on the government radar now for at least the past year. The DSR provides a good framework for determining the specifics around allocation and training of uniformed personnel.

But there will also need to be changes at the policy and operational levels to maintain the capabilities within Defence over time.

The public version of the review demands an “innovative and bold approach to recruitment and retention” of personnel, trimming recruitment processes to “days, not months” and raising pay and service conditions “as well as workplace culture” to be “highly competitive” with the broader labour market.

About the author

Andrew Balmaks is the Executive General Manager for Advisory & Consulting. He works across strategy development, major transformation, investment management and benefits realisation for organisations. Andrew has worked with clients around the world in the Asia Pacific, USA and Middle East.

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