Friday, June 5, 2015

New Oversight Styling: The Independent Review Panel

This week, the Canadian government announced the "Independent Review Panel for Defence Acquisition." The Terms of Reference specify what the panel is and is not.  The panel is an effort to improve the Canadian defence procurement project, but is only one part of a larger effort.  I am interested in this panel for a few reasons:
  1. These days, I am obsessed with oversight as that is the key issue at the core of the big project for the next five years (thanks SSHRC!).
  2. I have long been critical of Canadian defence procurement.  But to be fair, all democracies mess this up, so it will be interesting to see how much this panel "fixes" it.
  3. My friend and co-author, Philippe Lagassé, is one of the panelists, so I will have much fun teasing him, trying to get him to spill the various beans.
Anyhow, over the past week, I have conversed with a number of people about this to figure out this thing, as it is not entirely clear what it is supposed to do.  Expectations may be set on high, when they should be set on "huh?"  Let me explain.  The basic idea is that this panel will review procurement projects at the beginning, not at the middle or end.  They will assess the gaps that the Canadian Forces identify--we need x capability.  Really?  And then they will assess the options being proposed to deal with that gap.  They will not be looking at defence projects that have already made it through those steps (unless the Minister of Defence or Deputy Minister asks).

The reason why this panel seems to be needed is that there is a credibility gap between the Canadian Forces and the government/parliament/public/media/etc: that the military has previously stated requirements it needs and has done so that has limited the options for procurement.  My guess is that this panel is in part driven by F-35 regret--that perception that the Air Force had a particular outcome in mind and then designed the requirements to lead to that outcome.

This panel is designed to examine and challenge the assessments of the military long before it gets to contracts and the like--is there a real capability gap?  What are the ways to fill it?  Which leads to one of the big problems that this panel cannot fix: that the reigning policy statement that defines the threat environment and the basic missions of the Canadian Forces--the Canada First Defence Strategy [CFDS]--is obsolete.  It has been overcome by events--most importantly the fiscal crisis that reduced funding for the military and the government's desire to fund the military.  Other intervening events include the end of the Afghanistan mission, the new ISIS missions, and, oh yeah, the new Cold War with Russia (you can call it whatever you want, but Russia is not the friendly partner that folks might have been imagining in 2008 but an opportunistic, aggressive country engaged in provocative land grabs).  But the panel's job is not to evaluate the threat environment nor how the government intends to deal with the threat environment but the capabilities and the lack of same in dealing with such threats. [Nor is the Panel revising the implications of the Jenkins report that makes industrial benefits (jobs/votes) a key priority in making decisions]

Back to item #1, I have found the various discussions very interesting and very relevant for the Steve/Phil/Dave project on legislatures and militaries, as this is very much about oversight.  That the government has decided that the agent (the military) needs to be overseen better, given the procurement problems of the past and present.  The innovation here is to have an independent panel (some retired public servants, some folks from industry who have severed any ties that might produce conflicts of interest, and one not so random academic) shine a spotlight on the early stages.  The idea is not just investigate problematic statements of requirements but also to cause the military to anticipate the spotlight and thus compel the military to do a better job of developing their requirements and explaining them in non-military-ese.  It also is somewhat an indictment of the parliament's ability to do oversight (which they often say is not their job).

The good news is also the bad news.  The panel has the ear of the Minister as it is a creature/creation of the minister.  Their reports will be advice to the Minister/Cabinet.  This means they can be blunt.  Which is good.  The bad news?  An effort to build confidence and trust in the procurement process will be entirely behind closed doors.  Advice to ministers is the stuff that Access to Information Requests go to die--that these things do not come to light.  Panelists can refuse to answer the questions of the Defence Committee as they are obligated to report only to the Minister.  The members of parliament can ask the Minister what the panel said, but they cannot ask the panel what they tell the Minister.

So, the only way that the media, the public, and the parliament will develop more trust and confidence in the procurement process is if this panel does such a good job in scrubbing the statements of requirements and the options analyses that Canadian defence procurements stop having heaps of overruns, delays, and the like.   Since the panel is only involved at the very start and much can go wrong even if they do a terrific job, it will be really hard to tell if this process works.  

Still, the idea seems to be a good one, and the people chosen are sharp, responsible folks.  I think it will improve Canadian procurement processes, but I am not sure that we (the public, random academics, etc) will ever be able to discern the impact of this panel given that this is a complex process and one that is still covered in secret sauce that parliamentarians cannot penetrate.

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