Few government jobs are as demanding as that of Permanent Under-Secretary, or PUS, in
the Ministry of Defence. With Liam Fox as your boss, General David Richards as your colleague, and an exhausted, overspent department to run, it is no surprise that when Bill Jeffrey retired many
of the government’s most senior officials – including, it is said, No 10’s Jeremy Heywood – balked at the challenge.
Forward stepped Ursula Brennan, who until then had held the ministry’s No 2 job before a career in the Ministry of Justice, and what is now the Department for Work and Pensions. Here, Mrs Brennan
has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her role:
Daniel Korski: The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) remains controversial, with many experts voicing concern about both its speed and the decisions made. Looking back, what
would you have liked to have seen done differently; and, looking forward, what reforms will in 20 years be seen as the most important?
Ursula Brennan: The timing of the new Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review simply didn’t give us the luxury of a lengthy SDSR. More time would have enabled us to include
more external engagement and to engage our own people more, but w needed to make sure that the SDSR and the CSR were coherent. What will endure? We’ve identified the Armed Forces we
will need for the next ten years, and the changes that are required to deliver them. And we’ve launched the Defence Reform Unit, led by Lord Levene, which will report later this year. I
am confident that it will result in the biggest reform of how we run defence since the 1980s. If we succeed, this will endure for decades.
DK: With the SDSR finished and implementation under way, what will be your personal priorities in the next two years?
UB: Reforming the Department so that it is shaped to face the challenges ahead is a key priority. So is implementing the SDSR. On top of that, when I took on the job of
Permanent Secretary I had three personal priorities: to restore the Department’s reputation for value for money, to work with Gen Richards to improve the Department’s ability to make
strategy, and to make the engagement and involvement of all staff a higher priority for the leaders in MoD.
DB: Every month it seems a new story about mismanagement in defence procurement hits the newspapers. The Treasury Committee recently said the MOD had a “poor record”
when dealing with major contracts and repeatedly over-commits its budget. How will you ensure the department learns from past mistakes and improves procurement?
UB: The NAO, in their last Major Projects Report, acknowledged that the Department had done a lot to improve its performance on acquisition in recent years. I encourage people
to look at what it says in full. But we still have a legacy of some very large, expensive and troublesome projects. We launched a programme to implement Bernard Gray’s report on
acquisition and we now have Bernard himself on the team as the new Chief of Defence Materiel. There are many strands to our acquisition improvement work but one of the most important is
getting the forward equipment programme down to an affordable size. The SDSR made major strides in that direction.
DK: While supporting NATO’s Afghan mission is the military’s main effort, how will you help ministers and the military ensure that the MoD learns the right lessons from
its on-going experiences yet prepares itself and the military for future missions that will look very different than Helmand? Do you, for example, think an Afghanistan Inquiry will be necessary
along the lines of the Chilcot Inquiry?
UB: The MoD has a range of mechanisms for learning lessons from current campaigns, at various levels across the Department. We are currently looking at whether we are doing enough
to draw all of this together on a regular basis. We recognise that future missions may well look very different to those taking place in Helmand. The SDSR deliberately set itself the objective of
identifying a posture and set of capabilities for the 2020s, rather than for today’s circumstances. As for an Afghanistan Inquiry, the time to discuss the case for one will be after the
campaign has concluded.
DK: Some senior MoD officials have voiced concern in private that the Ministry – and the defence decision-making process – is becoming dominated the Service Chiefs and the
military, while the MoD’s civilian staff are being marginalised. Commentators like Max Hastings are on record worrying that the MoD no longer produces security policy experts like Michael
Quinlan. Do you agree with this assessment? What will you do to boost morale and skills so that the MoD has the kind of workforce that is needed to implement a reform programme and keep
civilian control of the military?
UB: The analysis which fed into the SDSR and the Strategy for Defence were led by our civilian Director General for Strategy; our previous DG for Security Policy has just been
promoted. I think both are top quality security policy experts. The MoD has a vigorous, civilian-led security policy group and civilians “hold the pen” on security advice to
Ministers. As part of Lord Levene’s work on Defence Reform we will restate and clarify the distinct “Department of State” role of civilians. But I recognise we need to boost
morale in the Department, hence my commitment to improve engagement with all our staff.
DK: Cooperation between the MoD, FCO and DfID is meant to be something government gets better at, but successive studies, as well as experiences from Helmand, have shown how
difficult cross-departmental cooperation actually is without structural reform, which the SDSR avoided. How will you personally aim to improve inter-departmental cooperation – will you
have a deputy from another department, for example?
UB: The Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team is impressive testimony to the success of MoD/DfID/FCO co-operation on the ground. At the strategic level, the machinery
supporting the NSC was initially dominated by production of the SDSR. With that under our belt, we are now beginning to identify the areas where we need to focus the efforts of our strategy units
on national security policy. The Departments will also build on the successful collaboration in the Stabilisation Unit and work to identify the key international security and defence jobs and
ensure we are growing a talent pipeline with the confidence to operate successfully in key national and international roles.