The black tie the Prime Minister wore yesterday to announce that Australia will be sending troops to actually shoot their guns in Afghanistan may well reflect a sense of foreboding about giving an increased task to a military when a government report released last week claimed “the current range and nature of military operations is causing stress in Defence, and excessive pressures on senior people.”

The damning report released late on the eve of the Easter holidays, and thus barely reported so far in the press, certainly warned John Howard that all is far from well in the Department of Defence, which was described as an organisation which “has confused its accountabilities.”

The Labor Shadow Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was not exaggerating when he described the report of the Defence Management Review as highlighting “the dysfunctional relations between the Minister, his staff and defence planners and managers.”

Behind the restrained language to be expected in a report to government, commissioned by government, is a story of a department with so much money to spend “there is now less concern about efficiency than in the past. Management information is inadequate, and many of the processes we would have expected to find to support such a large, complex organisation (information technology and human resources) are also deficient and in some cases not aligned with the desired future direction of Defence.”

The report reveals the breakdown of relations between the Defence ministers and the public servants and military officers supposed to be serving them.

The report said:

The perception is that Defence performance in quality, reliability and timeliness of advice remains poor despite having many of the better practice  processes in place.

In examining the issue, we concluded that the factors behind this were:

  • The lack of common understanding between ministers’ offices and Defence can mean that expectations are not always met.
  • The size, complexity and hierarchical nature of Defence can delay responses.
  • A culture in Defence which emphasises due process over timely responses.
  • Lines of communication to the Minister and his office are limited to very few people (the Secretary and CDF, for example) and not many others.

The Review committee gave some examples of the evidence it received to illustrate these points:

“Defence management will continue to be a problem for successive Defence Ministers until they develop a climate of partnership founded on trust and mutual respect.”

“I believe that at times Defence sees the Government as an ‘obstacle’.”

“The information flow can be frustrating. The Minister’s saying “I am informed that…” but other things tend to turn up later. Abu Ghraib was one instance of this.”

“Only a change of culture will prevent problems recurring.”

“There is a significant lack of responsibility and accountability in Defence. I have observed over a long period of time that people in Defence insist on having processes set out for them so as to escape accountability—this is a systemic problem.”

“There is evidence of corporate fragmentation— groups doing their own thing and getting away with it; behaving as owners rather than tenants; looking after their own interests with no regard to cost or the difficulties they cause other Defence stakeholders or the portfolio as a whole.”

“As a general problem across the organisation, people just don’t take accountability.”