National Defence makes limited progress in finding more procurement staff

Military equipment purchases plagued by delays

OTTAWA — National Defence has made limited progress on the Liberal government’s promise to hire hundreds of additional staff to manage the military’s many complex procurement projects.

A shortage of personnel has been cited as one of the reasons that efforts to buy new military equipment such as fighter jets and warships have been consistently plagued with delays and cost overruns in recent years.

The Liberals touched on the issue in the last election, promising in their platform to expand the procurement section “to ensure that projects avoid the bottlenecks that have plagued our Armed Forces.”

Patrick Finn, assistant deputy minister of materiel, who oversees procurement, said last year that the plan was to expand his 4,200-strong workforce by about 10 per cent to help unsnarl the military purchase system.

But figures provided by National Defence show the department added only 83 positions over the last 12 months, an increase of less than two per cent.

Even with the new hires, the department has about 100 fewer procurement experts now than it did in 2014 — and less than half the 9,000 employed in the 1990s.

“Much like any knowledge-based industry, finding and hiring the right people with the right mix of knowledge, experience and expertise is a challenge that DND is actively addressing,” National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.

“And while we consider it a good thing that the overall number of staff has increased, we will continue to work on improving our training efficiency and accelerating the development of our personnel in achieving operational status.”

The federal auditor general has previously identified staff shortages, as well as a lack of experience and poor training, as factors in the troubles facing the military procurement system.

National Defence itself acknowledged in 2011 that “HR capacity remains one of the top risks to the delivery of the capital equipment program.”

More recently, there have been concerns about burnout and low morale among procurement staff.

David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, who highlighted the shortage of military procurement staff in a paper in 2015, said the section was hit hard by budget cuts in the 1990s and has never recovered.

Budget cuts implemented under the previous Conservative government starting in 2012 exacerbated the problem, even as the department was managing more projects than at any point in recent history.

“So you have a dynamic of half as many people doing twice as much,” Perry said, adding that the addition of extra oversight has cancelled any potential gains made by automation and digitization since the 1990s.

But Perry wondered whether the government is doing all it can to speed up the normally “glacial” government hiring process.

“They’re hiring people to run complex procurements, it would seem, just as slowly as they are people to staff generic administrative functions,” he said.

Former military procurement chief Alan Williams said one solution to addressing the problem would be to create one department that is responsible for managing military procurement.

National Defence shares much of that responsibility with Public Services and Procurement Canada, which Williams has long opposed on the basis it creates extra red tape and a lack of accountability.

“If they really have a shortage of people in the procurement business, there’s an easy way to not just fix the numbers problem, but to sort out the right accountability,” he said.

“And until they do that, I have no sympathy for them.”

— Follow ↕leeberthiaume on Twitter.

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