Revenge of the PMSL
Jan 15, 2009

Several articles critical of the Department of National Defence’s ability to deliver a host of major and minor crown projects have surfaced recently. Most have focused on the “weak” commitment to provide resources necessary to expedite needed purchases of services, equipment and sparing. This suggests an innate inability by either the military or the public servants to manage projects or to fulfill their assigned mandate for re-equipping the Canadian military.

As a former Logistics Officer, I am neither surprised nor upset by such comments. We, the Canadian military and the Department of National Defence, did it to ourselves. It is another classic case of ill-­considered and hasty decisions that return downstream to haunt us.

Prior to 1995, Capital projects were given a fairly high priority. In addition to funds, there was a pool of human resources that could be called upon to assist in any incremental work “overload” forced on NDHQ, Command, Base or units by a project. Grant projects still bite into unit establishments, but the pool resources went a long way to ameliorating the pain. That, in fact, was the main purpose of the Project Management Source List or PMSL.

The PMSL was a product of the aftermath of the fiasco that surrounded the Major Crown projects of the 1970s. The provision of qualified personnel to major projects was both haphazard and ineffective. Some areas in capital projects were massively overstaffed while other sections of the same project often received little to no Human Resources support. The absence of a suitable protocol and instructions regarding personnel created an administrative nightmare for project managers and wasted valuable resources in a time of significant fiscal and personnel constraints.

In the early 1980s, a new system was set up to manage the allocation of human resources to projects. Initially located within the ADM(Finance) corporate structure, the PMSL eventually migrated to ADM(Personnel), to consolidate functions such as personnel planning and career ­management. The PMSL remained as an ADM(Per) task until the program was ­terminated in 1995.

The protocol for gaining access PMSL resources was fairly simple and straightforward. Once a project was noted on the Defence Services Program (DSP) the project was defined in a rough order magnitude and included estimation of the costs for both fiscal and human resources in the ­definition phase of the project life cycle.

If the project survived the vigorous annual “scrub downs” that were held at the National, Group and Command levels, the sponsor would be given the necessary fiscal and human resources to begin to refine the rough order magnitude numbers into more refined and reliable costings.

Each Group and Command had an oversight agency that would work with the PMSL manager to ensure that appropriate numbers, skills and experience levels were established. This forecast had to stand the scrutiny of a Project Management Board which either approved all facets of the proposed project or sent it back for further refinement and revision.

Once the document was accepted by the Project Management Board (PMB), it was then sent to both ADM(Fin) and ADM(Per) for further review and concurrence. At this juncture all of the positions were Vote 1, which mean that in addition to the work being done by a Directorate staff, incremental positions were taken from the approved human resources level of the CF or DND, creating vacancies throughout the various establishments of military units and civilian agencies.

This was the famous “MADVAC” ­program which spread the vacancies throughout the forces. Career Managers would block various establishment line positions in order to provide personnel from their trade area to a project. The project had to go through a number of other “reviews” until it could be presented to the Treasury Board by the Minister as a final submission.

Once Treasury Board indicated its approval for the project by indicating that it was both affordable and appropriate, it still fell to the Minister, Deputy Minister and the CDS to convey the final project submission for Major Crown projects to the Cabinet in order to obtain the necessary approval and financing. Once approved all of the expenses were sourced from “Vote 5” capital funds, including personnel. In order to account for the funding and expenditures, project positions were annotated as being Vote 5. This then enabled the CF and DND to recruit, train and utilize new personnel to take the place of the Vote 5 assigned personnel who would be involved with the delivery of the equipment and ancillary programs such as initial provisioning.

While there was the odd “bump” in the personnel system, by and large the system worked extremely well. The career managers tended to place their older, experienced personnel into the Vote 5 projects and promotion boards selected well qualified personnel for promotion in order to fill the vacancies that were created by the PMSL. It was, as they say, a “win-win” ­situation with the experienced staff going to the project and their vacancies kept the various occupations alive and vibrant.

At its zenith the PMSL contained some 2300 positions of which 500 to 600 were Vote 1 positions and the remainder were Vote 5. All of the projects were given the necessary resources and there was also enough flexibility within the PMSL to meet unforecasted requirements. Speaking with other nation’s equivalent agencies, they would often express their envy at our ­balanced and nonprejudicial manner in which we did business. However, with looming defence cuts on the horizon, it was too good to last.

Under the auspices of a “peace dividend,” and the need for deficit control the newly elected Chretien government directed a reduction of both public servants and military personnel. For the various seniors charged with carrying out the reductions the PMSL was a big target. Despite a spirited defence by both PMSL management staff and Capital project staff, major cuts were directed and the residue of the PMSL was allocated piecemeal to the three operational commands. In addition, the oversight mechanism and the various review boards were also terminated. The PMSL shrunk from 2300 to 630 personnel and then was terminated with the remaining 630 personnel being divided between various groups. The rapid cancellation revealed a desperate lack of foresight and planning on the part of the “designers” of the new structure.

One of the major side effects of this decision was the disastrous effect that these decisions had on the various MOCs and the personnel assigned to the various projects as either Vote 1 or Vote 5 project staff. Instantly many trades became overborne with senior staff and many MOCs were required to significantly downsize. Accordingly, significant numbers of project and matrix experienced staff in the logistics and engineering classifications were faced with either accepting the “Force Reduction Program” (FRP) package or a very stagnant career. Many opted for the FRP package and occupations such as Logistics went from 2200 positions to approximately 850. This is not to suggest that other MOCs didn’t suffer similar reductions, they did. But the loss of the core of the Logistics Branch would have significant and far reaching effects on the DSP. The loss of expertise coupled with a much reduced project workforce of 630 positions created the current untenable position. Without this core of expertise to handle both the main project and associated workload, it was easy to foresee major problems on the horizon. All of these risks were explained to the various staffs, but to no avail.

The final briefing to the MRCCT Board was an arduous event. We explained in great detail the projected effects of their decision on the current on long range ­projects.

We noted a very clear fact that seemed to elude the board. There was not an “infinite capacity” within the establishments of either NDHQ or the Commands to absorb the additional workload that would be created by new ­projects.

These agencies had also been downsized and were drowning in their present workload. We had previously highlighted this fact and had established a pool of human resources (PMPYS) to meet the needs of various involved directorates. Many of these “specialist” agencies were experiencing “the death of a thousand cuts” on directorate staff caused by the incremental work imposed by both major and minor projects and had difficulty in meeting their regular duties. Many NDHQ veterans can relate to this fact that the “Matrix” staff were selected for several concurrent projects. Some NDHQ Directorates complained loud and long that this “part time” project workload often left them no staff to deal with the various tasks that were required to be done in their mandate. With the demise of the PMSL all such support fell by the wayside and the Directorates and agencies were left to fend for themselves.

Sadly, the PMSL was seen as an unwanted bureaucratic parasite that needed to be banished in order to save the “real military.” Moreover, they reasoned that if they needed extra assistance they could always contract out to civilian industry – a well known “sink hole” for funds. Delays and difficulties were inevitable, especially with the advent of major operations and an increase of demand for personnel. Shortfalls that should have been addressed by DSP ­projects were now Urgent Operational Requirements that further exacerbated the ability of the CF and DND to bring home needed projects on time and on budget.

As a previous member of a number of PMBs, I was often brought in to provide background on the previous establishments of several Major Crown Projects, and it was interesting to see former members of the MCCRT whining about their inability to make any substantial progress because they did not have enough staff. I suspect they must have all developed “collective amnesia” as they were the authors of their own misfortune.

By all accounts, we are once again back to the conditions of the early 1970s, with no relief in sight. It will take money, time, and the commitment of significantly more personnel to be able to properly manage the projects of the Canadian Forces.

It is not often that one gets to say this but: “we told you so!”  
A former Air Force Logistics Officer, Major (ret) Rob Day is a military historian and defence analyst.
© FrontLine Defence 2009