A total Defence workforce transformation

Reform has published a new case study that details the work of the Australian Defence Force, in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable global climate, to create a flexible and adaptable Defence force that it can maintain with maximum efficiency.

The introduction of a “Service Spectrum” allows, and encourages, the workforce to move between Regular and Reserve service and offers various levels of time commitment through the service member’s career and life stages.

This initiative has placed the ADF in a better position to respond to changes in the workforce, the security environment and the economy. Transforming the nature of its Defence service will deliver a more agile, capable force, and mitigate future risks of skill shortages and changing security threats.

A total Defence workforce transformation

Australian Defence Force

Breakout quotes

“The Defence Force competes in a wide open market with the very best talent we could possibly get from across the country and indeed in terms of our lateral transfers across the world. We do it because we are a small elite defence force. We want to apply a disproportionate strategic effect in the battle space to overcome our small size, through our potent force. And the only way we can do that is by having the finest people our nation can bring to the fore. That’s my priority, that’s the Government’s priority. How do we get, how do we retain, how do we develop, how do we encourage, how do we promote the finest young Australians to become the finest Australian Defence Force that we possibly can. And this is the genesis in the birth of Suakin”

Hon Stuart Robert, Assistant Minister for Defence, November 2013


In a rapidly changing world, all NATO nations are working out how to respond to new and unexpected threats, technological advancements in warfare and societal weariness of intervention operations. This is especially prevalent in those countries which have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade; the result is a society tired of the cost in both blood and treasure. However, at the same time the world is experiencing a significant amount of instability: unrest in the Middle East, humanitarian crises in Africa, increasing population migration and a resurgent Russia redrawing European national boundaries, to name just a few. In an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable global climate the Australian Defence Force (ADF) recognised that it needed a flexible and adaptable Defence force that it could maintain with maximum efficiency. External labour market and foreign policy ambition meant it was necessary to consider how defence capabilities could be delivered more efficiently. As such a large proportion of the Defence budget, the personnel cost needed to be reviewed and reformed, to ensure that it was being used to its optimal capacity.


To meet the labour market and economic challenges, which included slow growth and elevated unemployment[1], Defence recognised that it needed to be able to use its entire workforce in an efficient and flexible manner, while still generating the required capability. This meant that it had to consider both its permanent staff and reservists. Reservists in the Australian military continue their civilian career or education and commit at least 20 days a year to serving in the Australian Defence Forces. They have the option to deploy on operations but can also serve at home. Defence needed to provide an offer that would recruit and retain the best possible workforce, in the most efficient manner.

Project Suakin (named after the first Australian military action that used both regular and volunteer citizens in 1885) was launched in 2010 with a remit to understand the legal and administrative barriers to more flexible employment terms for military personnel. Its mission was to create “employment arrangements and conditions of service for a Total Force optimally balanced between Regular and Reserve Components having regard to capability, cost and culture that enables Defence to select the best balanced force for any mission.”[2] It also sought to provide an offer that would allow people to be able to choose to undertake a civilian job, or have a career break, and still be able to return to military service.

Project Saukin considered the challenges faced by service members looking to switch between full-time, part-time and reserve Service, or between Services; and the challenges faced by the Services to retain capability in a changing fiscal environment. The study took an evidence based methodology collecting extensive primary data and analysing secondary data sources to inform the design and highlighted areas for discussion. For example, the debate over provision of tax-free dollars versus a pension for Reservists was a much discussed topic. The predictive behaviour model sought to link cause and effect between changing the employment offer and the resultant personnel behaviour. The model showed that a pension became an increasingly motivating factor the more days that a Reservist served. This was due to their Defence work shifting from providing supplementary income to a primary income. As a result different pension and tax-free remuneration models were developed for less than full-time service categories.

The plan is being rolled out in stages; phase one of Suakin implementation was completed in June 2014 and phase two is now underway. This will run for the next two years and will see Suakin’s full implementation: managing the transition from current systems and processes to the new system and deliver the Chief of the Defence Force’s vision for a “Total Force”.[3] The project requires changes to legislation, personnel policies, personnel regulations, practices and behaviours to deliver a lasting workforce model that will give Defence the required agility.


Project Suakin offers a flexible “Service Spectrum” with options for a full range of full-time, part-time and casual service categories across both the permanent and reserve categories. These will provide the ADF with the required capability as well as the flexibility to better meet member needs. Founded on the concept of a Defence career as a career for life, the plan was designed to increase members’ contribution to Defence, while delivering a more agile, capable force to mitigate the future risks of skill shortages and changing security threats.[4]

The Service Spectrum allows, and encourages, flexibility to move between Regular and Reserve service and various levels of time commitment through the service member’s career and life stages.  The Service Spectrum consists of “Service Categories” that include the traditional full-time and reserve models, but also adds new permanent and non-permanent part-time contracts. The transfer process, to move across the Spectrum, will be streamlined.

Each Service Category aligns remuneration and allowances to match the level of service or capability that individuals provide. The Spectrum introduces new ways of contributing to Defence. For example, by formalising project work (using civilian and military skills housed in the workforce), and defining new models to collaborate with private sector employers by innovatively sharing employees between the two organisations. An example of this is an arrangement between Thales and the Navy to share members in a Dual Employment arrangement to commence in September 2014. This requires refined career management processes and structures to support the new service spectrum, rather than the existing “two-speed” career management structure that sits alongside the current regular and reserve constructs. This will allow all service, in whichever category, to be considered in an individual’s career and lifetime of service.

One of the common challenges faced by attempts to integrate reserves and permanent service members is access to military communication and IT systems, especially for those who live far away from the military base that they are attached to. The launch of the ForceNet IT system provided ADF members with the ability to access information from anywhere and at any time. Therefore, allowing people to log on remotely to fulfil administrative tasks, rather than travel to a military base. This saved money on travel, and improved flexibility, data quality and connectivity.

The study found that the change in offer of service conditions could influence up to 51 per cent of Regular leavers to transfer to the Reserve.  In addition, 68 per cent of Reservists said that they would likely serve longer if the offer changed. An additional 119 Navy critical skill leavers are predicted to move to the Reserve each year by 2021 rather than leave completely as a result of the changes (this is worth over $70m in saved costs as well as having huge benefits to capability). Changes to Reserve allowances to better reflect Reservist needs have already been implemented and will save $21.7m per year.

The increased flexibility enables the organisation to use its workforce much more efficiently, by flexibly drawing on both the permanent and reserve workforce components and improving the mobility between each.  There have been five key benefits of Project Saukin identified to date:

  • Increased workforce productivity and flexibility, enabling the Services to meet their ongoing capability requirements while better accommodating members’ circumstances. This has included an increased number of people returning from leave (e.g. Career break, maternity leave).
  • Improved retention, particularly where the Services currently struggle to maintain the right numbers of the right people. This has enabled skills and knowledge to be retained through increased transfer from Permanent force to the reserves and in turn enabled reduced turnover of permanent force members who are in critical trades or high turnover areas (e.g. Marine technicians and medical practitioners).
  • Reduced barriers between all elements of the Services through improved use and awareness of flexible work options.
  • Improved diversity within the Services.
  • Reduced costs to the Services for example by enabling a reduction in Service costs through rationalisation of allowances for Reserves (eg. Attendance Allowance and Reserve Allowance)

However, the benefit is not only to the service but also to the individual, enabling long-term, rewarding military careers by providing flexible career options that all ADF members can seek as their circumstances change. It will give greater predictability of work patterns for reservists and better align remuneration to obligation and contribution to capability. These flexible career options will help retain a motivated workforce.

The change in the offer of service conditions has placed the ADF in a better position to respond to changes in the workforce, the security environment and the economy. Transforming the nature of Defence service will deliver a more agile, capable force, and mitigate future risks of skill shortages and changing security threats.

Oliver Latham is a Senior Manager at EY and worked on the design and phase one implementation of Suakin for two and a half years while working in Australia.

Katy Sawyer – Researcher at Reform

[3] Land Warfare Development Centre (2011) The Army Objective Force 2030 Primer, Defence Publishing Service, Canberra p 12




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