For Air Commodore Jack Plenty, getting to oversee construction of the new Defence headquarters is the chance of a lifetime - not to mention an opportunity to prove that public/private partnerships can succeed
Small wonder that for Air Commodore Jack Plenty, director general, Headquarters Joint Operations Command Project (HQJOCP), getting to oversee construction of the new Defence headquarters - to be located near Queanbeyan, New South Wales - is a major, major buzz. The project gives Plenty the chance to do what many IT project managers will never be able to do in a career spanning a lifetime: to develop a high-tech, greenfield site from scratch.
"It's certainly an exciting project, both in the sense of the command and control systems and the capability we're putting together down there, but also going into the first Commonwealth privately-financed construction, particularly on a greenfield site, and the size it is," Plenty says.
"It's great from both the command and control systems side and the construction side, so we can do a lot of things at once on the same paddock."
Plenty says the HQJOCP - which will create the new co-located operational level joint headquarters by as early as the end of 2007, and which is projected to be fully operational no later than mid 2008 - will be good for Defence, providing long-awaited command and control capacity. It will also gift the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) with a more effective means of commanding the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
When completed the HQJOC will be a high-tech facility for planning and conducting operational activities from war fighting to United Nations operations, from regional activities to support for disaster relief. Plenty calls it crucial to the Australian Defence Force's ability to concurrently conduct a range of war-fighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, support the Australian community and synchronize military support with the efforts of other government departments and agencies to meet national objectives.
"The establishment of the new headquarters and the co-location of the chief of joint operations and operational commanders and staffs in a purpose-built facility will allow for more informed and responsive advice and improve the passage of information," Plenty told an Estimates hearing earlier this year.
"The synergies of co-location will enable improved situational awareness and more effective coordination of planning at the strategic and operational levels, leading to increased operational effectiveness - all of which are essential to the Australian Defence Force's ability to function effectively in complex, multidimensional operational environments.
"The headquarters will enable enhanced command, control, communications and information systems arrangements. It will also enable the rationalization over time of communication and information management processes, and maximize interaction across all functional areas within the headquarters."
With the RFT process well under way, Plenty, who has been working closely with users to "square away" essential design issues, says the main criterion, apart from cost, will be the flexibility tenderers can promise to incorporate into the building.
Having a dispersed joint headquarters has led to significant time and cost inefficiencies in the planning and conduct of operations, according to the Department of Defence. In putting the case for the new headquarters, the Department argues operational experience in the command and control of operations in East Timor, Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq, and support across the region and within Australia, all point to a compelling need for a new co-located headquarters capability to achieve simpler and direct command for Australian Defence Force operations.
To address these deficiencies, the new $300 million headquarters will merge seven existing military headquarters and agencies situated in and around Sydney to create the new co-located operational level joint headquarters in a state-of-the-art facility.
It will bring together for the first time the Chief of Joint Operations and strategic staff in Canberra, the Deputy Chief of Joint Operations and joint staff, Component Commanders (Maritime, Land, Air and Special Operations) and their staff, the Joint Operations Intelligence Centre, and 1st Joint Movement Group located in Sydney, and a portion of the Headquarters Joint Logistics Command staff currently in Melbourne.
The Department of Defence believes situating commanders and staff responsible for the planning and conduct of single service, joint and combined military campaigns, operations and other designated activities in a single complex will vastly improve decision making by senior ADF commanders.
The Department says the 1000 or so operational staff, most military, will undertake tasks currently performed by strategic staff in Canberra, Joint, Component, Intelligence and Movements staff in Sydney, and Logistics staff in Melbourne.
The new headquarters structure should also make it easier for the Chief of Joint Operations (charged with linking assigned forces with national logistics support, and ensuring assigned forces are always adequately prepared to meet operational requirements) to plan and conduct campaigns, operations and other designated activities and enhance his ability to provide the best possible military advice to the Chief of the Defence Force on the appropriate employment of military forces.
Plenty's group has already toured equivalent joint headquarters overseas - including the British brownfield Ministry of Defence refurbishment in London and its Permanent Joint Headquarters run from a secure bunker in Northwood - fishing for ideas and inspiration.
"We went and spoke to the Swedes," Plenty says. "The Swedes were heading down the path where we are, in actually bringing their Maritime, Air and Land components together, and we think we're slightly ahead of them. They're coming all to the one retired air base - they've stopped air operations, but they're keeping the base - but they're going to be at the moment in separate buildings on the base; they're not going to build a new headquarters with everyone in it. So we and the Swedes are about akin in thought as to where we want to go; we think we've gone that extra step, they haven't got there yet.
"So we looked at what they were doing, went and spoke to the Americans, had a look at the Pentagon and what they're doing in a command centre sense there, went down and looked at some of their experimentation areas, and went across to Pacific Command in Hawaii and looked at the new headquarters built there."
While the approaches of these allies will input into Australia's HQJOCP, Plenty says having the chance to start from scratch on a greenfield site could give Australia an enormous advantage.
Search for Value
In March this year the government endorsed private financing as the preferred method of procurement for the buildings and infrastructure component, subject to value for money being demonstrated. The idea is for Defence to choose a consortium to complete the building and infrastructure component after a competitive two-stage tender process. The successful tenderer will build, own, operate and maintain the facility for a lease period of 30 years, after which it will revert to the Commonwealth.
The business case anticipates that the private financing of the buildings and infrastructure component will deliver better value for money, significantly reduce overall support and operating costs and achieve a cost-effective transfer of risk to the private sector. While experience in this financing model within Australia is limited, Defence hopes it will ensure timely delivery, provide cost certainty for a defined scope and deliver sustained quality service. It also expects to achieve improved financial management and accountability on a whole-of-life basis. Defence will retain responsibility for the procurement and delivery of the command, control, communications and information systems by direct procurement.
Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill said earlier this year the decision to finance the facility privately marked a sea change in Commonwealth procurement, as this was the first time government had sought to privately finance the construction and maintenance of a major facility on a greenfield site.
"The successful tenderer will be responsible for the design, construction, financing, operation and maintenance of the new headquarters as well as providing infrastructure and ancillary support," Senator Hill said.
"When the facility is commissioned, Defence will lease the headquarters for an initial period of between 20 and 30 years. Although contract security staff will undertake the physical security requirements of the new headquarters, Defence will retain oversight and responsibility of security, in much the same manner as at a number of other Defence establishments. Defence will also retain responsibility for the delivery of the command, control, communications and information systems."
Plenty says he sees only positives in the fact that the project will be the first in which the government will seek to privately finance the construction and maintenance of a major facility at a greenfield site, while conceding the arrangement moves managing the project into relatively new territory. But he says key to the success of the arrangement will be the closest possible collaboration with users, especially upfront.
"Because we're going into the RFP stage and it is by private finance, we need to put everything in an output specification. In previous construction models, we would get a preferred tenderer and then there would be a long period of going through a design phase with that tenderer and with our users. In this case we need to have all that squared away to the best we can before we select our preferred tenderer, so it's a different process, going through private financing.
"What it does is it actually requires the users, and us working with the users, to make sure as best as we can we've got those output specifications down solidly, and not six months later saying we really want to change all our offices by an extra 10 metres or something," Plenty says.
"And it's exciting in the sense of keeping the central agencies - Treasury, Finance, and Prime Minister and Cabinet - on board, and keeping them abreast of where we're going, because we have to go back to Cabinet next year with our preferred tenderer. And clearly what we don't want is one of them coming up as we're developing the paperwork, saying 'how did you get there and tell me all about it', and then we spend a month or two just explaining those sorts of things. So we're keeping those users in and keeping the central agencies interactively involved."
The idea is to all but eliminate scope creep.
The Howard government determined private financing of the facility would provide the government with some significant advantages throughout the term of the lease arrangement, believing it would allow a cost-effective transfer of risk to the private sector, improvements to financial and risk management throughout the life of the lease period and reduced financial exposure because lease payments are not required until the facility is successfully commissioned.
However, some analysts are not so sure, and doubts about the private financing model are growing. While Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements are proving increasingly popular with governments around the world, the decision to go down this route comes at a time when some very public difficulties with some projects - including delays and cost blow-outs on projects like Victoria's Spencer Street Station - are posing real questions about their merits.
For instance Graeme Hodge, Professor Faculty of Law with Monash University, told ABC radio listeners on September 22 this year that there was a huge diversity of findings on whether PPPs were cheaper and better. Hodge said the issue was complex, and all claims demanded careful scrutiny. At one extreme, cost savings the UK National Audit Office claimed, and some academic analyses, suggested good value for money in eight out of 10 cases. At the other extreme, though, were stinging attacks on treasuries accused of hastily signing up to these deals and willingly turning a blind eye to accounting trickery.
Hodge also argued the jury was really out because we were only a few years into contracts that operated for long periods of time and legal fights over contract clauses were probably now part of the expected deal.
"We therefore all need to be careful when assessing whether governments are being trustworthy stewards of our tax money or whether they are being policy advocates and signing deals at interest rates higher than necessary."
Hodge cited several concerns with PPPs, including the incredible legal and financial complexity of the contracts bundled together for delivering new infrastructure. For instance he noted contracts for Melbourne's CityLink deal measured several metres in height and demanded a gaggle of lawyers to interpret. And he wondered whether, in an age of altered governance and accountability assumptions, it was acceptable for any government to make long-term arrangements, which inevitably reduced the ability of the next dozen elected governments to govern in our interest.
"As well, we need far more debate in contemplating whether we should trust legal commercial contracts alone to regulate our future public infrastructure services. Citizens in our privatized state are now most concerned about the reducing public accountability in politics. So with PPPs, they are beginning to ask who will oversight new related legislation and planning? Who should look after the contract deals and regulate how risks are handled for decades to come? And who will protect users and evaluate these projects on behalf of citizens? Perhaps the transparent work of parliamentary committees, auditors general and regulators all needs strengthening," Hodge noted.
That is a debate that could take decades to resolve.
The Headquarters Joint Operations Command is more than just another government office building
The Headquarters Joint Operations Command Project is not so much a building, its project managers insist, as a command and control capability.
The new Defence headquarters will be smart enough to know who is inside and more or less where they all are. The intelligent building is also likely to be intelligent listener-capable, with automatic speech recognition and automatic transcription technologies embedded organically into its command and control environments so that occupants can produce and retain electronic recordings of planning sessions, and get archival access to drafts of session transcriptions.
The entire building will be a quasi-Faraday cage - clad in metal and featuring mesh shielding on the windows - to ensure the 5000 or so on-desk computers and 1000-odd mobile phones inside on any one day have no EMI/RFI (electromagnetic interference/radio frequency interference) impact on the Molongolo Observatory Telescope some five kilometres to its south-east.
Nor is future-proofing neglected, with saturation cabling on raised floors and systems smart enough to know who is plugged in where they're supposed to be - all in the service of providing flexible, easy access.
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