Reforming Defence Governance


Image credit: Corporal (Cpl) Jay Naples, MARPAC Imaging Services, Esquimalt


by Ross Fetterly
September 8, 2021

Institutional-level political governance is a central, yet under-appreciated element of the public administration of defence resources in Canada.  Good governance in defence is focused on the efficient delivery of institutional priorities, while achieving defined objectives effectively and in the national interest. Fundamentally, it is about gaining and maintaining public trust of government decision-making.  Specifically, this concerns the structures that provide clarity in regard to accountability, responsibility and the support to effective decision-making processes. While public trust in defence has decreased in recent years, for a number of different reasons, such as sexual misconduct and significant procurement problems, reinforcing and strengthening governance processes should be a priority of the next federal government. This focus needs to reinforce the role of the federal government and political process in exercising authority over the Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) institutionally. Specifically, this involves reforming the responsible national political committee: the Standing Committee on National Defence.

Federal governance in defence focuses on departmental ability to effectively develop and enforce rules, while simultaneously delivering the required services.  Essentially, it centres on ensuring execution in a manner driven by government policy. The importance of national governance in defence through Parliament cannot be understated.  This is emphasized by Transparency International, which considers the lack of good national defence governance as presenting significant risks to a country. Similarly, a United Nations report on governance has highlighted the eight major characteristics that define good governance: participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and finally, following the rule of law. Foremost within the federal government is cabinet’s collective decision-making on defence. This includes cabinet committees that both directly and indirectly impact defence, as well as defence policy.

The present global security environment is encountering both uncertainty and non-linear shifts, which are compelling countries to re-evaluate their defence postures. In the current high-turbulence threat environment, re-evaluating national defence institutions for the currency of their governance structures is warranted.  Defence management is the bridge between the nation’s economy and the facilitation of a range of operations from aid to civil powers to combat operations.  Consequently, the resource management system must be in harmony with the nation’s economic system, military operating concepts and governance structure. This includes the Standing Committee on National Defence, which provides an essential public forum where members can engage on important defence issues on behalf of Canadians, and call on both defence experts and government officials.

The defence of Canada should be a non-partisan issue among parliamentarians.  Parliamentary oversight of the DND and CAF is an essential democratic function. The potential negative consequences of an unprepared defence establishment in times of conflict in an increasingly turbulent international strategic environment could be catastrophic for Canada and our relationship with allies.  The parliamentary committee on defence needs to provide an impartial and collaborative democratic means to manage the business of defence. While the concept and practice of collective responsibility and decision-making by cabinet has been fundamental to Canadian democracy, Liberal and Conservative governments have unfortunately largely focused on procurement. While this may not significantly change, aligning both parties to improve governance in defence is sorely needed and should be non-partisan. This approach is particularly important, due to the potential consequences of an unprepared defence establishment in times of conflict and the high cost of military procurement, training and operations. As such, it is one of the primary democratic means of holding the government to account for its decisions.

Although national defence establishments can be subject to abrupt, frequent and erratic change, unanticipated shifts can drive them to refocus and restructure the institution, and use capabilities in unanticipated ways to meet challenges head on that are fundamentally different from those in the past.  In the present turbulent security environment, where longstanding allied international defence organizations are becoming less effective, Canadian governments need to regularly evaluate defence resource management governance. The federal committee responsible for national defence is effectively a key linkage between the nation’s economy and the operations of Canadian military combat forces. To this end, a non-partisan approach to governance in defence through working with the joint defence committee towards agreement on major issues on key capital equipment procurement projects should be the common goal of all political parties in a federal election. 

About the Author

Ross Fetterly retired in 2017 from the Canadian Forces after a 34-year career as the Royal Canadian Air Force’s director of air comptrollership and business management. He previously served as the military personnel command comptroller, and in other senior positions with the Department of National Defence Assistant Deputy Minister (Finance).

Retired Col. Fetterly completed a tour in February 2009 as the chief CJ8 at the NATO base headquarters at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan, where he was responsible for finance, contracting and procurement. While deployed he wrote a paper entitled Methodology for Estimating the Fiscal Impact of the Costs Incurred by the Government of Canada in Support of the Mission in Afghanistan with staff from the Parliamentary Budget Office. Col. Fetterly was employed as the deputy commanding officer of the Canadian contingent in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights during the second intifada in 2000-2001. He has served as an air force squadron logistics officer and as a finance officer at military bases across Canada.

An adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) department of management and economics, and a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Security Governance, Dr. Fetterly has a B.Comm (McGill), M.Admin (University of Regina) and an MA and PhD in war studies from RMC. His PhD fields of study included defence economics, defence policy and defence cost analysis. His primary research focus is defence resource management. Dr. Fetterly also teaches courses in financial decision-making, defence resource management and government procurement at RMC. Through his company, Ross Fetterly Consulting Inc., he has taught a defence resource management course and a business planning course internationally for the Department of National Defence to senior military officers and defence executives in developing countries.


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