An academic voice in third-party reviews

Third-party reviews are about to become standard practice in Canadian defence procurement. As part of the government’s Defence Procurement Strategy, third-party reviewers will perform a challenge function over the high level mandatory requirements for projects that exceed $100 million. The third-party reviewers will report to the Deputy Minister of National Defence and will be drawn from “military, scientific and policy communities.” As an academic, I cannot help but wonder whether this description includes university professors.

Although they are not specifically mentioned, professors may be asked to serve as third-party reviewers. Indeed, two academics were involved in the reset of the CF-18 replacement. Professor Ken Norrie of McMaster University sat as an independent member on the deputy minister governance committee of the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat, and I served as an independent reviewer of the evaluation of options conducted by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

However, it is equally possible that academics will be largely excluded from performing this function. There are several reasons why government might prefer not to call upon university researchers. Above all, it could be argued that academics are too wedded to theoretical questions, whereas procurement review work requires a practical orientation. In addition, academics may not be especially familiar with how government operates and what norms surround policymaking and proper discretion. There may be an understandable concern about academics acting as stubborn obstacles or loose canons.

Notwithstanding these critiques, my own admittedly biased view is that academics do bring useful skills to third-party reviews of defence procurement, and that government would benefit from inviting more professors to serve in this role.

An important part of academic research involves questioning assumptions and established expertise in one’s field. Disagreement and continual debate are the norm and consensus is difficult to reach. This also means that academics are expected to stay abreast of the latest research and findings in their area of study. Debate and disagreement are a central part of policymaking as well, though those officials who are expected to question and challenge may not have the same degree of depth and knowledge in a subject area as academics do.

In fact, those who are at the forefront of the government’s internal challenge function – officials within central agencies – may lack a strong background in the subject matter they are examining. Adding academics to the mix both augments the degree of debate and disagreement, and ensures that these exchanges are being fuelled by individuals who are considered experts in their field, and who are up to date on the most recent research in their area.

Criticism is another constant in academia. Professors are regularly called upon to review each others’ work and to identify deficiencies in their peers’ research. It is equally important for an academic to be aware of the criticisms that can be levelled at their own research and to think of ways to address it. Professors who specialize in a policy-related field, moreover, often critique the government’s efforts in that area and can quickly surmise how their fellow academics will criticize policy decisions and initiatives.

Encouraging this critical bent in reviews of military acquisitions helps anticipate how programs will be critiqued and on what grounds. This in turn allows legitimate problems to be addressed, and it can help government offer better explanations of what is being done and why. Indeed, because they are usually on the outside looking in on defence procurements, academics may have a stronger sense of how a project will be picked apart by those who do not benefit from inside knowledge of why an acquisition is proceeding the way it is.

The Canadian government now recognizes that greater openness and transparency are required to ensure successful defence procurements. However, achieving openness and transparency is difficult in Canada, whose Westminster inheritance has arguably overvalued secrecy and silence. A good reason not to disclose information can always be found.

Defence academics, on the other hand, are hungry for more openness and transparency. They recognize that greater access to officers and officials, and to documents and data, are required to produce better research on contemporary Canadian defence matters. Accordingly, academics are more likely to advocate for disclosure and to question why information should be kept confidential. Having academics as part of third-party reviews, therefore, will hopefully advance the principles of openness and transparency in defence procurement.

None of the characteristics I have described here are unique to academics. Many serving and retired officials within government and the armed forces have them, as do subject matter experts from industry and other professions, such as law and accounting. But academia does tend to breed an abundance of individuals who are particularly prone to challenging and critiquing, and especially fond of openness and transparency from government. At the very least, this suggests that academia is a good and fertile ground from which to draw third party reviewers in the future.


Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, where he researches defence policy and the executive in Canada.

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