#AFSTRAT: Agile and Coherent Governance: More Than Just a New Set of Regulations – Josh Vicino

The Central Blue welcomes Josh Vicino, who is sharing his thoughts in The Central Blue’s latest series, ‘What is the Air Force Strategy?’ – a series designed to build on Australia’s long-standing tradition of commitment to strategic thought. Josh delves into the importance of changing mindsets with the implementation of new governance structures to meet the challenges presented by the #AFSTRAT in turning an organisation focussed on preventing accidents to the effective generation of air and space power for strategic effects.

When Heraclitus famously said that “the only constant in life is change,” he would have been hard-pressed to imagine the sheer pace of change in the 21st century. However, if, in response to this ever-changing environment, your strategy calls for fundamental change in one area or another, is modernising frameworks enough to bring about that change? In the world of aviation safety, the introduction of a new framework is, in and of itself, not enough to reform aviation safety practises. For real change to occur, members across the defence aviation safety community must reform their normative behaviours to truly reap the benefits on offer concurrent with the introduction of the new framework. In other words, achieving positive outcomes within a new system relies not just on the system itself, but also on the cultural norms and behaviours of those that are implementing it. This idea transcends the aviation safety context and speaks to ‘agile and coherent governance’ in line with Line of Effort 5 (LOE5) of the newly released Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Strategy publication.

An AP-3C Orion, E-7A Wedgetail and P8 Poseidon from Surveillance and Response Group are parked together during Exercise Diamond Shield in 2019 at RAAF Williamtown NSW. (Source: ADF)

In 2016, the introduction of the Defence Aviation Safety Regulation (DASR) represented a paradigm shift in airworthiness regulations. The intent was for the framework to be ‘outcomes based’, which would replace the ‘process driven’ Technical Airworthiness Regulations (TARegs) and therefore allow members of the aviation safety community ‘to determine what processes and actions suit their business to satisfy a regulatory objective’.[1] Born out of European Military Aviation Requirements, the adoption of the DASR was intended to ‘optimise effect while reducing administrative burden and unnecessary bureaucracy’.[2] This new, outcomes-based governance system was introduced as a replacement for the process-driven TARegs, which themselves were introduced to meet a need borne out of accidents in the 1990s that warranted a process-driven regulation system.[3]

Although it was never the intent of the authors, the process-based TARegs and the existing narrative around them led to the unintended consequence of creating conservative behaviour. In particular, engineers and technicians perceived that they were required to memorise processes by heart rather than showing an understanding of the ‘why’ behind the governing philosophy and ideas that underpinned the system. Comparatively, the DASR based system saw a shift in focus to effective outcomes, supported by an understanding of the core ideas of safety, an ability to generalise thinking across varying situations, and a demonstration of sound judgement and application of policy for a given situation. Today, with an established safety culture that supports the effective generation of air power, the outcomes-based DASR provides a sound basis for an agile and coherent governance system.

At the Air Warfare Centre (AWC) in 2017, this very approach under the DASR was used to beneficial effect. The Chief Engineer who introduced the regulatory framework made excellent use of the new system to instil a generalised concept of safety amongst the workforce and an accompanying accountability chain that fostered a rigorous yet dynamic engineering development process. On numerous occasions, this new way of thinking led to decreased development timeframes, all the while providing an exemplary level of safety assurance.

In the context of LOE5 outlined in the Air Force Strategy, which aims for ‘optimising effect while reducing administrative burden and unnecessary bureaucracy,’[4] the AWC was ahead of the game. When undertaking developmental engineering tasks in support of Aircraft Research and Development Unit flights, the organisation was able to both ‘curate leading edge research’ while ‘honing ideas through to realisation in a safe environment that is failure tolerant.’[5] It was a perfect manifestation of LOE5 in an engineering context, albeit some years before Air Force Strategy 2020 came into being.

Interactions with external contractors and Force Element Groups, however, revealed that not everyone in the aviation safety community had adopted the new mindset. Whereas under the new system organisational approvals could be leveraged to demonstrate compliance and facilitate ease of assurance, it was often found that such third parties had retained their TARegs based methods of thinking which forced cumbersome and unnecessary processes. In numerous cases, the choice to re-assess all the analysis that the engineers in the AWC had already conducted caused timeline delays with no tangible benefits. This occurred because in adopting the DASR system, those parties external to the AWC had simply retained the existing process structure of the TARegs and mapped terminology and positions between the old and new systems without understanding the need to shift their behaviours in adopting the new safety framework. Whilst the Defence Aviation Safety Authority recognised this as an efficient way to adopt the new system, it provides only one of many potential implementations that were intended to be refined as organisations matured under the new framework. Moreover, this singular implementation is one that does not make use of the flexibilities available to ‘develop and implement a range of lower-cost management solutions while achieving the same level of aviation safety outcomes.’[6]

What this example shows is that to utilise the flexibilities, agility, and benefits of a given system fully, those responsible for its application need to embrace not only terminology and position requirements but also the required change in mindset. The introduction of an appropriate framework is a necessary precondition for agile and coherent governance, but evidently not sufficient in and of itself. The new framework must be accompanied by a change in mindset, approach, and narrative that seeks to exploit the new guidelines without reverting to old practises fully. Failing to do so will only ensure that the overly conservative compliance and conformance focused culture will be unable to step outside of the boundaries that were established some 30 years ago.

As a broader concept, this is something that can be generalised outside of the aviation safety context. An extraordinary amount of experience exists within our organisation; the RAAF needs to ensure that it pays careful attention to how this experience is leveraged as it moves forward into new governance structures lest it falls into old habits. Only by bringing a cultural shift and a change in thinking in the pursuit of agile and coherent governance can the RAAF ‘create space for the organisation to grow and operate while ensuring safety and regulatory compliance.’[7]

Flight Lieutenant Joshua Vicino is an Electronics Engineer working in the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Bachelor of Science and Master of Electrical Engineering from The University of Melbourne. He is currently the Officer in Charge of Maintenance at No. 10 Squadron.

[1] Department of Defence, 10 Ways to Better Aviation Regulation: Assuring Safety of Defence Aviation, 2016, p. 33. [2] Ibid. [3] Department of Defence, Introduction to Defence Aviation Safety, Edition 2.1, 2019, p. 5.

[4] Department of Defence, Air Force Strategy Key Highlights, 2020, p. 14. [5] Ibid. [6] Department of Defence, 10 Ways to Better Aviation Regulation: Assuring Safety of Defence Aviation, 2016, p. 33. [7] Department of Defence, Air Force Strategy Key Highlights, 2020, p. 14.

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