That’s all left the impression that the department is top heavy, criticisms that Norman acknowledges. “No one likes to hear those characterizations . . . but the reality is we’re not as efficient as we could be,” he said.
“As good as the status quo may be, it can always be better,” he said.
It’s all a product of his new job, the second most powerful post in the military. Yet unlike the commanders of the air force, navy or special forces, vice chief of defence staff is not a role that is well understood.
“We’re all about operations in the military but at the end of the day, if we don’t have the back end of the business sorted out, we’re potentially going to compromise the operations,” he said in an interview.
“I’m not going to sea anymore. I’m here to enable those who are and those who are flying and those who are in the field,” the navy veteran said.
And as Canada’s military looks to renew itself, Norman is the man who will help guide that transformation.
He takes over at a time when the military is trying to find efficiencies, search out savings in administration that can be redirected to front line efforts. Former prime minister Stephen Harper had complained about a “serious imbalance” in the defence department and urged cuts to overhead while preserving operational readiness.
“It’s starting to deliver some results but . . . we’re going to focus on broadening the scope of the renewal and efficiency effort,” said Norman, who was commander of the Royal Canadian Navy before taking on this job.
That includes looking at everything from paperwork to bureaucratic processes to “new ways of doing business,” he said, “how we get things done. (Military) bases do different things, depending where they are in the country, and how we can rationalize some of that,” he said.
“Are we getting everything we possibly can out of every dollar and out of every person that we have in here,” Norman said.
For example, he said the pending consolidation of defence department offices in Ottawa to a single site — a former Nortel office campus — is an opportunity to implement changes to defence administration.
As he passed the baton to Norman at the Aug. 5 change of command ceremony, Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault, the outgoing vice-chief of defence staff, lamented the growing layers of scrutiny of the military by politicians and others in government.
But Norman suggested that zealous scrutiny within the military itself is a problem too. “We tend to step on our own toes a lot. There’s a lot of internal checking, double-checking, triple-checking that isn’t necessarily value added,” Norman said.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, told the change of command ceremony that while the role of the vice-chief appears less well-defined, the value of the post is “immeasurable.”
“In other words, he does much, if not most of the heavy lifting that keeps defence running,” Vance told the crowd of civilians and military personnel.
Vance said the vice-chief also often acts on his behalf, which usually means “attending more meetings than anybody else, later and longer hours.”
Like most navy veterans, Norman’s heart isn’t far from time spent at sea, evident by a weathered, dirty pennant that hangs near his desk. It’s the command pennant flown by the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan, which served as Norman’s flagship during his time as commander of the navy’s Atlantic fleet.
Indeed, during his own remarks at the change of command ceremony, Norman couldn’t resist a naval analogy as he looked to the challenges ahead.
“Fasten your seatbelts, hang on, secure for sea. Folks, we’re in for some high-speed manoeuvring over the next several months,” Norman told the guests.
“We’ve got lots to do. We’ve got a very busy few years ahead of us,” he said.