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Trawls – The Power of the Military Volunteer in a Market Economy

Trawls – The Power of the Military Volunteer in a Market Economy 

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated the power of the British Public to volunteer their time and effort for the greater good of the nation.  The 750,000 individuals who signed up to support the NHS in just a few weeks demonstrated something about the human spirit.  It indicated that many people want to be part of something bigger than themselves, a movement that is working towards positively impacting their communities.  One of the unsung heroes of this story is the platform that allowed people to volunteer, managed their application, and efficiently aligned them to tasks.  This article outlines how we can replicate this hyper-efficient sign up process for military trawls1

During Op RESCRIPT we experienced an Army, stripped bare of distractions, rediscover a single unified purpose while deploying specialists and mass in support of Other Government Departments (OGDs).  In the heady days of late March 2020 demand for individual augmentees, to operate as planners and liaison officers, risked eliminating the command structure of large swathes of the Army.  Scarcity led to the novel solution of employing the Intermediate Command Staff Course (Land) to mitigate this risk.  Yet this was still not enough to meet demand.  Enter stage right the Army HQ version of voluntary activation – in the form of a massive spreadsheet.  This allowed individuals, particularly Reservists, to step forward, outline their skills and fill critical gaps in the line.  It was the Army’s version of the NHS volunteers.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

These solutions are responses to crisis and are unlikely to be part of ‘the new normal’ when the Army pivots back to overseas operations, readiness and training.  Yet as the title of the piece indicates, I ​believe there is great potential in the power of volunteering.  Furthermore, it is the individual personnel who best understand whether they could fulfil a specific trawl.  Therefore, I argue that we must better leverage these positive forces during barrack routine.

Rarely does a day go by without numerous trawls arriving from higher headquarters requesting support for everything from one chef for an afternoon to a whole Squadron for a month.  Unfortunately, these opportunities are not grasped with quite the same enthusiasm as UK Ops.  Why is this?

A lack of supported ​ ​volunteers 

We do not lack volunteers; we lack supported volunteers.  This void derives from a culture where we do not recognise trawls as a primary use of a formation’s workforce.  As commanders, we accept that a certain percentage of our team will always be on leave, courses, exercises or guard.  Despite evidence to the contrary, we do not expect to have a proportion of our personnel always aligned to trawls.  This lack of recognition means we are continually trying to ‘protect’ our combat power for specified tasks that may never materialise.  Thus we engage in a daily competition with peer formations, as higher search for suitable volunteers in an 80,000-person crowd, down the sight of few emails, whilst penning increasingly elaborate penalty statements (PS) to try and steer their gaze to the Regiment next door.  Legacy technology forces this sub-optimal process yet new systems2 could, and should be used to upgrade the experience for our teams.

Command vs capitalist systems 

The search for suitably qualified and experienced volunteers is a data processing problem.  Defence, and particularly the trawls process, is a command economy where higher formations manually try to spread the opportunities and pain between their subordinates.  Command economies are historically ineffective at efficiently processing complex data3

An indicator that we operate in a command economy is the existence of shortages and surpluses across many formations.  We can’t source volunteers for a specific task yet if you walked into a restroom, you would find soldiers (and officers) available and wanting to deploy.  Without the free exchange of productive factors interacting with consumers in a market environment, staff officers are without the tools to maximise the utility of the force.  Centrally matching who, when, where and what is too complex for vertically dislocated HQs to achieve efficiently, therefore, we simultaneously have not enough and too much.

Our institutional insistence that the flow of information must follow the chain of command reinforces this problem.  The stated aim of our modern suite of Army IX programs (Churchill4, Muster5 and OPUS6) is to centralise high-quality data to enable our commanders to make better decisions.  Unfortunately, like planning bread production, this process strips out critical context before too much data overmatches the span of control of our leaders.  This concentration will lead to quicker but less effective outcomes that fail to understand our individuals.

The rise of AI may deliver tools to tame the data, but this is unlikely to change within Defence in the medium term.  Suppose we view the process through the lens of a command economy.  In that case, we recognise the current system is already operating very close to the limits of the tools and organisational culture at hand.  We have some of our best people in force generation, working long hours, but not delivering sustained organisational improvement.  This inertia shows minor policy tweaks, and better staff performance, is not going to produce the necessary upgrade.  Recognising that simply working harder will not improve on our current system or achieve better results is a liberating thought;​but if we could break down the wall of process and reset the design, what could we build?​

A capitalist system has been shown to be better at processing complex and incomplete data because it relies on distributed self-interested actors7  Therefore the ​​individual, not the chain of command, has the best understanding of their skillset and ability to deploy.  For people to make informed decisions, we need to frontload all the pertinent information into the advert.

Be clear in the conditions

If you know you need support, you should be able the clearly define the working conditions.  Our current system works, but there is widespread recognition that we should do better for our people by giving them more task detail upfront.  Receiving the full details after you have volunteered is a significant area for improvement as it unnecessarily increases uncertainty.  If there is enough information available to justify the trawl, then there should also be enough information available to give an articulate overview of the job and its conditions.  We must standardise the fields that a unit requesting support must provide to ensure everyone gets the same quality of information.  This must be computable for trend analysis.  Force generation (FGen) teams currently skew adverts to focus on what they need to fill the post; however, we should increase the task detail to upgrade the experience for our personnel.

The new minimum should include the existing what, where and when but also be expanded to provide information key to the volunteer.  Details such as whether there is phone signal or WIFI; are they working weekends and if they are eligible for extra allowances should all be included.  Being fully informed of the trawl detail will increase buy-in; for​ example, by reducing​​ disappointment when there is a misunderstanding between SSSA8 and multi-occupancy transit accommodation9.  To help inform whether ​someone who is medically limited could be suitable for the role, we can include specific physical limits, such as ‘no requirement to carry more than 15 kg’.  This clarity will increase the potential volunteer pool.

It follows that instead of choosing who to ask, we should make every advert available to all and let them find the best deals to suit them (thus encouraging proactiveness rather than reacting to requests).  Amazon does not hide products from large swathes of potential customers but works hard to highlight the ones they think most pertinent.  They include all of the product information upfront and post answers to customer’s questions for all to see. New adverts appear almost instantly.   So too with trawls, once we have compiled all the data and authorised the task, we need to get it down the ladder as quickly as possible.

Did they get the message ?

Distributing a trawl requires live knowledge of a regularly shifting email distribution list.  This capability demands constant staff attention to maintain.  Replacing the information push system with an information pull system, where it is a unit responsibility to sign the correct teams up to the platform notifications, will increase accountability and resilience10.  Higher formations can then choose which organisation to send targeted advertising to, and the unit decides who receives it.  This push to pull transition defines a broader cultural shift where it is the unit’s best interest to seek out opportunities, from across the Army, that best fit their training and retention requirements.

Even when we have a reliable chain, email is far from instant.  While the transmission time between nodes is negligible, MODNet willing, the frictions of real-life mean that messages often sit waiting in inboxes for longer than we would like.  This delay may be because of meetings, PT, phone calls, higher priorities or worst of all, annual leave.  During a trial11, we calculated it could take over two working days for a trawl to reach its intended respondent.  Yet, many have experienced frantic last-minute regains after the system has misplaced trawls for weeks.  With universal visibility, this lost time is the extra notice we could give our soldiers.

Without a consistent, measurable process, it is impossible to generate comparable data to conduct in-depth analysis.  Each controlled variable, such as qualification required, acts as a dynamic sensor to allow centralised refinement of the process, by highlighting limiting factors and reoccurring issues, across the whole of the Army and not just through a single staff officer.

One System, One Trawl.

There is a certain amount of irony in arguing that more central process control is required to deliver decentralised decision making.  However, it is then the individual who has the best information and most vested interest makes the decision.  The benefit of an enforceable centralised system is that each update can be rolled out to all force generators at once ensuring we all take the next step forward together.  When we are considering a task that takes up a large percentage of time for some of our busiest people, we should do everything in our power to continuously refine it.

We can use existing structures within Divisions and Brigades to conduct targeted advertising and highlight key trawls to specific audiences and ensure important requests get the visibility they require.  Ultimately a trawl is either an opportunity that someone wants or it isn’t!  By asking everyone simultaneously, we can accelerate the volunteer phase and ensure that if we have to move on to penalty statements, we know there aren’t any supported volunteers in the Army.  By widening the pool, we should reduce the number of penalty statements required because what is a repetitive burden to one unit is a novel opportunity to another.  A dramatic reduction will allow our personnel to use their time more productively.

There are occasions where a job description does not accurately reflect the role.  In a system that relies on trust, this is not acceptable but regrettably far too familiar.  We have no advertising standards ombudsman or Trade ​Description Act to protect volunteers from inflated or erroneous adverts.  Direct reviews are a low resource method of regulating the market and generating trust in participants.  Implementing an open feedback loop would allow Units to build themselves into trusted brands.  Following the premise ‘what you measure you improve’; we should track trawl satisfaction if we are serious about putting soldiers at the heart of our planning. We can boil the concept down to the following words:

Input better data (Distribute to all + Targeted advertising) = Support our volunteers + Fill trawls efficiently

Aren’t we doing this already ?​

Existing systems cannot provide the required synchronicity.  Muster cannot process volunteer trawls.  In coordination with Churchill and OPUS, the Field Army can deliver directed tasks straight to a unit or subunit.  However, this one-way flow of direction has no mechanism to advertise for volunteers or weigh PS. ​

These systems will give better visibility of unit availability to higher formations, but its fundamental premise, centralising data for better decision making, is that of a command economy.  Therefore as the systems develop more trawls may be filtered away from notably busy units, but the system will never become as efficient as a market at processing the data.  There is a long-term aspiration to use AI to optimise the data processing further.  Still, until the planning apps provide user features that are worth the effort of submitting all​ ​the data, it will have to work with patchy and incomplete data.

For various reasons, many trawls currently get turned off long before they get to the individual who could fill them.  The recent take-off of Defence Connect should progress to sending trawl opportunities directly to the pocket of each eligible soldier.  Imagine My Muster12 displaying relevant​advertised activities straight into your personal forecast of events?  “Click here to volunteer!”  All responses should still go through the chain of command to maintain the integrity of the force element.

So What?

The Army IX Program is currently codifying the existing centralised process into long term platforms; therefore, the window of opportunity for conceptual change is closing fast.  A standardised, transparent and measurable market-based system is technically achievable; however, it requires input and support from across the Defence community to prioritise a soldier first platform.  Now is the moment to build a modern marketplace that unleashes the expertise of our unit-level personnel.






John Petch

John Petch is a Regimental Ops Officer dealing daily with the trawls challenge. Previously he has worked at the other end of the pipe requesting support for homeland resilience ops in HQ SJC(UK). He has a keen interest in leveraging existing technology to advance Defence.


  1. ​Throughout this article, I use ‘trawl’ as a catch-all term for all requests for workforce and equipment for events which the unit is not itself aligned to as part of the form cycle – E.g. IA, SET, trawls, BATUS TDS, OTX etc. ​In the future, we should move to a less negative term, such as ‘support requests’.
  2. SharePoint 365 can be a force multiplier in collaborative working, but we have only started to scrape the surface of its capabilities.​
  3. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus provides the enlightening example of the local baker who is better placed to forecast and match local demand for bread than the national planning committee.
  4. Churchill is a forecast of events planner that also demands ammunition, personnel and vehicles.
  5. Muster is a personnel scheduling tool that can track Regimental availability, readiness and training states.
  6. OPUS is a formation level force sensing and generation platform
  7. Sukhayl Niyazov, The Future of Capitalism in the Age of A.I., Medium. ​
  8. Individual rooms in privately rented flats or houses
  9. Bunkbeds, plastic mattresses and many roommates
  10. This concept is at the heart of products like Microsoft Teams and Slack
  11. Five recently received trawls within a Unit were analysed, to understand the transmission time from leaving the authorising formation to receipt at the regimental level
  12. My Muster is a soon to be released Defence Gateway app that will allow personnel to see their personal events timeline.

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