May 11, 2016
It is hard to think of any Whitehall department that spends as much time considering how it runs itself as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In the past five years, the FCO has been through much internal change, reconfiguring where it puts its biggest embassies, boosting its language school and holding lengthy seminars with outsiders as it strives to achieve what it calls “diplomatic excellence”. Now it has published yet another report on how it can boost “the FCO’s internal working, policymaking and impact”.
The analysis by Tom Fletcher, the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, has 36 recommendations on how the FCO can improve its modus operandi. He argues that the department’s IT system, the bane of many a diplomat’s life, needs a complete overhaul. Foreign Office staff need to spend longer at each embassy abroad — serving postings of four not three years — so that their expertise can be better harnessed. He recommends much stricter language requirements so that ambassadors can survive what he calls a Jeremy Paxman-like grilling from the local television anchor.
All this is an encouraging sign of how the FCO, instead of standing still, is thinking about what role it serves in the Whitehall firmament. Things are not as tricky for the FCO as they were in the Blair years, when Number 10 ran Iraq policy by itself. Under William Hague, the previous foreign secretary, the department regained a lot of its amour-propre. But when it comes to furthering UK diplomacy, it is competing in an increasingly crowded space.
Whatever the voters decide on June 23, the UK will continue to need an effective diplomatic service of its own. What Mr Fletcher’s report appears to indicate is that, in a world where heads of government and finance ministries are increasingly powerful, foreign ministries need to sharpen their role. For the FCO, this means reducing the amount of time it devotes to dry policymaking in oak-panelled rooms. The goal should instead be to build a well-resourced global network that comprises genuinely capable and knowledgeable individuals.