I started as Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on 1 September last year. Three days later I had to clear the draft letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Chief Secretary modelling a 25% cut to the FCO’s budget over the next four years.
The Spending Review was tough. In the end our final settlement was better than expected, with the Chancellor treating the FCO’s budget in the same way as the other main departments operating overseas. But, like all parts of the Civil Service, the FCO must play its part in balancing the books by finding further savings in the way government works overseas.
Future FCO Review
Having certainty over the money, we are in a better place to plan. So we have launched a Future FCO review. Its terms of reference are broad. Engagement too has been broad; hundreds of colleagues – UK-based and those employed by the FCO overseas - have already fed their views to the Review team. The timetable is demanding. The team spent January consulting and are now sifting and shaping. They will present their emerging conclusions to the Department’s senior leaders in mid-March and their final report to the Foreign Secretary at Easter.
Taking charge of an organisation I have worked for all my adult life, I was struck by three things:
- the pride colleagues have in the work they do and the excellence of what they do
- awareness that increased competition in making the UK’s foreign policy means the FCO has to up its game
- frustration with some of our ways of doing business.
So the review will try to preserve and celebrate (1) and give us the means to take on (2) by tackling (3). In a phrase, we have to be more expert, more flexible and more forthright.
We have to approach the task with humility. In their early days, the review team dug out (the many) previous reviews the FCO has undertaken. The biggest achieved their biggest objectives (e.g. combining the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office in 1968), but many ideas recommended by multiple reviews have not been implemented. Every review has recommended more foreign, less office (yet only a third of our UK-based diplomats are overseas). Every review has asked us to be more flexible and to reduce layers.
It’s my job to ensure that this time is different.
Follow Sir Simon on Twitter: @SMcDonaldFCO.