After 33 years working for the Diplomatic Service, I was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary last September. Twice before, I worked close to the heart of the FCO: as Private Secretary to two PUSs – David Gillmore and John Coles – in the 1990s; and as Principal Private Secretary for one Foreign Secretary – Jack Straw – in the early 2000s.
Drawing on what I considered a wealth of experience, I set out my ideas for running the FCO to the interview panel choosing the PUS. It took me about two weeks to work out that running the FCO is different from thinking about it. My first appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee at the House of Commons was the key rite of passage.
Contemplating a 25% cut in the Spending Review was a second epiphany. In the end, the FCO budget was protected like DFID’s and MOD’s. But it was clear to the Foreign Secretary and me that we could achieve greater efficiencies. So, I asked Tom Fletcher, previously our man in Beirut, and an in-house team to look at who we are and how we work. And we asked them to answer the question: In the internet age, how can the FCO/Diplomatic Service best do the job our government and fellow Brits want, understanding, influencing and representing the UK overseas?
The 'what' and 'how' of diplomacy
The bit about the 'internet age' is key. The 'what' of diplomacy (to protect and promote UK interests overseas) does not change, but the 'how' changes constantly. The electric telegraph changed our business in the 19th century and jet travel changed it in the 20th. Now, instant universal comms is changing it again. In the age of Assange, Snowden and FOI, secrecy is not what it used to be. In the age of Apple and Microsoft, bespoke government solutions to secure comms aren’t what they used to be either.
We shared Tom Fletcher’s Future FCO report with everyone on the FCO platform before our board discussed its 36 recommendations. We agreed the main thrust of the report but asked for more work on those (few) recommendations where the evidence-base was thin. The report is now online here.
Focus on training
Now the focus shifts to implementation. The implementation programme is Diplomacy 20:20. We want expert diplomats who have the tools to do the job. That means we will focus more on training, including in languages, and ask colleagues (a) to work longer in each job and (b) to return to their career anchors. That means HR will give people more direction in their career.
We will also be clearer about what skills and experience people need to be plausible candidates for promotion and top jobs. One example: we often train people early in their career to speak hard languages. When we recruit for ambassadors who need to speak a hard language, people who already speak that language will have an advantage over those who do not.
One of the main tools is IT, where the FCO has been notoriously weak. Our Tech Overhaul project aims to change that quickly. Consultation continues. I have an all-staff meeting next week to set out my stall and to listen. The implementation plan will be ready by the summer. Colleagues will see changes before the end of the year.
When the Financial Times wrote about the report, it suggested we aimed to be “less Ferrero Rocher and more Jack Bauer”. It’s an arresting image. A more accurate rendition might be “less generalist, more expert”. We don’t want to be Jack Bauer but rather the briefer who tells him what’s going on, what it means and how best we might turn that to our advantage, when he needs help on Libya/ Afghanistan/ Nigeria/ Ukraine/ Brazil/ South China Sea etc at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Follow Sir Simon on Twitter: @SMcDonaldFCO.