Foreign Affairs Committee on FCO: Doing Too Much with Too Little

January 10, 2014

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has put out its response to the FCO 2012-13 Annual Report.

A few headlines.  The tone of this report seems a bit sharper than in recent years.  When the coalition came in in 2010 it was a) going to restore the centrality of the FCO in government and the skills of its diplomats and b) cut the deficit.  The Committee now seems to be saying that: we don’t think that this is really working out.   The FCO is doing too much relative to its resources.

The FCO is has been increasing its reliance on locally engaged staff and the committee is concerned that this is reducing the number of posts overseas available for UK based staff with possible long term reductions in levels of experience in the FCO.  It’s also creating a large cohort of staff who can’t be moved from country to country or rotated to the UK.

Two positions relating to public diplomacy questions come across very clearly. The Committee is firmly against any changes in the status of the British Council as a result of the current review of the body.  It is against ending the grant to the agency or spinning off its commercial activities. The Committee is also doubtful that the BBC World Service is being, and is going to be, properly looked after by the domestic BBC.  These are both areas that are likely to be receiving more attention in coming months.

One additional point that struck me is that 90% of programme spending is centrally managed and only 10% is devolved to posts to be used in accordance with country plans (a rather pathetic £14.4m across all FCO posts) and the Committee is concerned that this spend (average £11,000 per project) is not being sufficiently evaluated – despite being told by the NAO that they think what’s happening is just fine.  I’m doubtful that a 90/10 split is really the optimal use of programme funds or that doing lots more evaluation on £10k projects is really a good use of money.  One question that wasn’t addressed is how much of this money is classified as ODA – since this really reduces the ‘discretion’ involved.

Short answer is that the FCO needs more money.

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