Cuts and Capabilities at the FCO

Back from the International Studies Association and back to the blog..

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has just issued its response to the FCO’s Annual Report and they are seriously concerned about the effect of the government austerity programme on British overseas representation. In their view the FCO is short of staff and the reliance on locally engaged staff is creating problems for the future by reducing the experience that UK staff can build up overseas.

One issue that they point to is the inadequacy of language skills at the FCO. This is an issue that they’ve flagged up before and one that came up last week in a report on the EU response to the Ukrainian Crisis. The new report points out that only 28% of FCO posts in Russia and Eastern Europe are occupied with staff with the required level of linguistic competence. The really interesting point though is that the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, there the figure is …27%. Now you might think that the situation in Ukraine has come as a surprise hence the low priority for the languages but given the recent history of Britain in the Middle East the need for Arabic can’t be a surprise. This backs up the argument that despite the support for language training expressed by the leadership of the FCO the management system doesn’t value it.

This is supported by a November 2013 report from the British Academy on the state of language capacity across British government that documents concern among diplomats that putting in the time to learn and maintain hard languages is damaging to their career progression and can cause them to become too ‘niche’ given the need.

My conclusion: modernization, in terms of rationalizing management, may be good for the efficiency of your foreign ministry but it doesn’t also add to its effectiveness.