The Future FCO Report

On Monday the FCO issued Future FCO a report commissioned by the Permanent Undersecretary in the wake of the November 2015 Spending Review that looks at how the FCO can improve its ‘internal working, policy making and impact’.  Given that the lead author was the FCO’s leading digital diplomacy enthusiast Tom Fletcher it wasn’t surprising that press coverage focused on technology and how the ministry needed to become more like Spooks or 24 and it was hopelessly out of date.  There’s some of that here but surprisingly little.

This is a report the management of the FCO and its staffing not foreign policy.  It is not written for public consumption it assumes a high degree of knowledge of systems and procedures and it rarely bothers to explain its reasoning.  In fact much of the conclusions are foreshadowed in the terms of reference the first of which is ‘identify opportunities for better, flatter and more flexible organization of policy capabilities, including through delayering and greater clarity on roles and responsibilities.’  The report claims that this is the ‘first post-internet review of the FCO’ which is pretty odd given the serial reviews that went on under the Labour government.

I’d pick out three  particularly interesting aspects

  1. Shrinking the Whitehall Ambition.  One of the things that leapt out a me was this ‘the FCO should neither seek to lead not dedicate significant standing resource in London to thematic work’.  Non-security thematic work should be brought under a single multilateral directorate.  This isn’t really explained but it does imply a concession of policy space to the National Security Council and to other ministries, it’s not something I can imagine the ministry in Paris or Berlin doing without a big fight.
  2. Defend the Embassies.  There is quite a bit in the report about strengthening the capability of the embassies to support all UK overseas functions this is something that has been going on for a while under the banner of One HMG – trying to get as many departments as possible under the same roof.   There is a definite push to get the Embassy to be a more joined up activity with a more of a country plan and a soft power plan.  There are some good ideas for trying to take some of the ‘corporate’ weight off embassies and to provide a better service to other government departments.  If the FCO is conceding policy space to other departments I’m not sure that ambassadors will have much success in keeping those other departments under control in the field.
  3. Flexibility at all costs: Since the days of the Know How Fund in post communist Europe the work of the FCO has increasingly been organized around projects.  There’s an interesting discussion in the report about way this works in managerial terms – with strict oversight of relatively small amounts of money  – and some suggestions for reforming ‘programme’ as its referred to here.  Future FCO goes further and suggests that FCO directorates should have 25% of their staff in campaign pools rather than in permanent jobs in order to give more flexibility, in fact in an appendix the possibility is raised that the relationship with some countries (Nigeria is an example) should be managed on a campaign basis.  I can see the argument for flexibility but at the same time one of the features of diplomacy is its permanence.  As a student of British government I can also predict that the campaign pool will be the first thing to be cut when things get tough.

This report is very much in line with the past 20 years of FCO managerialism.  I think the difficulty is that in the UK these reports can be written without any consideration of foreign policy.  In them the FCO inhabits a kind of abstract policy space where what it does is ‘delivers policy objectives’ without any consideration of what the world is like and how well things are going.  In reading French or German reports the ministry is located within a more recognizable geopolitical world which gives some sense of what it has to be configured to do.