British Council chief Sir Ciarán Devane on soft power, leaning in to Europe and UK self-belief

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 29 January 2018 in Interview
Interview

After three years as chief executive of the UK body for overseas cultural relations, Devane talks to Tamsin Rutter about its relationship with government, funding challenges and how Brexit has changed his priorities

Photos by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Whenever Sir Ciarán Devane travels abroad – and his job involves a fair bit of that – he takes with him a slim, slightly battered hardback printed in 1941. It is the British Council’s first annual report, and his favourite passage reads: “The Council’s aim is to create in a country overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country... which will lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy, whatever for the moment that foreign policy may be.”

The British Council was rolled out of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1940 to counter fascist influence in Europe, but not, its chief executive says, by getting into counter-propaganda. In spite of the immediate pressures of the war being waged around it, the institution had a longer-term goal centred on building “authentically mutual” relationships.

Nearly 80 years later, the UK is facing what has been widely described as its toughest challenge since the Second World War. A report published last year by independent think tank Respublica says Brexit has “thrown Britain’s moral authority into the global spotlight”, and making the best of it depends not on costly military interventions or our “fragmented formal diplomacy”, but on soft power – of the kind at which the British Council is adept.

“If you’d asked me what our priority issues and countries were before the referendum, I would not have said the other 27 member states of the European Union. Now we have to lean in... in a way that we wouldn’t have previously”

The institution is a non-departmental public body accountable to the FCO, which colocates in 45 places overseas with departments and is mandated by Royal Charter to promote British language, education and culture abroad. But the key to its successes, says its chief exec, lies in not being an instrument of government.

Leaning into Europe

Devane meets Civil Service World at his office just off Trafalgar Square, where he explains that while much of the British Council’s work was unaffected by Brexit (supporting young people in the Middle East and North Africa is a top priority, for example), the referendum result did require him to have a rethink.

“If you’d asked me what our priority issues and countries were before the referendum, I would not have said the other 27 member states of the European Union, because there were other mechanisms for doing that and collaboration was good,” he says. “Now we have to lean into the other 27 member states in a way that we wouldn’t have previously.”

Following the referendum, the council did two things. First, to assess the extent of the problem, it surveyed 40,000 young people across the G20, before and after the EU vote. This showed that young people from other parts of Europe now found the UK less attractive than before, but the decision to leave made little difference to the attitudes of people outside Europe.

The second was a series of conferences in European cities with around 500 cultural leaders from every EU member state. The key message to come out, Devane says, was that leaders wanted to see continued UK participation in multilateral programmes, particularly Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and Creative Europe.

A series of recommendations were drawn up, which the British Council fed up to the Department for Exiting the European Union. Devane believes this was influential because every member state was represented at the events. “They... fed that in from the other side,” he says. “I think that was well received all round.”

As well as a new focus on the EU 27, the referendum result sparked Devane to think about what more the British Council can do at home. Part of its role is to create international opportunities for young Brits, but Brexit raised the question of whether it is doing enough to promote these to all parts of society. The chief exec has spoken previously of the danger of engaging chiefly with those in higher education, the creative industries or the 48% who voted to remain and are more likely to be “inherently international” anyway. He wants to make sure those opportunities – whether it’s through the Department for International Development’s Connecting Classrooms programme, or Mandarin Excellence with the Department for Education – are available to every young person.

“The real next step is to convene the conversation,” he says. It’s early days, but Devane hopes to organise a series of conferences with the council’s academic partners and government departments, modelled on the events held with representatives from member states.

Funding threats

However, just as the British Council is seeking to step up its activities in Europe, its funding for work in developed nations is at risk. The government has committed to sustaining the council’s Foreign Office grant (which was £158m in 2016-17, 15% of its total income), but by 2019-20 this money will come entirely from the official development assistance (ODA) pot, which can only be spent on certain activities, in certain places.

“The relationship goes where it goes, and the partnerships that come out are never the ones that you start off with. The institutional links which develop, they have a life of their own”

“In one way that represents an increase in funding for the work we do in ODA countries, and if you think about our priorities around working with young people in the Middle East and North Africa or countries where education systems are under huge pressure, many of them are ODA,” says Devane. “But where it cuts the squeeze is on our work in non-ODA countries, not only the 27 other member states of the EU but Russia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the United States, Canada.”

The institution spent £74m in non-ODA countries in 2016-17: this is projected to fall to £54m this year and £34m in 2018-19. “It’s not a trend I would like to see continue,” says Devane. “For this Spending Review period that’s just about doable, because we do generate some surplus and we have reduced our level of reserves – but they’re now at a level we probably can’t go below.

“I’m not sure I would want to be asking for more money overall as a grant, but this question of how much of it is ODA and non-ODA, is something we need to think about seriously.”

The British Council is having conversations with the government about the future of that balance. Brexit provides an “additional objective” for those discussions, though Devane says he’d be having them anyway.

In the meantime, the institution has decided to move to new offices in Stratford, east London, and has outlined plans to simplify its offer. This largely involves standardising back office functions for the more corporate bits of the organisation, such as English language teaching and exam invigilation, two key income sources. Much like the civil service, the British Council is professionalising its workforce: making a finance staffer in Thailand part of the global finance profession, not just an employee of the Bangkok office, for example.

The council is learning from the civil service and other partners as it makes these changes, its chief exec says. The Foreign Office is the obvious example because it also has “a network across the planet”, but the institution also learns, for example, about digital from the Cabinet Office or evaluation and monitoring from DfID, and it doesn’t stop with government when looking for best practice. “A number of us have commercial backgrounds from the private sector as well, so it’s about making sure that it’s not just the learning of the many things which the civil service does outstandingly well but it’s also taking lessons from other parts of the economy,” Devane says.

That said, British Council officials are “always talking to people down the road” in Whitehall, he adds. Although the institution is sponsored by the FCO, it also works closely other departments such as DfID, DfE and the business department. It is currently helping the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with its international strategy and promotion of creative industries, which links into the work of the Department for International Trade.

“While it isn’t our role to directly pursue the UK’s foreign policy objectives, why wouldn’t we be aligned with the objectives of UK foreign policy or indeed the international aspirations of education?” Devane says.

Macmillan to British Council

Devane joined the British Council in January 2015, having spent eight years as chief executive of Macmillan. His wife died of cancer in 2003, and Devane gave up a career in management consultancy to care for her. In 2007, he took the top job at the cancer support charity. Why did he leave?

“There is a such a thing as staying too long in one place, I think that’s particularly true for chief executives,” he explains. He has also long had an interest in international affairs, and took a masters’ degree in international policy and practice at George Washington University in 2005-6.

On joining Macmillan, one of Devane’s first major tasks was to find out how many people in the UK had cancer (it was two million, but is set to rise to four million by 2030). This information enabled him to develop a long term strategy. How has he brought that evidence-led approach to the British Council?

“I think it’s harder [here] to be honest,” he says. “So, how do we measure the impact we’re going to have in Pakistan in 20 years time through the Active Citizens programme? [see box] It’s a long term thing.”

The council has set up three levels of evidence, he continues. The first is evaluation and monitoring of programmes; the second is providing useful information to government departments and other partners; and the third is evidencing the value of cultural relations and soft power.

Devane gives an example: the British Council has a programme called Future Leaders Connect, which gives 50 young people from all over the world the opportunity to spend a week and a half at Cambridge University and the Houses of Parliament. Some 11,000 people applied, and they were asked the question: “What skills do you think you need to be an effective leader in your society?”.

“So we have 11,000 data points of what a generation of young people are saying, and out of that we can design the programmes,” says the chief exec. Moreover, the course taken by those 50 winners is to be turned into a massive open online course, and made available to the 11,000.

‘The relationship goes where it goes’

The Respublica report on soft power calls for even closer collaboration with departments. In fact, one of its recommendations is for the foreign secretary and their staff “to assume responsibility for the UK’s soft power and public diplomacy strategy”, with powers of oversight of activities undertaken by the British Council and other institutions. It cites the work of the House of Lords Committee on Soft Power, which “revealed considerable confusion within government as to where responsibility for soft power lies”, and commends the recent appointment of joint FCO/ DfID ministers to improve accountability.

“I think we need to be quite confident about it – actually Britain does have these assets which we’re very willing to share and out of that good things will come.”

But Devane is keen to avoid Britain’s soft power approach becoming too instrumental, and undermining the authenticity of its relationship-building role.

“The relationship goes where it goes, and the partnerships that come out are never the ones that you start off with,” he explains. “The institutional links which develop, they have a life of their own. You wouldn’t want British Council telling people what relationships they should have and what their programmes should be, and you probably wouldn’t want anybody else doing it either.”

He does, however, think government could have a bigger role in “hosting the conversation” – and fully agrees with Respublica’s call for an annual gathering convened by FCO, and involving other departments and British institutions.

The success of the soft power agenda also depends on self-belief, says Devane. “We can do our monitoring and evaluation and our research reports, but at the end of the day there’s a bit of this which is around believing that we have the strengths… in science, in sport, in education, in art, whatever it is.

“I think we need to be quite confident about it, and think, actually we do have these assets which we’re very willing to share and out of that good things will come.”

For Devane, it comes back to the purpose outlined in that first annual report. “The big thing for me is that we stay true to that mission. They wrote it in 1940, there was a lot going on which was far bigger than Brexit. If they believed it then, then we can believe it today.”

Active Citizens

Devane’s first overseas trip was to Lahore College, a women’s university in Pakistan, to meet graduates of the British Council’s Active Citizens programme. It is also one of his favourite moments from his tenure at the institution.

As part of the programme, participants must lead a social action project in their local community, for example on health promotion or gender equality. After completing it, the students (“one of them will be prime minister of Pakistan one day,” says Devane) line up to present their work.

“There was one young lady in the full niqab who was bouncing up and down with enthusiasm, saying, ‘I’m the first woman from my clan to get an education and this bit of my education has given me the skills to go back and help the other young women’,” Devane says.

“It’s just one example, but it’s that work that we do which gives young people the skills to then go change the world.”

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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