Fewer snakes, more ladders

Written by Joshua Chambers on 7 November 2011 in Feature

The Foreign Office once had a library filled with learned tomes; now the room is empty but for a lonely-looking snake. Joshua Chambers learns about the ‘Diplomatic Excellence’ programme, designed to restore lost expertise.

The shelves of the library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are almost empty. Their books, historic artefacts containing knowledge accrued over five centuries of foreign policy-making, were sold in 2008. All that remains is a 20-foot-long stuffed anaconda called Albert.

The foreign secretary, William Hague, sees the empty shelves as a symbol of the FCO’s decline. “The fate of the FCO library is emblematic of a gradual hollowing-out of the qualities that made the FCO one of our great institutions,” he said in September.

Hague argued that “the pendulum has swung too far in recent years away from policy-making expertise and towards cumbersome bureaucracy, often imposed by the centre of government”. And while the foreign secretary praised the FCO’s talent, he said he didn’t think it was making the best use of those skills.

Further, Hague said, the department wasn’t communicating effectively with other departments. He recalled an occasion soon after he’d become foreign secretary, when officials informed him of an international visit planned by another secretary of state – and advised on how he could block that person’s trip. “Dysfunction and rivalry in the relationship between ministers had corroded ties between the FCO and its closest partners in government,” he said.

The foreign secretary was also dissatisfied with the FCO’s network of embassies, which he thought was insufficiently focused on emerging economies. Given that, and the need to cut costs to achieve the department’s spending review settlement, Hague believed the FCO needed to reform its estate.

What will change?

In order to tackle the problems identified by Hague, the department launched an improvement programme – ‘Diplomatic Excellence’ – at the beginning of this year. The FCO’s permanent secretary, Simon Fraser, summarises its aims: “By the end of the spending review period, the FCO aspires to be the best diplomatic service in the world.”

To achieve this aim, the department is working on three broad strands: policy, people and network. On the policy side, the jargon has it that the department will draft ‘first class foreign policy’. The head of this programme is Nicola Webb, who says that the department is committed to making better use of its internal expertise to get the buy-in of other departments to achieve foreign policy objectives.

The FCO employs long-serving research analysts and historians and, in order to ensure that their expertise is used across government, it has revamped its diplomatic reporting to increase the availability and clarity of reports. “We’re already getting feedback from the Treasury, which we haven’t had in years,” says Alex Ellis, the FCO’s director for strategy.

The department also wants to restore its traditional role of supporting British trade by promoting both commercial and economic diplomacy. Commercial diplomacy provides assistance to firms and helps them make connections, while economic diplomacy is the longer-term work of creating conditions in which British businesses can flourish, Ellis explains.

People skills

The second aim of the scheme is to improve the diplomatic skills of people in the FCO, as well as improving economic and commercial understanding.

On top of boosting its expertise, the department wants to better retain it. Fraser says that some former diplomats are now advising the foreign secretary, while others are training FCO staff. “Who on earth could be better at training your staff in negotiating skills than a former ambassador to the United Nations?” he asks.

The people strand will also see the department use more local staff in British embassies, rather than recruiting UK citizens. FCO chief operating officer Matthew Rycroft explains that, particularly in consular services, “local staff are employed because they know that region; they know the issues that British visitors face inside out”. They are also cheaper.

However, the use of local staff can only go so far, Rycroft admits, because in some areas governments don’t respect local staff as representatives of the UK, so they can’t take on frontline functions.

The final strand concerns the network of the foreign office. First, this means the physical estate – and the FCO is opening six new embassies and seven new consulates in emerging economies, such as those in South America, to boost British influence. There are also traditional property savings programmes, with the FCO in Whitehall moving from two buildings into one; Rycroft says that this should save £500m a year. Further, the FCO wants to save on its IT costs.

Teething problems

As with all improvement programmes, not everything has gone according to plan – and other departments could learn from the experience of the FCO.

The Diplomatic Excellence drive was not initially well-received by all staff, with some staff offended by the suggestion they were not excellent. Dame Nicola Brewer is high commissioner to South Africa, and says that “some people felt a bit sensitive about it, but we were able to say: ‘Yes, there are some examples of where people have performed really excellently, but the challenge is to do that across the board.”

There was also a problem of ownership: following the abolition of the department’s change unit, no single directorate or unit was responsible for leading the programme. The department wanted all FCO staff to ‘own’ the scheme, but without a central body in charge, it proved difficult to gain traction, CSW understands. The department therefore decided to ‘franchise’ the scheme, and set a framework that could be customised by embassies and directorates worldwide.

While the scheme’s elements were rolled out simultaneously, some aspects have moved faster than others. Property has shown slow progress; CSW understands that the FCO is finding it difficult to co-locate properties with other departments overseas. Brewer notes that, in South Africa, similar problems were faced a few years ago when the High Commission tried to share an office with a UK Trade and Investment team in Johannesburg. Negotiations lasted a year, and after that the two teams had to find a property that would meet the needs of both.

Measuring success

Finally, it is difficult for the department to quantify the effectiveness of the entire programme – something that is important, given the time that has been dedicated to it. “One of the issues in foreign policy is that it’s quite difficult to measure your results,” says Fraser. “It’s not like delivering a big service-delivery programme, when you have a clear set of targets and you know whether you’ve hit them or not. Foreign policy is a bit more intangible.” Currently, the FCO’s steering group for Diplomatic Excellence is trying to determine metrics for the programme – though they’re not a priority for Fraser, who says he wants it to be seen as “an aspirational programme; it’s about the ambition, the culture, the drive to improve”.

Ultimately, the scheme aims to boost both British influence in the world, and prosperity at home. By providing more training, setting out a vision of how foreign policy can boost British businesses, and ensuring that first class analysis is shared better within the department and with others, the scheme seeks to ensure a stronger, more flexible FCO.

If successful, perhaps in time there will be new volumes and folios residing alongside a 100-year-old anaconda called Albert.

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