By Civil Service World

10 Dec 2015

With the end of 2015 in sight, we asked Whitehall's top officials to review the year, set out their priorities for 2016 – and shed some light on their festive plans. Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, takes part in our biggest-ever perm secs round-up series...

How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2015?

Brilliantly well (I would say that, wouldn’t I?). 

The year was dominated by a series of crises. We conducted an evacuation from Yemen; faced terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Egypt and now Paris; we coped with devastating earthquakes in Nepal and a Greek financial crisis which could have had major consequences for travelling British citizens. FCO staff responded with resilience and commitment to support British people abroad. I’m grateful. The work we have invested over the years in developing a first-class crisis response capability proved its worth.

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It hasn’t all been about crises. Diplomacy is, to paraphrase Pope Francis, the work of small steps. Mostly out of the public eye, at key moments our work surfaces on the front pages. We saw this in July. Persistent FCO diplomacy helped deliver an agreement, after a 12-year negotiation, to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Personal relationships remain the core of diplomacy. 2015 ended with two big visits – from China’s president Xi and Indian prime minister Modi.

What are your department’s top priorities in the year ahead?

Europe, the Middle East, Russia, consular – and prosperity everywhere.

What film do you hope to watch over the festive period – and what’s the best game to play with the family on Christmas Day?  

The film? “It’s a Wonderful Life” – over the years I think I have seen every part of it, but somehow never all at once. And there are parallels: in diplomacy, we could often do with an angel, even second class. A game?  It has to be charades: no props needed, fun for all ages, even for ancients like myself.


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