With the end of 2016 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top officials to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2017 – and shed some light on their festive favourites. Sir Simon McDonald, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, takes part in our annual perm secs round-up...
What was your highlight of 2016?
What has been the most significant change in your department this year?
What will be the biggest challenge of 2017 – and how are you preparing for it?
The consequences of the Brexit vote. Preparations dominate FCO planning. On her first day in office the prime minister created two new departments – for Exiting the European Union, and for International Trade. The FCO was one of two source departments for DExEU; we transferred over 40 slots. In January Alex Ellis (who has been ambassador to Brazil for the last three years) will return to London to join the senior team at DExEU. In September, [international trade secretary] Dr Fox and his ministerial team took up residence on the first floor of the Downing Street East quadrant of the FCO. So we have spent the second half of 2016 helping to staff and accommodate the new structure.
Looking ahead, the FCO network of posts will be key observers, interpreters and influencers in the negotiation now beginning. We are the eyes and ears of HMG overseas. Our aim is to help secure the best deal for the UK. In order to play our full part, the FCO Board is looking at our representation around the EU. For the last 40-odd years we have increasingly engaged our European neighbours in Brussels rather than bilaterally. So in 2017 we shall begin to swing back to a more bilateral way of doing business. Some ambassadorships will become more senior; some embassies will become a bit bigger. We need to be ready in Europe to take full advantage of Brexit.
What was the best Christmas present that you’ve ever been given or received? And the worst?
This was the most difficult question to answer! I like getting presents! The best present I ever gave (ie. the one that got the best reaction) was a Playstation 2 to my children; the picture of my eldest son’s reaction is my favourite photo. No-one who ever gave a present deserves his generosity to be labelled “worst”. But as an ambassador I got some odd Christmas presents. Once, visiting a town in the Middle East in December, the mayor gave me the “Key to the City” – a large, gold-coloured, glitter-covered plastic key. The thought was more appealing than the reality.
More: Perm secs round-up 2016 – Britain's top civil servants review the year and look ahead to 2017