By Jess Bowie

24 Jun 2015

Between advising the foreign secretary on crucial policy matters and overseeing a network of 13,600 staff – 9,000 of whom are overseas – arch-diplomat Sir Simon Fraser has been busy championing the diversity agenda across Whitehall. As he prepares to retire from the civil service, he sat down with Jess Bowie for a final interview

Surrounded by contorted bodies, Sir Simon Fraser lies prone on the floor. The room is stifling. Some around him are close to fainting in the 40 degree heat, but Fraser fights to retain consciousness and waits for the moment his pain will end... 

From his first posting in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War in the early 80s to the Arab Spring of the last few years, Fraser has had a ringside seat on history and first-hand experience of some extraordinary global events. Now, from the comfort and safety of his spacious Whitehall office, the head of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service continues his recollection of what sounds like an intensely demanding situation. 

“I looked in the mirror, and the person standing on the mat behind me was Helena Bonham Carter,” he says with a hearty laugh. 

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The revelation that Fraser is into Bikram (or hot) yoga perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise: in a 24/7 role like his, the ability to display extreme flexibility in heated situations is vital. But while Fraser’s weekly Sunday morning class takes place in celeb-filled Chalk Farm, he insists that – Bonham Carter’s cameo notwithstanding – his fellow yogis are mostly “normal folk” like him. 

It’s a self-effacing remark from the FCO’s most senior civil servant – a man whose career has taken in high-powered diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Europe and, as permanent secretary of the business department from 2009-2010, a stint in one of the Home Civil Service’s top jobs too. It was perhaps this latter role – with its taste of life outside his native Foreign Office – that has made Fraser such a strong advocate of collective civil service leadership: as a member of the civil service board since last year, he has tried to bring the Foreign Office closer to the rest of Whitehall. He also wears another pan-departmental hat: Fraser is civil service diversity champion, having put himself forward for the role when it was vacated by Paul Jenkins just over a year ago. Now, having just celebrated his 57th birthday (and 36 years in the civil service), he is setting sail for new horizons. Can CSW ask what he is planning to do after he leaves Whitehall in July?

“You can ask!” Fraser laughs, before indicating that he will – after a three month break – start “something in the private sector”, the details of which it is “too soon to reveal”.

Looking back over his five years at the top of the FCO, Fraser reflects on “an extraordinarily difficult period in foreign policy”, and one in which the world has still been living through the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – itself “probably the most significant international event since the end of the Cold War”. 

“There has been huge turbulence in the world since then – in the Middle East, in Europe, we’ve seen changes in Asia as well – China and so forth. Russia, Ukraine... So there have been a lot of foreign policy challenges which we’ve had to react to, at a time when resources have been under pressure as well. So managing that demand with a limited resource base and also keeping an eye on long-term strategic challenges like engaging with the emerging economic powers – those are the challenges we’ve faced,” he says.

But hasn’t Britain – which voted against action in Syria in 2013 and this February failed to attend peace negotiations with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine – put foreign policy on the backburner recent years? Does the FCO perm sec not agree that our current crop of politicians seem singularly uninterested in maintaining the UK’s reputation as a major player on the world stage? 

“I don’t agree with that, you won’t be surprised to hear,” Fraser says, pointing out that there was actually “a lot of foreign policy” in the Queen’s Speech. 

“There was a lot on Iraq, Syria, Russia, Europe of course, China and India. So I think the government was setting out quite a clear agenda. This country is a globally important player. We’re a permanent member of the Security Council. We have a very active diplomatic profile. I like to think we have a very, very good diplomatic service – as you know we aspire to be the best. But there’s also a lot to do: we need to work effectively with other parts of government to pursue the international agenda and we need to work effectively with other countries to achieve our goals.”

But is such collaboration enough to address some of the concerns in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent report, which depicts an FCO desperately in need of funding and a diplomatic service lacking the right skills? 

“First of all, I have been grateful over the last five years for the interest and support of the Foreign Affairs Committee because they have really been very engaged with us,” Fraser says. And, while he firmly disagrees with the idea that insufficient funding is affecting the UK’s global role, he admits that “like other departments, we’ve faced a pretty tight resource situation since 2010”. 

“In fact in our case since 2009, because we were hit quite badly by the devaluation of sterling: because we have a lot of expenditure overseas we took quite a big financial hit in that year, even before this spending round came through. So our spending power has reduced by between a fifth and a quarter over that period of time, and we’ve had to be more effective. We’ve had to be focused on our priorities, we had to increase our productivity and we’ve done all that. We’ve also opened nine new posts, and upgraded about seven others. So we have been trying to do an awful lot in a very demanding international context while managing those resource pressures. And I am proud, actually, that we have managed to do that.”

As with many of his answers during the interview, Fraser – ever the diplomat – then balances out these positives with an acknowledgement of the negatives. “Of course it is true that you cannot carry on doing more and more if you’re under continuing resource pressure – and I think we have to face that. The government has to think about that and we have to think about the priorities – what really matters and how we can focus our effort on the things that we can make the most difference on.” 

Fraser or, more likely, his successor may have to consider these priorities rather sooner than expected: a few days after our interview the chancellor George Osborne unexpectedly unveiled £4.5bn of government savings – a “down payment” on the planned £30bn he aims to save over the next three years. The Foreign Office – an unprotected department – took a £20m hit, with more cuts to the organisation expected over the rest of the parliament.

Another worry raised by the Foreign Affairs Committee – and on a number of occasions by the Tory MP Rory Stewart (himself a former deputy governor in Iraq) – is the capacity of diplomats to gain local knowledge. Stewart has argued that too much of an emphasis is now placed on managerial, rather than traditional diplomatic skills. The committee’s report – published in March – goes further: “The most striking evidence of a shortfall in proficiency in foreign languages” relates to “regions where there is particular instability and where there is the greatest need for FCO expertise in order to inform policymaking.” 

What does Fraser make of these criticisms? 

“Well, Rory has made a number of comments about expertise in the Foreign Office, and I always listen to them attentively,” he replies. “But in places like the Middle East, where there has been sustained instability over a period time, it is of course a challenge for an organisation like this to keep supplying expert staff, because often people can’t stay too long in a country – there are very unstable situations – and so there has been a high demand over a period of time, which we need to meet. 

“There has been a criticism about the Arabic language skills of our senior staff in the Middle East, but actually more than nine out of 10 of our serving ambassadors speak either Arabic or the local language in those countries. So I would actually challenge some of Rory’s statements on that – I’m not sure if his facts are absolutely right. 

“But the underlying point, that we maintain a stream of expert people who know the region, understand the culture and can speak the language, is really important. It is a challenge which we are working on.”

Questions have also been raised about Russian expertise, but Fraser points out that nine out of 10 of the FCO’s heads of mission there and in the region speak Russian or the local language. 

“While we are working hard on building up the Russian speaking cadre, we’ve got really expert people already, both among our diplomats and our research analysts. We have that capacity, but we have to work very hard to make sure that we are maintaining it,” Fraser says, before moving on to the question of “managerial” diplomats. 

“Just as we have to have, say, Chinese speakers, we also have to address a modern skills agenda as well. So of course we’ve got to be really good in the traditional diplomatic skills – knowing the country, knowing the people – but we’ve also got to have people who understand economics; we’ve got a network of science-focused officers now; we have specialists in digital as well. So the range of diplomatic skills, as in other professions, is widening out.” 

Yet could the concerns about skills in the FCO ultimately arise from the type of people it employs in the first place? Dr Jonathan Eyal from the Royal United Services Institute admires Fraser personally, but has been strongly critical of the department’s recruitment methods, which involve multiple online “sorting procedures” before candidates can speak to anyone at the department and are, in Eyal’s words, churning out “identikit automata”, leaving no room for “the sparky unusual candidates” like Sir Simon himself. 

“Am I sparky and unusual?!” Fraser laughs. “Let’s tackle this on a broader issue: there has been a strand of concern among some commentators recently that there is more focus on generic managerial skills than on specific expertise. But the civil service, and indeed the diplomatic service, has always actually recruited people for their overall general ability and has then trained them and given the expertise as they have gone on through their careers. I think on the whole, provided we do that effectively, that’s a good model. 

“Where I don’t agree with Jonathan [Eyal] is that when I look at the quality of people we are recruiting now, I would say it is amazingly good. Actually I would say they are sort of pound-for-pound better than the people that were recruited when I joined – in terms of their maturity, their clarity of focus of what they want to do, their flexibility, their initiative, their confidence, their readiness to challenge.” 

But isn’t there a danger that all those online selection stages discriminate against Foreign Office candidates who, while they may be weaker in one or two areas, are sharp, capable and have, for example, an amazing capacity for languages? 

“I don’t think they do because…well, I can’t give you a definitive answer. All selection processes, of course, have in-built biases and produce outcomes, but I’m just saying that the product I see coming through is very impressive. I think we are number four on the list of most attractive graduate employers so we still attract very good people. I think that we do have a big challenge to make sure then that we train them and give them the expertise, whether it’s in languages or different types of diplomatic skills, to make sure that we get very high quality, expert people and that we don’t in the process homogenise everybody into becoming a sort of monoculture, which would be a risk.”

The mention of a “monoculture” is apposite, given the interview’s other theme: diversity. Just before his retirement in March 2014, Fraser’s predecessor as diversity champion Paul Jenkins said that delays to the publication of a diversity plan under the coalition government were “profoundly disappointing”. More recently, in September 2014, Bob Kerslake said his biggest regret as civil service head was that “we were not able to produce the report on diversity earlier”. “We could have and we should have,” Kerslake added. 

Why were there such delays to the plan?

“I don’t know the answer to that, because I took over as diversity champion in March last year,” Fraser replies. “All I can say is that I am very pleased that by September we had published it. It was an important thing to do. We called it the Talent Action Plan, and it’s a very good document which sets out a number of specific proposals on things that the civil service needs to do to address diversity in the broader sense, as well as the specific issues around protected characteristics in under-represented groups. And the civil service leadership is, I believe, seriously engaging on delivering it. For whatever reason it was delayed, I prefer to focus on the fact that it was published and that we are now motoring on delivery.” 

One report which fed into the first Talent Action Plan (there has since been a second version) contained comments from female officials describing senior civil service culture as “a bear pit”. Is that a picture Fraser recognises?

“I don’t think the important thing is whether I recognise it, I think the important thing is that that is the perception that some people appear to have. And if that’s the case, as clearly it was, then we have to take it seriously. We have to understand why they feel it’s like that and we have to address it. What is important is that the leadership of the civil service do respond to that and that when we talk about culture and leadership – because that’s what this was really about – that our deeds match our words. It’s really important that we are seen in our behaviours to be supporting the sort of things – an open culture, a fair culture, a culture of opportunity for different people with different ideas and from different backgrounds to get to the top of the civil service – and if people don’t see that to be the case then that’s a problem.” 

Where the first Talent Action Plan had focused mainly on the barriers to women in Whitehall, the “refreshed” version that appeared this March centred on LGBT, disabled, and black and minority ethnic officials. The three reports which accompanied the plan made for sobering reading: some LGBT civil servants felt they had to “go back into the closet in order to get into the SCS”; managers were described as regarding workplace adjustments for disabled staff “as a privilege, not a necessity or a right”, and BME staff complained of a lack of role models and an “old boys’ network” at the top.   

Was Fraser shocked to read that kind of feedback?

“I would say I thought it was disturbing. But if I’m absolutely honest with you, I didn’t find it entirely surprising in all cases. Some of the comments about people feeling that there was a monoculture, that there was discrimination… I wasn’t entirely surprised by. But I think it’s very useful to have that evidence and I think it was good that we went outside and were open in commissioning that, because that gives us some very clear guidance about the things that we need to address. As I said before, what matters is how people feel about where they work, and I think that many of those comments are quite justified.” 

Asked what barriers under-represented groups in the civil service face, Fraser says that while they differ, they don’t “seem to be primarily about recruitment”.

“We recruit a pretty diverse range of people into the civil service – although we’ve got to think hard about socioeconomic and regional diversity and recruitment. The barriers seem to emerge as people rise up the system. What these external reports show is that it’s harder for people from under-represented groups to rise up. So whereas 53% of the total civil service workforce are women, by the time you get to the senior civil service it’s only 38%, and indeed in the Foreign Office at that level I’m afraid it’s only 28%. 

“I’ve been looking a lot at the barriers. I think there are issues around culture; there are issues around some unfairness, perhaps, in the performance appraisal system – whether that’s unconscious bias I don’t know [see box below]. There are issues around career structures and you know, of course, the fact that some women at a certain point may have children and then re-entry into their career becomes a challenge. There are actually issues about the way men and women behave differently, which we need to understand. I also think we need to focus much more on disabled staff, where there is a perception, in the evidence we are getting, of a sense of discrimination against disabled people.” 

As for fostering a more open and diverse culture in the FCO itself, Fraser says he has made this an integral part of “what he has tried to stand for” during his time as perm sec. Along with appointing board diversity champions, he has established a new network of diversity champions across the department and has personally led “leadership learning sets” – with a particular focus on women and those from other under-represented groups – to talk about how to rise into the senior management.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Fraser says of the diversity agenda as a whole, “but we need to identify things and then we need to put in place support mechanisms – whether it’s mentoring, sponsorship, leadership learning sets, acceleration schemes – to try and help people get through the critical points that appear to be blocks in the system. 

“But above and beyond all that, the most important thing is the culture of an organisation. And if different people feel they can express themselves in that culture, that they belong there, and that they can perform in their own way, rather than having to conform to a particular norm, then I think that actually is the fundamental thing.” 

Faced with the customary three-month break perm secs are expected to take when they leave Whitehall for another job, Sir Simon Fraser must now be looking forward to some well-deserved leisure time. There will ample opportunity to practise his downward dog in sweltering yoga studios – and indeed for less masochistic hobbies like watching the cricket and his beloved Ipswich Town. 

He may also find time to reflect on a remarkable civil service career. Just before the interview ends, he asks permission to offer a final thought. 

“I would like to say what an incredibly rewarding, stimulating and diverse experience I’ve had. I’ve done many different things, including experiencing directly the end of the Cold War in 1989, which was a huge historic moment. The Foreign Office gives you the opportunity, over a period of time, to live through a whole range of extraordinary world events and I’ve very much appreciated that. It’s a great privilege and I would encourage other people to think about doing it too.” 


Fraser on...

 The “marginalisation” of the FCO on EU matters
“Clearly Europe is a foreign policy issue but it also has a very important domestic component, so it’s not for any individual department...we can’t own the whole agenda. It’s been made very clear that there is a triangle of the prime minister, the chancellor and the foreign secretary who will be working together on this. The relationship between [Britain] and the eurozone is of course one of the core issues, and that is very much in the Treasury’s area. The whole set of issues around the institutions of Europe and Europe’s place in the world is very much the Foreign Office agenda. The whole agenda around competitiveness and red tape is of interest to BIS and the Foreign Office and the Treasury, and of course there is a lot of politics overlaying this. So I think the answer is we need a coordinated, cross-government approach. But where I differ from [the view that the FCO has been marginalised] is that I think that the Foreign Office is very much at the heart of that approach.” 

Performance management and under-represented groups
“We have looked at the performance management figures in the Foreign Office, and I think other departments have as well, and it does appear from that evidence that certain groups appear to, on average, fare less well in the performance assessment than others. So we need to look at that. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m particularly focused on making people aware of unconscious bias. I think that’s a very important thing, we all have it and we all need to learn how to recognise it.”

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