The proposed merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development wasn’t a surprise. Successive foreign secretaries have often experienced and voiced frustration at a lack of strategic alignment on foreign policy matters, and Boris Johnson was no exception. Embassies and DfID’s country offices have not always spoken with one voice, and it was clear that the UK’s international counterparts knew who actually controlled the purse strings.
While a more coordinated foreign policy promises to give the Foreign Secretary more clout and improve our international relations, the success of the proposed merger will also depend on the government’s continued commitment to development as well as a commitment to ensuring DfID’s civil servants are embedded at senior levels in the new department.
DfID has an incredible reputation abroad. This is a valuable soft power asset for the UK. Not only does the UK have the third largest development budget in the world, it also has a wealth and depth of expertise, covering areas as diverse as education, healthcare, climate change, tax reform, technology and economic development.
The UK’s transparency, effectiveness and accountability in implementing aid programmes has only enhanced this reputation. The new foreign office will only continue to benefit from the ability of development to amplify the UK’s international standing if it recognises these advantages and preserves and actively nurtures them.
As with any machine of government change, the success or failure of this initiative will largely turn on more immediate bureaucratic decisions.
DfID is home to some of Whitehall’s best civil servants. What sets them apart is not just their expertise, it is their passion for their work. Two of the most critical early challenges will be to avoid a wasteful brain drain while simultaneously articulating a coherent and authentic sense of mission for the new department. Moreover, if this is truly a merger – and not just a takeover – DfID’s civil servants will need to be embedded in the Foreign Office at senior levels.
Both departments bring different skills to the table. DfID, for all its experience and skill in managing large and complex development programmes, sometimes lacks more traditional diplomatic skills – while the opposite is often the case with the foreign office.
If done correctly and with nuance, blending the skills of both departments could yield something that is greater than just the sum of its parts – and this could prove to be a significant boost to UK foreign policy.
A microcosm of the possibilities and the pitfalls that await the newly merged department can be seen in the Sustainable Development Goals. These Goals are at a critical juncture. While they are well articulated and understood by governments, organisations and business, they are now at the point where the rubber has to meet the road. The new department will have a merged skill set that will be critical to seeing the Goals evolve off the page from aspiration into actual hard, tangible results.
On the one hand, this will initially require convening – getting the right people talking to each other at the right time. The Foreign Office excels at these soft skills.
However, once that door is pushed open, it will require people with deep technical expertise in managing and implementing projects to step through the threshold and get down to what is often less publicised but more critical work.
This is grindstone stuff; work on the ground that doesn’t make the headlines and is far from glamorous. But ultimately, it’s the keystone that holds it all together. And this is where the new department will be hugely reliant on the experience and expertise of DfID.
If the government maintains its strong commitment to development and ensures that it carefully preserves and nurtures the best of both departments, the UK’s foreign policy will benefit from these joined up and coordinated skill sets.