Former Foreign Office perm sec calls for FCDO redundancies

Simon McDonald says the FCDO looks like “two departments stuck together”
Lord Simon McDonald speaking at the International Relations and Defence Committee

By Tevye Markson

31 Mar 2022

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office needs a round of redundancies to trim down its senior ranks and create a “coherent new structure”, the former head of its predecessor department has said.

Lord Simon McDonald, who was permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for five years before it merged with the Department for International Development in September 2020, said: “The top of the organisation is, in my judgement, too big.

“There needs to be a [voluntary early severance scheme] and there needs to be a round of compulsory redundancies after that, in order for a coherent new structure to emerge. As far as I can see, none of that is in the offing.”

McDonald, speaking at the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, also criticised a restructure announced earlier this month that included political director Tim Barrow’s appointment as second permanent secretary at the department.

“I was completely puzzled by this latest restructuring, which didn't seem to me to serve a strategic purpose,” he said.

“I can see a case for a second permanent secretary, but why would you take as the second permanent secretary the political director and not change that person's responsibility? If the second permanent secretary was someone who was steeped in development, that would be a rationale, if it was someone who was going to drive forward the merger, who had a corporate anchor, that would make sense, but rebadging the political director – I don’t get it.”

He also said there were “too many” director generals in the department, and questioned why the recent reshuffle had added an extra DG to its ranks and changed the roles of three others.

“One of the new ones is called director general of geopolitics and security,” he said. “I was in the Foreign Office for 38 years and I couldn’t tell you what that person is trying to do that everyone else isn’t trying to do. Surely, all DGs have those things on their mind as they do their work.”

McDonald said he thinks the restructure was driven by the crisis in Ukraine. “Maybe Ukraine will be handled more swiftly at the top as a consequence, but it does not feel strategic, it does not feel permanent, and I do not think it helps,” he said.

‘Two departments stuck together’

Asked how he felt the merger had gone, McDonald said it was “too soon to tell” whether it had been successful, but it looked like ministers had “just stuck the two departments together”.

“Clearly it is not fated to succeed but neither do I think it is fated to fail,” he said.

He noted that the merger happened under “very difficult circumstances”.

The biggest difficulty the department faced was a cut to overseas development assistance less than three months after the merger, McDonanld said. Last year ODA was reduced by more than a third, from 0.7% of UK national income to 0.5%.

“Everybody in the last 18 months has been focused on where to cut and because of certain international obligations, some cuts have been way more than a third. Some have been cut completely and others have been cut by 80%,” he said.

Ministers have maintained that the target will return to 0.7% of GNI “when the fiscal situation allows”. But Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox, who spoke to the committee in the same session, said "you can't just switch it back on" and it will take time to restart projects.

The timing of the merger’s announcement, which came before the completion of the integrated review, and the Covid pandemic also hindered the move, McDonald said.

The integrated review – a cross-government review of defence, security and foreign policy that the prime minister said would examine how government could be structured to meet global challenges – began in February 2020. It did not conclude until last March – long after the FCO and DfID merged. McDonald said the announcement of the merger in June 2020 “anticipated” the review’s conclusions rather than allowing it to make its recommendations first.

And he said staff having to get to know each other on screen rather than in person due to the Covid-19 pandemic as they set up the new department “hugely added to the challenge”.

McDonald and Maddox both said there needs to be a culture change to bring the two wings of the department together, given the FCO and DfID’s very different aims - i.e. reducing of poverty versus increasing Britain's influence in the world.

“There has been a culture clash of these two departments,” Maddox said.

“The DfID wing has got the worst of it. You hear a lot that the DfID people feel not convinced that the department remains the right place for them.”

McDonald said: “The objective was and has to be a synthesis of cultures. A new culture has to emerge and it still is in the process of emerging.”

Earlier, Stephanie Draper of international development network Bond had told the committee that 213 staff had left since the merger and there had been a “brain drain”, but McDonald rejected this view, saying very few staff had left.

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