Pay “reset” and better use of open data on the agenda for FCO staff

A review of process and structures in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) calls for a “technological overhaul”, stronger leadership of cross-government work overseas, and an end to dependence on email

By Suzannah Brecknell

10 May 2016

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) must overhaul its technology, increase pay, and remove layers of management to provide effective diplomacy, according to a review written by former ambassador Tom Fletcher.

The report, commissioned by perm sec Simon McDonald in response to last year’s Spending Review, argues that effective diplomacy will be more important than ever in a future defined by change, disruption and automation.

“In the digital age we don’t need less diplomacy, just better diplomacy,” says the report. “And if British diplomacy did not exist, we would need to invent it. But first we need to free the FCO.”

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The review calls on the FCO to “reset” pay and rewards, as well as simplifying its organisational structures, reducing the number of grades within the organisation from 11 to four. 

Performance management should be improved to remove poor-performers and develop a “smaller, more diverse, higher performing and more flexible workforce”.

In 2013, an independent survey showed that in some grades the FCO was paying 9-10% less in basic salary terms than other Whitehall departments. The review says FCO pay should be raised to the Whitehall median “as part of a bold offer on headcount reduction and wider efficiencies”.

A new pay system would reward certain jobs more than others based on importance, and overtime would reward certain skills over others. 

The review is also strongly critical of the FCO’s use of technology, saying: “Our current IT impedes our ability to deliver top class diplomacy for the UK.”

An overhaul of technology to allow greater mobile working and give staff access to modern devices and applications “cannot come soon enough”, it continues.

And the FCO must, it argues, break its “cultural dependency on email”, reducing the number of emails sent through a greater use of collaborative tools.

"If British diplomacy did not exist, we would need to invent it. But first we need to free the FCO" - report author Tom Fletcher

Staff should also make more use of open source intelligence tools, the report says, and use data to discover and respond to the differing needs of stakeholders in different countries. A new data director, supported by a small team, would “ramp up the FCO’s use of open source data to drive a paradigm shift on knowledge management.”

The review also calls for greater use of digital diplomacy, something which Fletcher, formerly the UK’s ambassador to Lebanon — has championed in his previous postings and on his personal blog. 

Fletcher urges the creation of a permanent cadre of digital professionals to help promote digital diplomacy across the FCO’s network.

Structural reform

Alongside greater understanding of open source data and digital diplomacy, the review says the FCO needs to build better skills around stabilisation and mediation, as well as bolster its work with business and non-state actors.

Fletcher’s review also calls for a major change in security classifications, suggesting that 95% of FCO work should be unclassified, with some work downgraded to unclassified over time – for example, when a negotiation has ended.

Alongside these internal reforms, Fletcher argues that the FCO should “make a forthright offer to government partners on where we lead and where we advise”.

The FCO should establish cross-government country or regional strategies, developed with other departments in Whitehall and signed off by cross-Whitehall boards. 

The heads of mission in each post should then be given more flexibility and resources to deliver these strategies, with “a clear overview of all UK country activity and financial spend, clear line of sight of all HMG staff working at post, and be the countersigning officer for all Whitehall leads”.

Cross-government or long-term programmes, such as the £60m cross-government Prosperity Fund, would be better managed by creating a single secretariat for cross-government funds and a single FCO programme department, the report argues. 

“All funds controlled directly by the FCO should be unified into a single pot, administered collectively by that department,” says the report.

The review also argues for greater technological integration with other departments overseas, suggesting the FCO should explore the feasibility of a single overseas IT system, including joint procurement of hardware and software, and a Whitehall joint support unit.

An FCO spokeswoman told CSW that the review was designed to ensure the FCO “continues to deliver world-leading diplomacy for years to come”.

She added: “Ministers and the FCO board will now consider all the recommendations carefully and decide which measures to take forward.”

Despite an expectation of further big cuts, the Foreign Office was spared the axe when the Treasury's Spending Review announced the final funding settlements for the next four years.

But, although its resource budget has been held at £1bn until at least 2019-20, it has also promised to find £53m-worth of administrative savings over that period.

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