Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office



  Recommendation 11 of the FAC report on the 1999 FCO Annual Report[3] called for six-monthly reports on progress in setting up a modern IT and communications system. The FCO response was:

    "The FCO will include such an update on its IT and communications strategy in all future departmental reports. From Spring 2002 either a report or a plan will be submitted to Parliament every six months. A separate report will be presented in Autumn 2001 to cover the gap between the Departmental Report in Spring 2001 and the Departmental Plan in April 2002."

  This is the separate Autumn 2001 report. It includes an assessment of costs and benefits for our major ICT projects as recommended in the FAC Report on the 2000 FCO Annual Report (see recommendation 6 in footnote[4]). It also addresses in annex 1[5] recommendation 7 (see footnote[6]).


  2.1  The FCO's ICT strategy was agreed by the Board of Management in March 2000. Its broad aim is to move from hub and spoke to a global on-line arrangement. This means:

    —  establishing a common global FCO ICT infrastructure; and

    —  delivering a set of applications to run on that infrastructure for:

      —  more effective management of resources;

      —  better public services, including electronic service delivery; and

      —  better global access to information

  2.2  To realise the aims of the strategy four programmes have been established:

1.  The Infrastructure Programme

  This includes the Firecrest project for a common desktop system using standard Microsoft software in all posts abroad, as well as the FCO; linked by telecommunications supplied and managed under a PFI contract by the international telecommunications provider Global Crossing.

2.  The Prism Programme

  This programme will improve management of resources, both financial and human. It involves a new IT system and new working practices.

"Recommendation 6: We recommend that in its regular update reports to our successor Committee on IT and communications the FCO include a full cost-benefit analysis of the FTN, the new management information system and any other major information technology or communications project.

  Agreed. The FCO will include an assessment of costs against expected and achieved benefits for major Information Communication and Technology (ICT) projects with our regular updates to the Committee. However, many of the expected benefits will be qualitative in nature and therefore may not be measurable.

  Recommendation 7: We recommend that in its Autumn 2001 report on IT and communications to our successor Committee the FCO include full information on the steps it is taking to minimise downtime due to faults on desktop information systems awaiting repair and on the extent to which it is meeting the half-day target for repairing such faults.

  Agreed. The FCO will include a full report on our desktop support arrangements in our next Report".

3.  The Public Services Programme

  This programme addresses the modernisation of services provided direct to the public. It includes improvements to the FCO's web-site, and new systems to support Consular services and electronic visa processing.

4.  The Knowledge Programme

  This programme will provide a new FCO Intranet (a closed internal network based on Internet-technology) and document management facilities, which together will improve access to information.

  Further details can be obtained from "E-Diplomacy", the FCO's e-business strategy, available from the FCO's web-site (


Infrastructure Programme

  Firecrest has been installed in 234 Posts overseas and throughout the FCO in London. It has 11,105 users in all. An upgrade to allow confidential working is now in 45 Posts and the main London buildings, with delivery to other Posts due by the start of 2003. FCO staff in Hanslope Park and Croydon will receive Firecrest in the New Year. FTN services are now available in 73 Posts, and the network should be complete in 2002.

Prism Programme

  Following a procurement competition the FCO aims to sign a contract shortly for an integrated personnel and financial management system and related services. Implementation of the new system is scheduled to begin in early 2003.

Public Services Programme

  The Public Services Programme comprises three sub-programmes. The Public Diplomacy sub-programme, funded in part by the Treasury's Capital Modernisation Fund (CMF), involves a major upgrade to the FCO's web-site and centralised management of the content of the main web-site and of a number of overseas embassy web-sites. The new system is scheduled to go live in early 2002. The Entry Clearance sub-programme involves streamlining the whole entry-clearance process. Again, funded in part through the CMF, it is being run by the Joint Entry Clearance Unit (owned jointly by the FCO and the Home Office) and will integrate back-office systems as well as electronic transactions with the visa applicant. The precise scope of this sub-programme is being defined. The Consular sub-programme involves a package of measures to improve consular services to the public. A pilot of a new consular database, which will deliver world-wide access to consular information, is about to get under way. A new voice-recognition system (currently undergoing testing) will extend the provision of telephone travel advice, and complement the travel information already available on the FCO web-site. New systems for the processing of passport applications and production of digital passports are already in place for the top 11 passport issuing Posts. There are plans to extend the system to allow Posts with low volumes of passport applications, where deploying a full systems cannot be justified in terms of cost, to use the facilities remotely.

Knowledge Programme

  A procurement competition has identified a preferred supplier for new Intranet and document management facilities and the FCO aims to sign a contract shortly.


  4.1  The costs of our ICT programmes are summarised in the table below.

Public services
Entry Clearance
£9.9m (£7.2m CMF)
Digital Passports
Consular Database

  4.2  The four programmes within our ICT strategy depend on one another to deliver the means to achieve the expected benefits. The Prism programme depends on the ICT infrastructure provided by the Infrastructure Programme; the Knowledge Programme depends on the information which will be obtained via the Prism systems, for example. It is not therefore possible to assign all expected benefits to a single programme. The benefits we expect from the strategy as a whole are summarised in the following paragraphs.

  4.3  In parts of the world in which the local telecommunications infrastructure is unreliable, FTN's high capacity on-line satellite connections have brought major benefits to Posts, providing reliable telephone access to the UK telephone network, instant e-mail connections, and good Internet access. Posts are receiving new advanced digital telephone switchboards, also provided as part of the FTN contract. Firecrest provides a unified desktop system for FCO staff in the two main buildings in London, at Hanslope Park, and at Posts overseas. Some 3,000 staff in the UK and in 45 Posts overseas now use a Confidential version of Firecrest, the world's first diplomatic ICT system capable both of fully secure data processing with e-mail and full access to the Internet. This is bringing efficiency benefits and is a key step towards a modern, global on-line FCO.

  4.4  The unified FCO infrastructure provided by FTN and Firecrest is key to the benefits expected from the other three programmes. In summary these are:

The Prism Programme

  The new integrated resource management system will bring better, more accurate and more timely information on resources. This in turn, will reinforce accountability and control over resource management of resources throughout the organisation. The system will automate routine tasks, freeing staff from time-consuming rekeying and checking operations.

The Public Services Programme

  The new Internet facilities will concentrate at the centre the management of the content of FCO web-sites around the world. This will ensure that messages are consistent, and release for other work some resources currently devoted to maintaining Posts' web-sites. The Entry Clearance modernisation work will streamline visa processing, providing a fast service to applicants. It will progressively make available electronic means of applying for and processing visas, making the service more convenient and more efficient. The new consular database and the extension of telephone travel advice will improve consular services to the public and reduce our administrative overheads at the centre.

The Knowledge Programme

  Ad advanced new secure Intranet and document management system will enable the FCO to draw more effectively on the experience and expertise of all our staff around the world. It will help teams spread across the world to work together and allow individuals to select the information they need. Combined with some strengthening of the core UK network (due for completion early next year), it will also give Posts overseas much better backup IT arrangements in the event of local problems.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

December 2001

3   Fifth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, Annual Reports of Foreign and Commonwealth and British Trade International 2000, HC 507. Back

4   Fifth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, Annual Reports of Foreign and Commonwealth and British Trade International 2000, HC 507. Back

5   Ev 107. Back

6   Extract from FAC response to FCO departmental Report 2000, with FCO replies: Back

7   The Prism and Knowledge Programmes are approaching the point at which contracts will be signed. To avoid undermining negotiations with prospective suppliers at this critical stage of the procurement competitions the costs are classified Restricted Commercial and cannot be included with this report. Back

8   Original contract value was £165 million covering 135 FCO Posts. A subsequent decision to extend network coverage to 220 Posts has raised the contract value to £200 million, over 10 years. Back

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Prepared 14 November 2002