Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report

FCO capacity on the environment


43. Witnesses to this inquiry felt that restructuring to align the FCO with its 2006 White Paper and SDS, had resulted in a reduction in the department's capacity to deal with environmental issues. The RSPB told us that the restructuring entailed the merger of the Environmental Policy Department into what is now the Sustainable Development and Business Group. The RSPB argued that this "gives the environment in general and biodiversity in particular a much lower profile in the FCO's work".[61] The JNCC agreed that "there is currently less focus on environmental issues in the FCO than there has been previously, especially prior to the White Paper and the internal re-structuring that accompanied this".[62] As a result of this the JNCC argued that the number of FCO contacts that it deals with has "dropped off considerably".[63]

44. Nick Mabey, former Head of Sustainable Development in the FCO's Environment Policy department and now Chief Executive of E3G, told the Sub-committee that the restructuring had indeed had a mixed impact on the FCO's ability to address international environmental objectives:

The restructuring strengthened the FCO's role on climate change to an extent, though the hoped for synthesis of climate and energy security has yet to really emerge in the group. The focus on other environmental issues has been severely damaged by the restructuring.[64]

45. An FCO official rejected these claims in part. Mr Wightman argued to us that the initial restructuring had led to an increase in the resources given over to climate change and other environmental issues. However, he acknowledged that a subsequent restructuring had reduced the amount of work dedicated to the environmental strand of sustainable development, although it also increased the resources available for climate change and energy work by over 25 per cent.[65]

46. We feel that the better integration in the FCO of sustainable development with business, and climate change with energy policy, is positive and could lead to the development of policies that better account for sustainable development issues. However, we are concerned that, as a result of restructuring, the FCO has lost its environmental nexus, and has decided to lower the resources given over to a number of international environmental issues. We recommend that an environmental policy group is re-established to drive forward an environmental agenda in the FCO, as well as to provide the central environmental expertise that existed prior to the restructuring. We are particularly concerned that failure to do this will impact on the UK's ability to influence environmental negotiations in international fora.


47. Witnesses to this inquiry told us that the restructuring exercise had resulted not only in a shift away from many global environmental issues, but also had caused a decline in the FCO's environmental expertise. Nick Mabey argued that the restructuring and concurrent loss of expertise will have a negative impact on the ability of the FCO to deal with these issues as they "require significant literacy and longevity of expertise to have an effective diplomatic impact".[66] He also argued that the loss of a section with responsibility for the environment has meant that there is now "the lack of a clear focal point or career anchor in the FCO", diminishing " its ability to integrate environmental issues successfully into its mainstream work (e.g. on environmental factors and conflict, corruption and governance/democracy), or provide an adequate diplomatic support function for DEFRA".[67] IFAW also questioned whether the structure of the FCO is "adequate to respond to the needs of international environmental diplomacy".[68] Iain Orr, of BioDiplomacy, highlighted the importance of cross-government working, and called for a "good deal more in the way of both inward and outward secondments in the Foreign Office".[69] JNCC agreed in part, saying that:

…to some extent the lack of expertise within FCO can be offset by having expertise, for example, within Defra or within JNCC. We can offer that specialist advice. I also believe that there are considerable advantages in mainstreaming the environment within other policy areas. However, I have to say that, at the end of all that, I still believe that you need some central core within FCO that has responsibility for overseeing that integration and mainstreaming, and making sure it is effective.[70]

48. These criticisms are similar to those that have been levelled at the civil service generally. For example, a paper published by Demos pointed out that the civil service currently functions though the appointment of gifted generalists:

Organisational life in the public and private sectors has been characterised for much of its modern existence by the increasing professionalisation of functions. There was a time when, for example, human resources, finance and marketing were 'picked up' by generalist managers and their staffs. No longer. These and others have become professionalised with institutes, qualification and accreditation. Just as importantly, some organisations and industries have become 'schools' for functions vital to their businesses; for example, the most expert marketing people come out of retail and consumer goods companies. Specialisation also occurs within professions—forensic accountants, hip operation surgeons and media lawyers—as the know-how of, and demands on, the speciality increase. In the public services, specialists abound—in housing, adoption, primary teaching, integration of services, and so on.

By contrast, the UK civil service has stuck with its 'gifted generalist' approach, relying on process to make specialist functions amenable to generalist operation. While some qualified professionals have been admitted, for example, in accounting, the functions as a whole would not be classed as professionalised. This generalist approach goes beyond the so-called 'back office' functions and is institutionalised through the career development practice of changing job responsibilities about every three years. These moves may be seen as small steps by civil servants but they are giant steps for society: education to housing; domestic violence to primary teaching; industry productivity to police budgets.[71]

49. The paper went on to argue that this structure leads to "knowledge shedding" and a limited institutional memory. In order to ensure the required level of specialist expertise in the civil service it recommended that the current structure should be changed so that far more civil servants are recruited from outside the organisation, a ratio of 70:30 of "freshers" to "lifers" was suggested.[72] An argument was also given that rejected the existing response to the need for more specialist expertise by the creation of "'career anchors' within the home-grown lifer model rather than sourcing specialists today from proven producers. It would be ten years before the civil service produced specialists of the depth available today from outside".[73]

50. The Sub-committee asked the Minister and officials how they were addressing the need for specialist environmental expertise. It was told that this was being deal with by a "regular flow of secondees from Defra into both the climate change side and the sustainable development side both to ensure that [… the FCO has] excellent working relationships with Defra, … but also [has] a corps of technical expertise which, with the best will in the world, [the FCO is] not always capable of developing quickly [itself]".[74] The Minister added that the FCO is increasing the sustainable development skills of its complete workforce, so that sustainable development can be embedded across the whole of the FCO's work.[75]

51. We asked Nick Mabey, whether addressing the issue of specialist expertise in this way was adequate to the task:

No. The issues the FCO deals with are different to those in DEFRA and changing rapidly. Many of the areas where FCO could add most value are still developing and are intellectually and institutionally immature, for example: Climate change diplomacy and the links to energy security; environmental technology cooperation; climate security and environmental stress; resource management, conflict and corporate behaviour; international environmental governance; environmental democracy and rights. There is no off the shelf training available to teach generalists how to approach these issues. DEFRA does not effectively cover these areas either.

Effective diplomacy requires people to have cutting edge skills and be in touch with networks of key thinkers and actors. This requires both serious in-depth training and a career path where experience and networks can be built. This is the approach taken for FCO staff on major countries and institutions—China, India, EU—where on top of 6-12 months of dedicated language training staff can expect several tours of duty on a related region/country/institution—thus giving them incentives to maintain and build their knowledge and understanding over time. It is strange that a similar investment is not made on environmental issues, which by their very nature are international and require successful diplomacy to deliver UK interests. This type of internal capacity should be supplemented by external secondees from academia, NGOs and business—as has been successfully pioneered in the human rights and science and technology areas in FCO, and was a key part of [the Environmental Policy Department] from 1999-2003.[76]

52. We welcome the FCO's training programme to ensure better that all staff become conversant in sustainable development and environmental issues. Nevertheless, we have heard during the course of this inquiry that the specialist skills that the FCO requires in the field of environmental diplomacy are lacking. We are of the opinion that these skills can only in part be addressed by FCO staff and by other Government departments through secondments. Given the complex and specialised nature of this work, and the FCO's own admission that its internal corps of civil servants working in this area are not able to develop their expertise quickly enough, we call for a large increase in the use of externally-appointed environmental specialists. In addition, to ensure that the unique abilities that FCO officials develop can be aligned with environmental expertise, it is essential that career diplomats with an environmental focus are developed; an environmental 'career anchor' must therefore be re-established. Our earlier recommendation that an environmental policy group be established could provide the location for this 'anchor'. The appointment of John Ashton as Special Representative on Climate Change, and the FCO's assertions as to the importance of this appointment for driving the climate change agenda forward, could be taken as an implicit recognition that the current structure is inadequate to the task of international diplomacy on environmental issues.

61   Ev 2 Back

62   Ev 24 Back

63   Qu 40 Back

64   Ev 76 Back

65   Qu 81 Back

66   Ev 76 Back

67   Ev 77 Back

68   Ev 5 Back

69   Qu 34 Back

70   Ev 29 Back

71   Ed Straw, The Dead Generalist; Reforming the civil service and public services, Demos, 13 September 2004 Back

72   ibid, p49 Back

73   ibid, p34 Back

74   Qu 81 [Mr Wightman] Back

75   Qu 82 [Mr McCartney] Back

76   Ev 77 Back

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