Adapting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's global estate to the modern world - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Department has made a number of improvements to help it manage its estate more effectively, including the appointment of an estates specialist and the development of a new strategy for its estate. In making recommendations on the areas of weakness we found in the Department's management of its estate, we nonetheless recognise this work and the difficulties that the Department faces.

2.  The Department is developing a new estate strategy but has limited resources for its implementation. The Department should draw up a realistic and affordable plan of implementation, showing clearly what it will cost to deliver. The plan should also include milestones for the delivery of real improvement and should prioritise its actions to match the funds available.

3.  Staff overseas who will implement the strategy are not estates specialists. The appointment of a qualified chartered surveyor as Estates Director is an encouraging step in improving the professionalism with which it manages its estate. For the strategy to be implemented effectively, the Department must provide professional support to its staff overseas so they can drive through the changes required. It should identify what support they need and how the relevant skills can best be provided.

4.  The Department collates some management information on its estate, but does so inconsistently. Its new Estates Director currently does not have the information he needs to do his job. The Department must improve the quality of data on its estate by enforcing the accurate and prompt input of data on all properties into its Pyramid estate database.

5.  The Department has unused space in many of its buildings but does not collect basic information on space and cost per person. The Department needs to collect and analyse data on all its properties along the lines of that required by the Office of Government Commerce for UK based government properties. It should seek to increase the efficiency with which it uses its offices by setting local targets for use of space, taking into account the particular business needs of the Department in each location and the nature of the building occupied.

6.  The Department is not taking sufficient account of particular difficulties when undertaking construction projects overseas. It is not making enough allowance for fluctuating exchange rates, security requirements and the challenging nature of certain locations when planning projects. Two-thirds of projects examined by the National Audit Office were late and the Department continues to make expensive mistakes, such as on the new Embassy in Damascus, Syria. The Department should implement rigorous risk assessment when planning such projects so that it sets more realistic timetables and budgets. It should also make more systematic use of post project reviews to learn lessons for the future.

7.  It is a poor use of public money when the Department has unused space in many of its offices while other UK government organisations overseas are paying for office space in the same city. The Department should actively promote the use of spare space in its offices to other UK government organisations. The Treasury should require other government organisations that are considering opening new offices overseas to submit a business case showing the costs and benefits to the taxpayer of locating elsewhere compared with the costs and benefits of sharing with the Department.

8.  Reflecting Treasury requirements, the Department charges other users of its estate full costs even when space would otherwise remain empty. This deters other potential users, some of whom find it prohibitively expensive to use the Department's office accommodation. Through its Shared Services Group, the Treasury should develop a method of charging that passes on to other UK government organisations a fairer reflection of the actual cost to the Department of accommodating them, while protecting as far as possible the contribution that they make to the Department's fixed costs.

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Prepared 1 April 2010