The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from Charles Crawford CMG

The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Restoring Technique


1. Amidst a swirling confusion of ever-changing targets, objectives and strategic priorities the FCO (along with Whitehall generally) has lost sight of the primacy of basic diplomatic technique

2. The FCO needs to get back to two core value-adding principles:

a) Understanding foreign governments and cultures

b) Being highly skilled in persuasion and negotiation

3. To do that it needs the right tools and training for the job – far too much money made available by Parliament for foreign policy work in the widest sense is being wasted, damaging these core functions

4. This submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee focuses on the under-analysed but central subject of Diplomatic Technique. Without technique it does not matter much how and where the UK diplomatic effort is organised within Whitehall – the practical results in terms of impact overseas will be disappointing if not damaging


5. There are two categories of diplomat:

a) Those whose careers centre on devising the rules of global order, based mainly in London and in a small number of key Embassies/Missions overseas (UKRep Brussels, UKMis New York, UKDel NATO, Washington, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing).

b) Those who work on the ground in the great mass of other countries trying to implement those rules – who have to rely on their wits and skill to make an impact, often in physically/morally challenging (or even dangerous) situations.

6. I served in HM Diplomatic Service from 1979-2007 working very much in the latter category, with most of my career spent overseas in difficult ‘transition’ countries. First in communist Yugoslavia, apartheid South Africa and Russia in the early Yeltsin years. Then three times as British Ambassador: in Sarajevo after the Dayton Accords; in Belgrade following the fall of Slobodan Milosevic; and finally in Warsaw as Poland joined the European Union. I have much experience in what works, and why.

7. In 2007 I left the FCO on early retirement to start a new private career as communications consultant and mediator. In 2010 I helped bring together a group of former British Ambassadors to set up a new strategic consultancy and mediation panel, ADRg Ambassadors. [1]

The Calamity of British Official Central Planning

8. The FCO and wider UK policies overseas are (like other areas of government) sinking in a Sea of Complexity.

9. The FCO for well over a decade has been the victim of post-modern deconstruction as the then Government grappled with the operational and philosophical implications of globalisation. The tragic-comic attempt by successive Foreign Secretaries to identify FCO ‘Strategic Priorities’ (see Annex: a posting from my own website from January 2008) exemplifies this embarrassing philosophical disarray.

10. Above all, the very idea of diplomacy as a way to advance national interests has been gnawed at by different Whitehall departments and EU Working groups and attendant bureaucracy: most taxpayers’ money available for British discretionary spending overseas goes to the EU to spend slowly/badly and to a sprawling DFID operation.

11. At working level British diplomats no longer know what their main effort is. Should they be studying real-world powerful interests and working out what HMG should do about them? Or should they focus on getting the best available wording in a largely irrelevant text through a largely irrelevant EU Working Group?

12. Some of today’s excessive process was invented in the previous Thatcher/Major Conservative era, with the ostensibly laudable idea of making government policy processes more ‘businesslike’. But there was (and is) no consensus on what ‘business’ foreign policy actually is. In fact it is a complex mix:

a) part consultancy (top-level advice on what is happening and how to respond);

b) part agriculture – planting seeds of goodwill and influence, knowing that some will grow into strong plants in years to come but others will not;

c) part insurance – developing relations with senior foreign people patiently and deftly when there are no problems in sight, so that when problems occur there is a chance of having essential allies;

d) part fire-fighting (making an impact in difficult/dangerous situations far from home);

e) part service provider (consular/visa work).

13. This is a unique ‘business’ indeed. Because much solid background diplomatic work needed to get results is in the insurance sector and shows no ‘measurable’ outcome, it tends to be devalued in Treasury calculations. Two examples:

a) In 2006/07 the EU Section of the Warsaw Embassy helped muster Polish support for the UK position against the EU Working Time Directive. This helped save UK taxpayers and the wider economy hundreds of millions of pounds. HMG/Treasury methodology allows no way to calculate the benefit of that activity - and to develop the capacity in Embassies to create more results like it;

b) For all the focus on government targets, there is no obvious attempt to take a hard-nosed look at the billions(!) of pounds lost to HMG revenues through European cigarette-smuggling and deploy staff in European Embassies to try to stop a good part of it;

14. All in all, the FCO is a small but important part of a civilisational drama of British and European governance ineffectiveness. Far too much incoherent ‘process’ (generated internally under Treasury and Cabinet Office rules, and externally via the EU) is producing both declining impact and growing sloppiness, in style and substance.

Worse Communication

15. The last decade or so has seen a startling loss of quality within the FCO, a phenomenon noted by many foreign diplomats. It shows itself most dramatically in what ought to be the centrepiece of FCO work – communication. The FCO no longer communicates well with itself, or with its own knowledge.

16. The standard of FCO written work – formerly among the most effective prose work ever achieved in the civilise d world – has dropped . Even work for Ministers often is not being done properly: submissions are being sent back for reworking as they are so badly written. (Note: I submitted an FOI request about this and was told that there was no information on the subject.)

17. A number of factors have combined to create and accelerate this decline:

a) An idea from a few years ago that work needed to be only ‘fit for purpose’, to save time/resources ‘wasted’ in proof-reading and redrafting. (The point lost here was that creating high-quality work did involve commitment, but such good work had many positive demonstration and operational effects, no less real because they were impossible to ‘measure’.) This change encouraged less good presentation and so less good thought/analysis.

b) That in turn has led to a subliminal sense that correcting another officer’s work is not appropriate or somehow stuffily ‘judgemental’. This has come together with the rise of email culture to wreck on-the-job training. Years ago junior officers would be firmly taught by their superiors the fine art of accurate drafting. That has largely vanished.

c) No serious sanctions are imposed on people unable to write well, or unable to supervise good writing in their team.

d) The wider inability of the UK education system to produce people able to write accurate English is visible in the work of even the top graduates entering the FCO.

18. The FCO is glumly aware of this and is considering how best to deal with ‘poor performance’. One idea is to move away from ‘competences’ to ‘skills’ in measuring performance. Drafting exams could be set as a condition for getting promoted, perhaps in partnership with an outside academic body, and drafting standards might be raised for FCO entry.

19. That could make a positive difference over (say) ten years. But in the short run more drastic action is needed, most immediately in the form of severe sanctions on senior officials presiding over poor quality work.

Less Knowledge

20. One little-understood cause of quality-decline in the FCO (and perhaps more widely in government) is the way the introduction of IT systems has been handled.

21. In a nutshell, twenty years ago the FCO still ran paper files. This meant that the evolution of policy in recent years could be followed by someone unfamiliar with the issues: "read the file".

22. The introduction of email has led to an explosion of communication. In some ways this has been beneficial – free-wheeling networks of officials in the FCO and across Whitehall pull together fast, sophisticated positions on EU issues in a way which startles other EU partners who have a much less flexible approach to information management.

23. But there is a huge downside too. The FCO is producing large amounts of analysis/information by email which is not easily ‘searchable’. Partly this is for security reasons – the need for e-firewalls to stop someone who gets illicit access to one part of the system then getting access to everything. But it also reflects an incoherent approach to information management itself, with no senior ownership of this central issue.

24. The overall result is that the FCO’s collective memory and collective knowledge has plummeted. The famous FCO Library has been sent to King’s College London. Research cadres have been downgraded and cut.

25. The results are ruinous. There is no ‘file’. An officer moved to a different position has no ready way to find out where the existing policy has come from, so must react in an improvised way to events as they happen. This feeds through into banal analysis and presentation.

26. Urgent changes in FCO data management are needed here to devise new ways to make saving and searching information a proper professional discipline.

Diminished Judgement

27. It is important to understand that all these tensions come together in the Annual Appraisal system – the basis upon which FCO people get rewarded/promoted or not. That system sets the key personal incentives which diplomats know they must follow, because it defines what sort of behaviour the FCO really values. It epitomises the way the FCO thinks of itself.

28. Right at the philosophical heart of diplomacy is the idea of ‘Judgement’. A sense of judiciously weighing conflicting interests, and balancing short-term gains and risks against long-term gains and risks, then combining all that in taut advice to Ministers and deft public and private policy presentation. That admittedly hard-to-define idea of judgement - combining in an efficient form principle and pragmatism and operational cleverness – used to be what gave British diplomacy its operational advantage.

29. In recent years the then Government dropped ‘Judgement’ as a ‘core competence’ in the annual appraisals of FCO staff. This was a serious mistake, revealing a disturbing philosophical confusion coming from the very top about the way results in diplomacy are in fact achieved.

30. Contradictions in the FCO appraisal system are reflected in training. In my opinion far too little attention is given to core technique, and far too much to quasi-ideological training about diversity or ‘strategic priorities’ such as Climate Change (see recent changes to the way graduate new entrants are trained, including a move away from basic drafting and other supposedly old-fashioned technical skills).

31. In particular the FCO does too little systematic training in personal communication effectiveness – the ‘active listening’, negotiating/mediation and public speaking skills which are vital to help UK diplomats get alongside awkward people overseas and influence them effectively, both privately and in public statements.

Delivering foreign policy outcomes

32. It might seem remarkable that the FCO has no clear methodology of how to make a difference overseas.

33. Not too long ago it was inconceivable to our Ministers and senior officials that British diplomacy would not be taken seriously. The UK had in abundance the unambiguous prestige, the permanent UN Security Council seat, the historical experience, the wisdom and the efficiency to make a systematic difference around the world.

34. That still – mainly - pertains. But competition is getting sharper as assertive new powers emerge on the world stage, unimpressed with British and European/Western claims to better government and economic efficiency. This means that the British diplomatic effort (including the wider development effort, ie all resources allocated to getting policy results overseas) must be used to the best possible effect.

35. We can no longer assume that diplomatic impact ‘just happens’ on its own. The FCO/DFID and Whitehall must be clear about what works and what does not, in terms of two core tasks –

a) Understanding foreign governments and cultures

b) Being highly skilled in persuasion and negotiation

36. The FCO has no clear vision of how Embassies and High Commissions in fact have local impact, including through top-level contact-making. This ignorance has been reinforced by a tendency in London to see policy success in terms not of real-world impact but rather of deals cut in Brussels.

37. The FCO also has done itself a disservice through facile ‘diversity’ initiatives, giving top diplomatic positions in London to officials who have either not worked in difficult bilateral posts or who have no experience of diplomacy at all.

38. Take Europe. More and more national policy-making competences have been ceded to EU ‘qualified majority voting’ (accelerating under the Lisbon Treaty), hence the chances of highly damaging and expensive (for UK interests) EU decisions being taken have sharply increased.

39. This means that the operational/political imperative of lobbying hard and well in capitals across Europe likewise has sharply increased: leaving it mainly to haggling on the day in Brussels is highly irresponsible, given the possible impact on the UK of the decisions at stake (see the Working Time Directive example above).

40. Yet the FCO has been scaling back the UK’s European diplomatic network, cutting political and commercial staff and reducing the seniority/weight/impact of those people still there.

41. If (say) the Germans or Japanese for historical reasons had their Ambassador’s residence in Downing Street, they would not think that as a problem – they would fight tooth and nail to keep it, as a symbol both of their power and of their close relations with the UK.

42. By contrast in Warsaw HMG for decades have had a purpose-built Residence on a prime site close to the Prime Minister’s Office and the President’s Palace. For cost-cutting reasons this is now being given up in favour of a smaller house much further from the centre – a dismal signal of how we see ourselves (and our relations with Poland.)

43. Further erosions in our diplomatic presence and profile overseas are expected as part of government cuts. Money allocated to DFID/development is rising. A tiny fraction of that extra development spending (too much of which anyway goes to consultants and inflated global development officials’ salaries) would be much better spent in enhancing the way we make diplomatic impact overseas.

44. An example. The 2008 UK National Security Strategy reported that HMG would be committing up to £243 million in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the coming three years.

45. This is a startling sum of money – have British taxpayers really been getting good value for it? Had the Occupied Palestinian Territories been allocated only a mere £223 million instead, the FCO might not now be under pressure to sell off key historical assets and to give ill-qualified (and cheaper) younger people senior positions, thereby reducing the practical operational impact of all our policy worked overseas.

46. At the policy level successive governments have tried to free up funds to support active policy work on the ground overseas, by creating a central pool of money run by the FCO, DFID and MOD. There is of course a key role for spending money on strategic cross-cutting issues, but in my experience the whole process became heavily bureaucratic and over-processed.

47. A simple devolution of funds to all Embassies/Missions round the world with minimum process and a willingness to take chances (subject to proper accounting procedures) would transform the impact of British diplomacy round the world. Not all spending will hit the best targets, but the fact that an Embassy has significant discretionary funds to spend gives the local British team a huge impact-boost in many places.

What is to be done?

48. To restore the primacy of technique and link technique to intelligent process and to move on to achieve powerful British impact overseas, some of the following ideas for reform (big and small) are worth considering:

a) If DFID and the FCO are not to be re-merged, a radical new look at achieving outcomes is needed.

b) Formally delink FCO/DFID from all Treasury target-setting, as it assumes a ‘cause and effect’ clarity in policy outcome which may or may not be credible for domestic policy-setting but is simply impossible overseas. Identify instead a few common sense principles, then tell staff to get on with pursuing them.

c) Legally redefine ‘development’ to include a much wider set of foreign policy outcomes (including honest/limited government, wider global institutional stability, work against organised crime, pro-active cooperation with the private sector to create jobs). Set aside a major slice of DFID money towards achieving British national foreign policy results via a new inter-departmental structure chaired by a non-DFID person and with non-DFID spending processes.

d) Make English language teaching a specific development goal, liberating DFID money to help spread English language skills and British values.

e) The just-do-it ethos of the Know How Fund set up when communism ended in the early 1990s should be re-invented. Launch an urgent, brutal review of FCO/DFID processes from top to bottom aimed at slashing junk ‘process’ and improving access to collective knowledge-bases. Scrap ‘risk-management matrices’.

f) Few world problems won’t be improved by a small fund plus clever nimble people (not necessarily all British) tasked with attacking them from all angles (see eg the £4m fund deployed overtly and covertly to help Serbian democrats overthrow Milosevic, Robin Cook’s top foreign policy success).

g) Focus on creating both ‘hard’ power and ‘soft’ power tools. On hard power create a senior task-force to identify a tool-box of sharp-end techniques which can be learned and applied systematically (positive and negative incentives, divide-and-rule, non-violent ‘tricks’). Diplomats faced with problems need to know how best to tackle them, drawing on what worked elsewhere.

h) On soft power, follow the example of the new European External Action Service and bring in specialised mediation training; launch a generously funded new UK-promoted International Mediation Initiative or somesuch to help bring skilled British-led problem-solving techniques and associated resources to problems big and small around the world.

i) Make a flat-out investment in the secure IT/technical and other operational spending overseas needed to make our external effort fit for purpose. Every FCO diplomat and DFID official overseas should be a mobile IT powerhouse.

j) To help make this work in practice, move to simplify most national security classifications to three basic categories: Unclassified, Confidential (not for foreign governments or the media) and Secret (seriously sensitive and/or intelligence related).

k) Follow the clever Dutch example and give Embassies not the FCO in London the lead responsibility for managing information and policy about the countries they cover.

l) Devolve much more money to Embassy levels to spend according to local discretion (including awarding performance bonuses) – abolish wasteful micro priority-setting in London.

m) Think harder about how best to use EU structures and the new EEAS. Both senior and good budding diplomats alike need to be seconded to get a strong British ethos built into the EEAS from the start, to help define a sensible balance between EU-level and national level diplomacy and so keep our national foreign policy effective.

n) Use the current crisis in the Eurozone to start thinking about pushing to restore most/all EU development funding to member states, some of it pooled informally in a nimble ‘coalition of the European competent’ where this makes practical sense.

o) Restore coherence to HMG’s diplomatic operations overseas. All Whitehall personnel posted to an Embassy/mission should answer to the British Ambassador/High Commissioner and operate under a single Whitehall-wide ‘external contract’ setting pay and conditions, with similarly unified pay and conditions for ‘their’ local staff too.

p) Think again about how the FCO presents itself to the public. End Ambassadorial blogging, Twittering and other weedy gimmicks. Make sure that senior guests at the FCO and at Embassies abroad are welcomed speedily and courteously. Reboot the FCO website to have a much sharper focus on policy issues.

q) Abolish all internal diversity processes in favour of Good Manners. Announce that all employees will be treated fairly and with respect and are expected to work hard and loyally. Then enforce it.

r) Sharpen up personal standards of appearance and presentation (handling of senior guests etc).


49. In my view the British taxpayers are getting a poor return for their investment in political and development work overseas. As the global situation gets quickly more fluid and uncertain, this is a dangerous luxury we can no longer afford. We need to be determined – even as necessary ruthless – in identifying and pursuing national policy goals.

50. We need to set aside once and for all the weary cliché of ‘punching above our weight’. We should use to maximum effect the considerable weight the UK has by any international standards: to do what can be done by persuasion and influence, but be ready to deliver hard, frequent, guileful policy punches when necessary. Because that is what other countries are trying to do to us.

51. The first step to achieving that is to grasp that when necessary we are in the punching business. Not the hand-wringing business.

52. The second is to make sure that UK diplomats have the flexible training and tools they need to be effective in understanding and influencing foreign elites.

53. Above all, without looking hard at first principles of Diplomatic Technique the FCO is not going to do the job which No 10 and Whitehall need doing: understanding and influencing foreigners, thereby giving Whitehall authoritative advice on how to get the best policy results beyond our own borders.

54. If we continue as we are the UK’s policy impact overseas will diminish, just when our strong convincing voice for democratic standards and values is just what the world needs to hear.

26 November 2010



The text of a piece posted on 20 January 2008 at

The blog of Foreign Secretary David Miliband on the FCO website is an interesting attempt to make Ministers and the foreign policy process more accessible to the public.

The tricky thing with such initiatives aimed at reflecting what busy senior people think is that busy people are busy. So keeping a blog fresh (and plausibly looking like the busy people themselves have written it) is not easy. 

One entry says the following:

And the foreign policy priorities we pursue define key issues in our foreign relations. From April there will be four of these priorities (replacing the combination of ten policy and service priorities until now - no organisation can have ten priorities).

This thought was expanded in his article in The Times on 6 January. The FCO is going on a Diplomatic Surge. Instead of the previous ten Strategic Priorities the FCO now will have four 'key policy goals'.

Do I detect a wisp of 'thank goodness the grown-ups are in charge now and getting a grip on this collection of twerps who overloaded themselves with far too many priorities'?

The blog formulation is carefully worded. It was not the Government which erred in having too many foreign priorities - it was the organisation!

Yet don't I dimly recall that it was Ministers in this Government who made us draw up Strategic Priorities in the first place? Yes, it's all coming back ...

First we had seven. Then we had eight.

Then we had nine.

Then, gloriously, we reached ten!

Now we are reduced to a measly four Key Policy Goals, albeit with free added Surge. All in some 260 weeks.

Each strategic change ordered, endorsed and indeed proudly announced by FCO Ministers themselves and supported unambiguously by Cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister.

Each with laborious consultation processes around Whitehall to get 'buy-in' and then all sorts of attempts to rejig FCO internal structures and spending to fit everything neatly into one or other of these seven/eight/nine/ten/four boxes.

Each with diplomats at all levels fretting over forms allocating the time of every member of the FCO in microscopic percentages to each of the seven/eight/nine/ten/four Priorities/Goals, rather than just getting out there hard to promote British interests.

Crawford's First Law of Bureaucracy: The capacity of a Ministry to do anything useful strategically is in indirect proportion to the amount of time it spends preparing its strategies

A Yugoslav joke about the endless and pointless rearrangements of the communist self-management system by chief ideologue Kardelj.

Kardelj was asked how to cure a sick cow. He advised cooling it right down with ice-packs. The cow got worse.

He recommended heating it right up with blankets and electric fires. The cow got worse.

He recommended feeding it masses of extra food. The cow got worse.

He recommended starving it. The cow died.

"Boze boze, what a tragedy! I am a skilled vet and I had so many more cures to propose...!