The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from Sir David Logan


The author


I was a member of the Diplomatic Service from 1965-2001. For most of my career I specialised in east-west relations and in defence policy. My postings in the FCO included appointments as Assistant Under Secretary of State for Central and Eastern European Affairs and Assistant Under Secretary of State for Defence Policy. Abroad, I was Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassies in Moscow and Washington in the 1990s and Ambassador to Turkey from 1997-2001 (having previously served in the political section of the Embassy there in the 60s). I retired early and became Director of the Centre for Studies in Security and Diplomacy at Birmingham University between 2002-2007. I now chair the British Institute at Ankara and retain other interests in Russia and Turkey.

Summary of evidence


-This evidence is narrowly confined to two issues. What are the distinctive capabilities needed to give the Diplomatic Service (DS) comparative advantage for the promotion of UK interests? How should it sustain this advantage in an era of financial stringency?

-What distinguishes the DS both from its foreign peers and from other UK government departments is superior expertise in foreign countries and regions, and the resources to exploit this effectively on behalf of British interests. "Abroad" is the DS’s USP. [1]

-In an increasingly competitive world, the DS must more than match the capacity of its peers (the French and German diplomatic services for example) to operate on behalf of the national interest.

-For its staff, this means the acquisition and exploitation of regional and country expertise, high standard language skills, and the familiarity and contacts needed to give access and influence. The same standards are required for staffing missions to multilateral institutions (eg the EU and UN).

-Cuts must not result in a weakening of the FCO’s USP. Institutionally, this means maintaining the resources and structures which enable the DS to match its peers abroad, and to be the authoritative voice on issues at home within its remit in the policy framework established by the National Security Strategy. For its staff, it means postings in the FCO and abroad which generate real expertise, as well as language training. Career planning should be undertaken and systematically implemented with the same objective.

-Particularly in current economic circumstances, the DS should maintain this focus rather than devote large resources to generic expertise (the environment, human rights etc) where it needs to be an informed interlocutor rather than a policy-maker.

-Maintenance of the FCO’s capabilities also requires that its Research Analysts continue to operate as an effective but distinctive contributor to the FCO’s product, and are not reduced to becoming simply assistants to main-stream policy-makers.

-Budget cuts should not result in relentless salami slicing, with a comprehensive array of posts maintained but at wafer-thin level. Forced to choose, it is better to have effective posts in places of importance to HMG than to keep the flag flying everywhere.



1. The Committee’s enquiry is far-ranging. However, I focus on only two issues in this submission, namely the distinctive role of the FCO in British policy-making (in contemporary jargon, its USP) and how it should handle in its human resources in an era of financial retrenchment.

What the FCO is for…..

2. The exact role of the Diplomatic Service has long been an issue. The Berrill Report of 1977 effectively concluded that the diplomats provided no added value and that they should be replaced by officials drawn from the Whitehall departments who had relevant expertise on the range of international questions (defence, economics, energy etc) on which the UK needed to deal with foreign governments. This recommendation of the CPRS report was not implemented. However, its challenge to the notion of a distinctive role for diplomats focussed attention, and remains the key question which any enquiry into the role of the FCO has to answer.

4. The DS’s USP is its foreign policy professionalism. The promotion of the UK’s overseas interests require the government to have available to it the best possible expertise on international developments as well as on the interests and policies of other nations. We need the capacity to respond to the former and to influence the latter in an unpredictable and often threatening international environment. In a highly competitive world in which the UK enjoys few natural advantages, our diplomacy plays a key role for the protection and promotion of a wide range of our interests at extraordinarily modest cost.

5. The DS needs to make the most effective possible use of finite resources by (a) concentrating on areas where it can make a difference and where others cannot, and (b) ensuring that diplomatic effort does not lose focus through too much attention to non-core activity. On (a), globalisation has of course given increased importance to trans-boundary issues such as the environment, organised crime, human rights, weapons’ proliferation etc. The DS needs sufficient expertise to be able to give informed advice in these areas and to play a part in policy formation and implementation on them. But it must not tilt the balance of its effort towards generic issues, on which the FCO is not the lead department, at the expense of resources devoted to diplomacy sensu stricto.

6. On (b), Sir Edward Clay has rightly said in his written submission to the Committee that the essential expertise of the DS is to influence, argue, negotiate, and to report, interpret and advise upon how international developments bear on British interests, and vice-versa. These interests have always included trade. Resources diverted to non-core activities (eg unnecessarily burdensome and intrusive centrally-controlled management systems) are resources lost to the DS’s core role. A fund such as the Global Opportunity Fund or the old Know How Fund is needed, not as a cosmetic pot of money available to support a post’s local enthusiasms, but as a substantial tool to help achieve important policy objectives. Finally, to be effective with foreign interlocutors, the FCO must have, and be seen to have, the confidence of the government of the day.

…and what its staff needs to fulfil this role….

7. The DS’s USP requires its staff to acquire deep country and regional knowledge, and to establish useful relationships and effective access among policy-makers and other significant figures in foreign countries. These assets can only be gained through well-targeted postings at home and abroad, and through good training in often difficult foreign languages. Analogous specialised expertise is needed for staff at missions to international institutions such as the EU and the UN. These are the capabilities which give the DS the edge over its competitors.

8. Language capabilities are a core component of DS expertise. The abolition of the Diplomatic Language Centre some years ago was controversial. Many thought that the outsourcing of tuition would be less effective. An internal review about a year ago concluded that the current arrangements deliver DS requirements fully and effectively. Anecdotal evidence is less positive. For example, the four ambassadors to Turkey till the end of 2001 were Turkish language specialists. Their three successors, though very able officers, have not been.

9. Besides effective teaching, adequate allowances for language qualifications and for sustaining language expertise are important if there is to be a useful long-term dividend from the investment which adequate language training represents.

…including career planning.

 10. There has been a steady degradation in the FCO’s capacity to deploy staff both in its own overall interests and the career interests of its staff themselves. This reached a point some years ago when the Administration invited staff "to make their own careers". The FCO must not, of course, be an authoritarian employer. However, if it is to get a commensurate return on its investment in its staff, it must deploy them in ways which serve the UK’s interests and further develop and exploit their professionalism.

11. This entails career planning which ensures the generation of regional, country, and international institutional expertise. While career plans may inevitably be disrupted by unexpected requirements, they should be adhered to as far as possible so as to ensure that officers filling senior posts have developed a high level of relevant knowledge.

 12. The careers of policy-capable officers will inevitably combine postings which relate to their specialist expertise with ones which do not. However, the pressure to short-post officers, in response to unforeseen requirements unrelated to their career plans, should be resisted as far as possible. A postings merry-go-round is undesirable for many reasons; its impact on the generation of specialist expertise is one of them.

 13. Economic pressures have led to the "localisation" of some overseas jobs previously filled by DS officers, because locally engaged staff are cheaper to employ than home-based ones. There may be good reasons for employing locally-engaged staff. For example, she/he can fill a job for many years, and thus become the repository of a post's knowledge of some aspect of its work. However, too many localised jobs limit the number of openings at a post to which it is possible to deploy DS officers and enable them to develop local expertise.

Reductions in the Research Analysts have also impaired the FCO’s effectiveness

14. Another development which threatens the FCO’s expertise on foreign policy issues is the steady weakening of the Research Analysts’ cadre. Till the late twentieth century, there existed a Research Department which provided high grade research and analysis for operational FCO departments. This central research institution no longer exists. The result has been the loss not only of a unique capability but also of the FCO’s institutional memory, lack of which is now a significant weakness in FCO policy-making. The remaining RAs are all integrated into operational directorates and there is a strong temptation, not always resisted, to use the RAs as an alternative to main stream DS officers in political directorates as cuts bear down on these.

15. There can be advantages in analysts being co-located with the directorates relevant to their work. But the temptation to use them as a back-up policy-making capability as a consequence of decreasing mainstream resources should be resisted. On the contrary, recruitment policies and a career structure for Analysts which attracts candidates of a sufficiently high calibre properly to fulfil the FCO's research requirements should be retained. Reductions in the RA resulting from budget cuts should not be bigger proportionately than those suffered by the policy-making stream.

In the face of budget cuts, resources should be sustained where UK interests are most significant, and lower priorities abandoned.

16. Cuts in the FCO budget require relentless focus on the FCO’s core tasks both thematically (a DS officer must be able to make a career by specialising in China or trade promotion, but not in climate change) and functionally (he needs to be an outstanding negotiator and lobbyist, not an expert service provider). This emphasis on focus contradicts submissions to this enquiry to the effect that, in a period of budget cuts, it remains essential to retain the existing network of overseas posts as far as possible. On the contrary, comprehensive but in some places wafer-thin representation gives little added value. It also risks the mis-deployment of qualified staff from where they are really needed to promote serious British interests simply in order to fly the flag. It is true that in the 21st century a crisis can erupt anywhere and unexpectedly and that we should if possible have posts ready to handle every contingency. But we cannot insure against every risk; focus requires us to place posts where we know they can further core UK interests, and to accept that in some unexpected circumstances this may leave us exposed. After all, the 21st century phenomenon of unexpected crises has been accompanied by a capacity to redeploy the resources needed to confront these far more quickly than ever before.

8 January 2011

[1] USP = unique selling point.