The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from Daniel Korski



Though the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is full of high-calibre people who are recognised internationally for their skills, and the department runs a top-tier overseas network, t he last fifteen years have not been kind to the FCO. Power over key issues has moved, probably permanently, to No 10. Resources have been siphoned off to the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Ministry of Defence. Even the Secret Intelligence Service, which reports to the Foreign Secretary, is said to be an ever more important source of foreign policy advice to the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, e very government department is engaged in diplomacy of some form or other often without keeping the FCO informed of their work.

Then there is the impact of summitry – from European Councils to NATO Summits and G20 meetings – which has grown in importance (with the FCO’s role not always clear) while the work of the UN Security Council – a traditional FCO forte -- has become increasingly less important.

To a degree, the FCO has always had to fight for its role. The first foreign secretary, Charles James Fox, was forced from office in 1783 because he disagreed with King George III over Britain ’s India policy. More than 200 years later, Robin Cook resigned his position after falling out with Tony Blair over the Iraq War. Between these two ministerial resignations, fights between King Charles Street , the Palace and then Downing Street have been legion. Leaders as diverse as Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair have shared an ‘impatience with and distaste for the detailed niceties of the Foreign Office’ [1] , to quote former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. Fights between Lloyd George and Lord Curzon, or between Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, are famous. But even domestically-focused leaders have often challenged the FCO’s authority, as Clement Atlee did over Middle East policy in 1947.

Nor is inter-departmental competition a new phenomenon. Lord Hardinge, returning to the Foreign Office as Permanent Undersecretary in June 1916, after an interval of six years spent as Viceroy of India, was advised by the British Ambassador in Paris that the Foreign Office had become ‘in great part a "pass-on" department’, by which he meant it ‘issues instructions at the instance of other offices’, but had little idea of what it wanted. Lord Hardinge’s first years back in the FCO have been described by a historian as a time when the department ‘had little influence on the policy-making process.’ [2] The late 20 th century was scarcely different, with Churchill, Thatcher and Blair allowing other departments a greater diplomatic role.


But the kind of challenges the FCO faces today are different and harder to deal with. T he interaction of technological, economic and social changes, the development of information and communication technologies, the increasing ability of citizens to access and use these technologies, and the rise of "new" issues such as pandemic diseases or resource depletion are changing the nature and scope of diplomacy. Very few of these issues can be dealt with by one country alone, however powerful and rich. At the same time, many "old" foreign policy challenges remain – like the rise of China, the risk of inter-state warfare in West Asia or the threat from Islamist terrorism. And it is not clear that the FCO has adapted to the ‘new’ challenges while maintaining (and upgrading) its ability to deal with ‘old’ or re-occurring issues.

For example, the department faced the late-2000s recession and the rise of the BRICs –- two processes that are fundamentally changing international relations -- with limited (geo)economic expertise. Though the FCO has recently taken steps to remedy the situation, as one FCO official put it, "the department has downgraded the very skill we now need most". [3]  The FCO has in fact agonised in recent years over whether to invest in functional or geographical skills. But it has often flitted between the two and, in the end, probably undermined investment in both. To this day, for example, there are no more than a handful of Pastho speakers, despite the decade-long presence in Kabul . The emphasis on developing ‘rounded’ careers - where staff gain both policy-related and managerial expertise – coupled with the move to a laissez-faire HR system, where each official has to manage their own career have allowed the FCO to climb the Investor in People rankings, but it seems to have come at the expense of geographical knowledge.

Nor does the department have in-depth expertise in many other functional areas, like geo-economics or health. This might not be a problem if the FCO had an affiliated think-tank/university (like its counterparts in the United States, Russia and the European Union), which can inject subject-matter expertise into the department; or even if it has a dedicated research fund, such as in DFiD, for policy-relevant research. But it does not. And unlike the US State Department – where various forms of fellowships exist – there are few ways in which academics and experts can be brought into the FCO except as permanent staff, Special Advisers (SPaDs) or on temporary contracts as consultants. When outside experts are brought into the FCO, as was the case at times under foreign secretaries Cook, Straw and Miliband, the department proved wary of integrating them into the policy process; most left after a short period. [4]

The investment in functional and geographical skills is not, as some would claim, a zero-sum choice. Knowing China helps advance Britain's climate change agenda, which requires negotiation with Beijing. Similarly, Britain's influence in NATO is strengthened if its diplomats bring first-hand and deep-seated knowledge about the theatres of operation, like Afghanistan and the Balkans, to the organisation's myriad of committee meetings.  The functional and geographical skills, in other words, reinforce each other. But a balanced investment in both is required, which does not seem to have been the case.

The FCO should, of course, not aim to maintain in-house expertise in all policy areas. But it should be able to lead HMG’s international engagement -- fashioning an over-all strategy, grounding it in local realities and helping other departments deploy their expertise. To undertake campaigns, in other words. For a range of reasons, however, the FCO has still not been able to assume such a role in the National Security Council process. It remains one of, rather than the most important, member of the NSC.  

The reasons the FCO has not asserted itself in the NSC process are manifold. In part, questions still remain about the respective roles of the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Foreign Office in the NSC process. Only when these have been resolved, can the FCO play a key role. Second, other departments -- having asserted themselves overseas -- are now reluctant to follow an FCO lead; they will follow an NSC direction, where they have ministerial representation, but are uncomfortable following the FCO alone. The creation of the Coalition Government, with its need to agree policies among the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in sub-NSC committees – or a de facto "Upper Cabinet" of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister -- may have weakened rather than strengthened the FCO’s claim to departmental leadership, much as the post-World War II expansion of the Cabinet committee system undermined the FCO’s role half a century ago. [5]

Finally, the FCO has failed to take on the role that was envisaged for it in the NSC because, after years of marginalisation, its staff do not necessarily posses the skills, training and incentives to lead cross-departmental efforts – or at least give other department the confidence they have the requisite skills. Unsurprisingly, a senior Home Office official noted: "We would follow an FCO lead if we knew they would look after HMG interests and not just FCO concerns." This view was echoed in the findings of research undertaken by Richard Teuten and I, which was published as a RUSI Whitehall Paper. [6] Based on fifty interviews with civil servants from across the government and military officers the issue of the FCO’s difficulties with representing all departments, as opposed to itself, was highlighted several times. One explanation may lie in the degradation of the FCO’s strategy functions, which are key if the department is to play a lead policy role. The other reason may lie in cultural and administrative boundaries that still exist between the Diplomatic Service and the Home Civil Service.


In response to its predicament, the FCO has undergone a steady stream of reforms, trying to implement a Cabinet Office review, which urged the department to think "think "radically about its place in a changing world." Often, however, the reforms have been skin-deep. As ex-ambassador Charles Crawford noted: "The FCO absurdly went from seven to eight to nine to (phew) ten Strategic Priorities. It then gave up on Strategic Priorities in favour of . . . four new Key Policy Goals." [7] To this list can now be added a return, under the Coalition Government, to three Priorities.  

Changing priorities – from seven to nine then ten, four and now three – have not, however, lead to fundamental reform of the FCO’s structure. Oftentimes, existing work is retrofitted into a new set of priorities. In this period staff are also focused ever-more inwards, on targets and internal processes, rather than outwards. The average senior official, for example a director, spends more time inwards, managing processes than working on policy or building senior-level links with counterparts either bilaterally or multilaterally. Postings are now comparatively short, and so in-depth regional expertise is limited, while the centrally-decreed emphasis on having a rounded career – which takes in both management and policy experiences – has arguably undermined the FCO’s first-rate policy skills. It is perhaps unsurprising that the department has felt marginalised and begun to suffer from what William Hague described as "timidity."  


To deal with these problems -- some of which are structural, some policy-related -- the FCO will need to consider a number of reforms.


The first step is for the FCO to decide how it will manage the balance between its priorities -- currently described as "Security", "Prosperity" and "Consular Affairs" – and the department’s other areas of work. Re-drafting to-level priorities, but squeezing on-going activities into new headings – sometimes retroactively justifying their relevance in the light of the new priorities – needs to end. Instead, the FCO should set up an Future FCO Task Force, which can examine the department’s structure, look at other organisations, including other foreign ministries, and propose a new model. A key part of any reform must upgrade the department’s geo-economic expertise by creating a new post of Director-General Geo-Economics, a sort of second Political Director, who can oversee the Trade Team, Global Economy Group, Climate Change and the Energy Group. This would effectively split the Directorate-General for Globalisation and the EU.

Third, the FCO needs to find new ways to bring expertise into the department , and facilitate access to outside assistance. On the State Department model, the FCO should re-invigorate the Strategy and Policy Unit, increasing its staff with at least half its personnel recruited externally or from other government departments. Tied to this, the FCO should establish a Visiting Fellows programme to allow academics, businesspeople and subject-matter experts into the Civil Service. It will also be necessary to create a better-funded research programme, so the FCO to purchase research and analysis externally. Finally, thought needs to be given to re-shaping the Royal College of Defence Studies, part of the Defence Academy , into a FCO-owned, civilian-led, Royal Academy of Diplomacy and Security to serve as the department’s academy/think-tank.

These reforms will help re-build the FCO’s brainpower – a prerequisite for a lead role in the NSC process. But one additional step should be considered. Th e Foreign Secretary should establish a bi-annual Chevening Retreat , which would aim to bring top-flight thinkers, and practitioners together to discuss Britain ’s foreign policy. A sort of British version of the Munich Security Conference, but smaller and more exclusive, perhaps themed not on security, but on geo-economics.


Improving the FCO’s policy capacity will, in addition, require the development of security-related and geo-economic expertise. The easiest way would be for the FCO needs to lead the creation of a cross-departmental National Security Cadre (like the European ‘Fast Stream’) of officials who specialise in security-related work. Similarly, the FCO, Treasury and DfiD should jointly create a cross-departmental Geo-Economics Cadre , different than the Economic Service (or a sub-grouping thereof) for economists, political analysts, and businesspeople.

In addition, t o improve the quality of staff not only should the FCO begin to look outside the department (and even outside the civil service) for ambassadorial appointments, but will need to formalise a career-long learning programme , so that its personnel constantly renew their skills and improve their competencies. Like for military officers, such a programme should not be optional, but contain clear trajectory, including an obligatory mid-career period in graduate-level education for example at a university. Looking at how senior FCO staff, including ambassadors, are chosen, trained, evaluated and given incentives is also needed. Key must be involving other departments in the selection and evaluation process of ambassadors.

Finally, the FCO needs to look anew at its greatest asset – the overseas network – and, most importantly, whether the department is maintaining (and, in future, developing) the necessary in-country expertise. Here a number of reforms should be considered. Postings could be divided into short, medium and long-term categories – depending on a number of criteria, such the nature of the society, the difficulty of the language, and the importance of the country to the UK . In most countries, the usual postings system – three years with an option of a fourth -- can continue. But in other countries, this should be five-seven years, while in a few, high-priority countries, postings should be 7 years or longer or, alternatively, careers should be structured around several postings in the same country.

The FCO then needs to overhaul its personnel system and culture to embrace the reality that inter-departmental teamwork . One way would be for the Diplomatic Service and the externally-focused parts of the Home Civil Service to be merged into an "HM External Relations Service", which will provide FCO, DFID, MoD and parts of the Home Office and DECC on the same terms – thus facilitating inter-change and cooperation. All this would require a change to the laissez-faire way in which the FCO now manages the careers of its personnel – both diplomats and other officials -- with a more "managed" system (and a greater role for the HR department) needed.


A key priority should be to re-examine the use of programme funds . The inability of Posts to spend even small amounts of funds, without a cross-departmental, and lengthy process hampers their reach and influence. Thought needs to go into creating a Strategic Investment Fund for use by Posts. Under this heading also comes the issue of commercial diplomacy. The state of Britain ’s finances demands that the FCO scale-up its commercial activities. After having been at the margins of the FCO’s work, the Coalition Government has already done much to prioritise trade and commercial advancement while in the Cabinet Office reviewers singled out UKTI as an effective delivery agent. But more can probably still be done. This could be an area the Foreign Affairs Committee might want to look in future.

Future Practices

The final set of reforms the FCO needs to consider concern the changing nature of international relations, the role of the BRICs and the gradual diminution of the Britain ’s traditional strengths – bilateral relationships, military power, concomitant membership in many international organisations and a permanent UNSC seat.

Developing a detailed plan should be left to the above-mentioned Future FCO Task Force, but consideration should be given to number of new initiatives, including the creating three British Institutes in China , Brazil and Nigeria . These would aim to improve societal links, and the FCO’s cultural diplomacy, replacing the role of the British Council in these countries. In a similar vein, the Task Force should examine the creation of a joint Gulf/Britain School of Diplomacy and explore the possibility of hybrid Posts e.g. in Liberia with Turkey . Similarly, thought need to be given to having more secondments from BRIC and sub-BRIC nations including at embassies/posts, as it is now the case with European and US diplomats.

Daniel Korski

London , 17 January, 2011

A former Civil Servant and an adviser to the International Development Secretary, Daniel Korski has worked in the FCO in Washington, Basra and Kabul and now works for the European Council on Foreign Relations as a Senior Policy Fellow.

[1] Douglas Hurd, Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary: Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalitie s, Orion Publishing Co ( London : February 2010)

[2] Roberta M. Warman, ‘The Erosion of Foreign Office Influence in the Making of Foreign Policy, 1916–1918’, The Historical Journal , 15: 133-159, 1972

[3] Interview with author, 17 December, 2011.

[4] The exception seems to be press work, which somehow is accepted as being an area where the FCO has fewer skills and needs to recruit externally.

[5] Zara Steiner, ‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Resistance and Adaptation to Changing Times’ in Gaynor Johnson (ed) , The Foreign Office and British diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (London: Routledge, 2005)

[6] Richard Teuten and Daniel Korski, Preparing For Peace: Britain 's Contribution and Capabilities , Whitehall Papers, No. 74, 2010

[7] Charles Crawford, ‘How Labour dumbed down the Foreign Office’, 17 May 2010,