Written evidence from Charles Crawford
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
2. The FCO needs to get back to two core value-adding
(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 jobfar 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 Whitehallthe
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 ruleswho
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.i
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 www.charlescrawford.biz 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
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
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 agricultureplanting seeds
of goodwill and influence, knowing that some will grow into strong
plants in years to come but others will not;
(c) part insurancedeveloping 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); and
(e) part service provider (consular/visa
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
(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 activityand
to develop the capacity in Embassies to create more results like
(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
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.
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 workcommunication. The FCO
no longer communicates well with itself, or with its own knowledge.
16. The standard of FCO written workformerly
among the most effective prose work ever achieved in the civilised
worldhas 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
(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
(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) 10 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.
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, 20 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 beneficialfree-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
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
reasonsthe 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.
27. It is important to understand that all these
tensions come together in the Annual Appraisal systemthe
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 judgementcombining
in an efficient form principle and pragmatism and operational
clevernessused to be what gave British diplomacy its operational
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 effectivenessthe "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
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 stillmainlypertains. 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
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 centrea 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
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
45. This is a startling sum of moneyhave
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
(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
(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
(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
(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 determinedeven as necessary ruthlessin
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
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
FCO STRATEGIC PRIORITIESWHERE'S THE
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 10 policy
and service priorities until nowno organisation can have
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 10 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 prioritiesit
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 10!
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/10/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/10/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