Hunting for fresh talent: discussion of external appointments hints at more profound changes within the FCO

Jeremy Hunt’s speech suggesting external appointments might be made to the FCO is important, and welcome, but it’s not new. The debate over the merits of external appointments to key diplomatic positions has gone back and forth within and around the FCO for some years. In many ways this struggle has represented a far wider generational tension between more ‘traditional’ diplomats who were born and joined the FCO during the long afterglow of World War 2 & Empire, and a younger generation whose cultural references points are for the most part rooted in the very different Britain and world of the late 1970s and 80s. This latter group tend on the whole to have a more flexible and open view of how diplomacy, and diplomats should function. So the fact that this idea has worked its way up through the system to become a new Ministerial announcement represents something of a step change in a generational and world view shift within the FCO that may herald far wider changes ahead for how the UK engages with the world.

Although stories in Prospect magazine and elsewhere about the drift and despondency in the FCO have some truth, in actual fact the picture is more nuanced, and hopeful, than the headlines would suggest. Much criticism from Brexiteers has been focussed on a belief that the FCO was and remains anti-Brexit. Viewed from a senior level, the Brexit decision indeed represented a very visible and deadly blow to a position in the UK and the world. The consequent stripping out of DIT & DExEu into separate departments has furthered a sense of both a department and a country in decline. But for an emerging leadership generation of diplomats, whilst Brexit personally for the most part was a great personal wrench, it also represents both a career, and an organisationally redefining opportunity. For many amongst this group there is a sense that Brexit merely exposed the long crisis of direction the FCO has been facing for years, if not decades. In doing so it has emboldened an emerging leadership generation to push for an ambitious rethink of how the UK engages internationally, and the role of the FCO within that. And although the FCO remains in many respects distinctly cautious and somewhat aloof from much wider Whitehall and UK life, there are important indications that this may be beginning to change.

While much of this new thinking is internal, not yet fully developed and not particularly visible, there are two areas where it has begun to emerge.

The first is regional, in the shape of the new ‘Strategic approach to Africa’. This new initiative, owned by the NSC and represented by a DFID senior official, but driven largely from within FCO (Even its name represents a tension in that the officials shy away from naming it simply a ‘strategy’), is a significant departure for a department that is not famed for embracing strategies of this kind. First it is 20 years in duration – far longer than any comparable regional foreign policy initiative for the UK. Secondly it is the result of a genuinely iterative and evidence-based process involving all of Whitehall – an approach that is perhaps less common than it should be. It also demonstrates a new level of coherence of approach and cross departmental working in execution, with separate but mutually reinforcing streams on inclusive growth, stability & security, climate change and demography. If approaches of this type were utilised for other regions, it would begin to work towards a level of coherence in UK foreign policy that would be genuinely new.

The second area of innovation is regarding soft power and domestic engagement within the UK. During his first few days as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt flagged promoting UK soft power as a priority area for him, unsurprising given that he was Culture Secretary at the time of the 2012 London Olympics – a moment of national unity and self confidence that seems almost painful to look back on at present. However, the current iteration of FCO thinking on soft power predates Jeremy Hunt, and has gone hand in hand with some new thinking on how the FCO engages with the wider UK audiences, including actors that pursue significant international engagements. While much of this work is still being developed, the appointment of a number of officials tasked with engaging more proactively with diasporas is an important and new recognition of the need to engage in this direction. In fact, the generational shift again is apparent in an increasing recognition that the FCO needs to do more to reflect and show it understands the diversity of the country it represents, both regionally, but also socially. The publication recently of an FCO report ‘Black Skin, Whitehall’, which frankly addressed the past shortcomings of the department in dealing with non-white applicants, and the support the report received at the most senior level in the FCO, was in many ways a watershed moment.

The FCO continues to face significant challenges, not least stemming from the slow starvation of resources that has left it facing almost impossible choices in the face of expectations that the UK should remain a tier 1 global power. Yet amidst this, Brexit has actually catalysed much needed internal discussion, as well as fresh thinking and openness to innovation, which in time may yet be seen to be instrumental in positioning the UK for the flexibility and resourcefulness it will surely need in the uncertain years ahead.

Despite challenges, the idea of bringing in external expertise to bolster and refresh UK diplomacy has much to recommend it. However, the most significant change may yet come from within the FCO itself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.