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How should the Foreign Office change now?

The Foreign Office must fundamentally rethink how it can meet the UK’s foreign policy aims in an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

How should the Foreign Office change now? assesses the impact of a morale-damaging merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID) in 2020, and sets out a series of recommendations to ensure the UK’s main foreign policy department is capable of responding to the war in Ukraine and future crises.

With the withdrawal from Afghanistan revealing serious failings with the way the department works, the new IfG paper, which draws on interviews with current and former officials and foreign policy experts, finds that:

  • A decline in UK-based civil servants posted overseas has reduced Britain’s capability abroad: around half of UK-based staff (52%, 3,086 staff) were based overseas in in 1998, but in 2021 only 29% (around 2,165) were – in comparison around half (51%) of the German foreign ministry’s Germany-based staff (3,048) were posted abroad that year.
     
  • Around 460 full-time staff work in three dedicated units focusing on the Indo-Pacific – nearly three times more than the 160 staff working in a single Eastern Europe and Central Asia unit.
     
  • Morale has steadily fallen since the merger, with the annual ‘engagement score’ of the FCDO falling below the civil service average for the first time in 2021.

To ensure the Foreign Office can shape and deliver UK foreign policy priorities, the IfG paper recommends that:

  • Dedicate more resources – people, funding, language training – to ensure the UK’s diplomatic structures are equipped to deal with Russia’s ongoing threat.
     
  • Comprehensively reassess its model for overseas staffing, including examining how its reliance on locally engaged staff is affecting capability abroad.
     
  • Address the post-merger hit to departmental morale by solidifying its new identity and culture and ensure proper pay parity across officials.
     
  • Strengthen working relations across government by ensuring officials communicate more with colleagues in other departments and set up mechanisms to do so.

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