Sharp focus

The Foreign Office has just emerged from a period of intense naval gazing, trying to figure out what its purpose is. Elizabeth Stewart spoke to Permanent Under Secretary Sir Peter Ricketts to find out what a 21st century foreign service does

In a globalised world where every government department has its own international activities, one can forgive foreign ministries for having an identity crisis.

In a world of instant communications and shuttle diplomacy, simply “maintaining good relations” with a country is simply not enough.

So the FCO has gone through great machinations trying to prove that it has a right to exist – isolating first eight, then nine and then 10 ‘strategic priorities’. But when David Miliband took over last year, he decided that 10 priorities were unwieldy and that the organisation needed a clearer sense of purpose.

When faced with a budget squeeze, knowing what functions are “non-core” to the organisation are also useful.

“So we spent several months last summer working with our top officials – and government ministers, rigorously thinking what is it that we do that adds value to the rest of government,” says Permanent Under Secretary Sir Peter Ricketts.

A network serving the whole of government

The conclusion the FCO sages came to was that the overseas network – Britain’s 200-odd embassies and consulates around the world – is an asset for the whole of government. “We are working, not just for the foreign ministry, but for the whole of government and our core business is to maintain an effective global network.”

The FCO then isolated three essential services that they provide taxpayers: consular support for British nationals abroad; supporting managed migration; and supporting the British economy by attracting foreign investment and giving British businesses the edge when competing in overseas markets.


> Support the British economy
> Support British nationals abroad
> Support managed migration


> Counter terrorism and counter proliferation
> Prevent and resolve conflict
> Promote a low carbon, high growth global economy
> Develop effective international institutions

As far as policy goals go, four “clusters of issues” were identified where the Foreign Office can make the most difference. They include counter terrorism and counter proliferation; conflict prevention and resolution; promoting a low carbon, high growth economy; and developing effective international institutions, particularly the EU and the UN.

“We are working, not just for the foreign ministry, but for the whole of government and our core business is to maintain an effective global network”

From now on, FCO resources will be focused on those areas – which means more staff in the world’s hotspots; in places of importance for climate change; in the world’s rapidly growing economies of the east – and less staff in European posts where it is easier for government departments hope on the Eurostar to handle their own affairs.

Ricketts fully accepts that this narrower focus means the Foreign Office will have to devote less resources to other areas. “You will now find that drugs and crime are not part of our top priorities; nor is sustainable development; nor is science and innovation. That’s not that we don’t take those seriously, but we don’t think that the Foreign Office ought to be the policy making lead in those areas.”

Generalists not specialists

The dismantling of the FCO’s network of development attachés and science attachés has been quite controversial. Ricketts is keen to stress that the embassies abroad will continue to work on those priorities, but for other departments. “The difference,” he says, “is that the FCO would expect the lead government department to fund extra specialists in an embassy. The FCO, in turn, will provide a platform and a general level of support skills for the departmental staff.”

For this reason, most diplomats at a mission will tend to be generalists, able to pick up a brief and to link the various strands of government in ‘mini overseas Whitehalls’, says Ricketts.

The FCO’s ability to link different strands of government, while at the same time maintaining an extensive overseas network, means it plays a key role in David Miliband’s idea of London becoming a global diplomatic hub.

Hub of ideas

“The Foreign Secterary sees the UK being a hub for ideas, for initiatives, for bringing different cultures together… We have all the different communities living in the UK and are therefore able to project to the world some multicultural answers to current world problems.”

Added to that, Britain’s legacy of empire means it has a huge network of relationships to draw on. “I don’t think there is any serious multilateral club of countries that the UK isn’t involved in,” says Ricketts. “Therefore – as in the case of climate change – we are well placed to be an integrating, coordinating broker of good ideas and solutions, which is a role we have tended to play in the past.”