For William Hague: How To Cut the Foreign Ofiice 25

With all government departments having to look at huge cuts, I thought I would write about what I know. These are the steps I would take to cut back radically on the FCO budget.

1) Make all Directors-General and Heads of Department Redundant

Diplomats alternate in their careers between Whitehall and postings to Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates abroad. In the FCO in Whitehall, the chain of command goes like this.



Directors General


Heads of Department

Assistant Heads of Department

Heads of Section

Desk Officers

Assistant Desk Officers


The nomenclature changed several times when I was in the FCO, and may well have changed since from the above, but the structure remains the same.

That is many more layers of bureaucracy than is necessary. “Submissions” going to ministers work their way up every link of the chain, leading to duplication and second guessing. The official view is that more and more senior officials bring increased wieght and experience. The counter view is that, as you go up the chain, you are moving further and further away from expertise on the particular subject.

On top of which, at every leve,l you have varying degrees of budget management responsibility and the whole accompanying New Labour paraphernalia of target management, measurement, internal market and performance indication. The layers spend much of their time in internal administration of the interfaces grinding between each other. Savings from losing layers would be much greater than the considerable employment costs of the individuals involved.

There are two too many layers here. I can see varying arguments for which levels you cut and there is a sense in which it does not make too much difference. But on close consideration I would cut Heads of Department (assistants then becoming Heads at a lower grade, with some big departments with more than one assistant split up) and Directors General.

Remember it isn’t a saving unless you actually make the individuals redundant.

Full cost saving £25 miilion pa

2 Slash Embassies in EU States

The world has changed. In particular, the way that the UK interrelates with other EU members has changed dramatically. Huge areas of foreign and security policy are “coordinated” with the EU, while most trade and economic questions are under direct EU control or “competence”. The coordination of all this between states takes place to a small extent in capitals, but to a massive extent in Brussels.

The FCO has become marginal to the process to the point of irrelevance. This is an absolutely key point.

Thirty years ago a British official dealing with fisheries conservation or with environmental policy would almost never, in the course of their entire career, meet their French or Spanish counterpart. If a question on environmental policy arose, the British official would send a memo to the Foreign Office. If the FCO agreed, it would send an instruction to the diplomat whose portfolio included environmental policy in the Embassy in Paris or Madrid. He would make an appointment and go and see the officer in the French or Spanish foreign ministry who dealt with the question. He would leave him a copy of a memorandum. In due course, he would relay back to the FCO the answer from the French or Spanish ministry, who would send it on to the British environmental official we started with.

This world has changed completely. Now our British environmental of fisheries conservation official will meet his French and Spanish counterparts six times a year in Brussels at EU meetings on his subject, and now and then at international conferences. He will be on first name terms with them, have their mobile and telephone numbers. The chances that anyone in the FCO has a clue what he is doing are slim indeed. If he needs to cabal with the French, Pole and German to influence an EU decision, he will do it himself in the corridors of a meeting, not ask the FCO.

Yet our Embassies in EU countries remain among the biggest and grandest we possess, reflecting the days when our shifting bilateral relationships with European nations were literally matters of life and death, war and peace. They are magnificent and madly over-staffed by crazily over senior people. They are a great relic of a bygone age, institutions so grand that their overwhelming presence masks their lack of purpose.

Be radical. Large Embassies in EU member states should be cut to eight diplomats (Paris, Bonn) small Embassies to four diplomats (Copenhagen, Dublin). Let’s move into the 21st century.

This would bring not only a great regular saving, but a very large one off lump sum indeed. We have an owned estate of massive value in houses and offices in Europe’s capitals. Selling off most of it would net at least 300 million

Cash Gain From Property Sales 300 million

Annual Full Cost Saving £200 million

3 Close Consulates in First World Countries

We have a network of consulates (posts subsidiary to embassies) in places like Nice and Vancouver. They are there primarily to offer market advice to British businessmen and passport and consular services to British nationals. This is outmoded in this globalised age. France or Canada are no longer part of some scarey “abroad” in which British businessmen cannot operate without their hand being held by some bureaucrat who has never sold anything in their life. These are countries where tourists in trouble should not need their hand held by the government. Close all first world consulates, and deploy half the savings into opening new consulates and embassies outside the first world where they are actually needed. Again this would bring an annual saving and a big capital benefit from property sales.

Net Cash Gain From Property Sales 50 million

Net Full Cost Saving £60 million pa

4 Reduce the Dipomatic Housing Estate

Diplomats, especially senior ones, live in housing which is much grander than civil servants of their grade could possibly aff0rd in London. There used to be a reason for this. Official entertaining at home had to impress your foreign visitor.

But the real truth is that our diplomats nowadays very seldom use their grand houses for entertainng at home. There has been a measured and major trend towards entertaining in restaurants. Actually I think this is an awful shame. I had literally thousands of visitors a year through my home throughout my entire diplomatic career. But my breed is now extinct. Diplomats see their grand home as their private space, and many senior diplomats do not entertain at home.

Why should diplomats therefore live in houses and apartments often worth £2 million up?

I do not propose we get rid of our Ambassadorial residences, which are an important diplomatic tool and often woth £10 million up. But these assets need to be sweated much more. Every Ambassadorial residence has its de facto public and private rooms – who wants to eat their breakfast alone at a table for 36? The public/private areas should be formalised, and the public areas be available to any diplomat in the post to use for entertaining purposes, and possibly available to rent for British companies. Official use of the public areas is probably below 20% at the moment, if you take lunch, dinner and weekend afternoons as the possible entertaining opportunities. Let’s get that up over 90%.

Our diplomats can then be asked to live in the kind of accommodation that their salary would afford in London – ie very much smaller than they get now. Many very expensive properties could be sold off.

Cash Gain From Property Sales 150 miilion

Annual Full Cost Saving (Rent) 20 million

The savings figures are estimates and designed to give no more than a rough feel for the sums involved. The beauty of this scheme is that the capital gains from property sales would more than cover the cost of compulsory redundancies.

The FCO bureaucrats will take the opposite view of any cuts. They will not want to give up their expensive houses or any London jobs with access to ministers and political power. They will certainly not want to cut any postings to easy countries with access to Aspen or St Moritz. They will propose a series of closures of posts in third world countries – pretty well the only place the FCO actually is any use. They will propose cuts to the BBC World Service.

My key piece of advice to William Hague: do not get captured by your senior officials.

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25 thoughts on “For William Hague: How To Cut the Foreign Ofiice

  • Seb

    Changes under No. 1 would have the additional advantage of making spin and introduced misinformation less likely and more readily identified and attributed.

  • Monty

    There’s one EU country where the UK embassy should not downsize – Greece.

    I know of another EU embassy in Athens which has to intervene regularly on behalf of their citizens caught up in the Greek judicial system.

    Bent lawyers, courts convicting under double jeopardy and Justice ministry officials carrying out illegal acts are recent examples.

  • Craig


    I don’t doubt it, but you could handle that with 4 diplomats. They just have to be focused on the right things. Murder in Samarkand illustrates what can be achieved with that size of staff.

  • Ed


    I’m sure all your suggestions are sensible.

    From my occasional interactions with our embassies and consulates overseas, I’ve noticed the following:

    1. Some of our embassies are either ludicrously under-funded, or, more likely, poorly-prioritised. I’ve seen British embassies with 4 diplomats (in countries where we could probably make do with 2) whose outside noticeboards (designed, presumably, to promote the UK to passers-by) have peeling, faded paint and display curling, yellowed photographs that appear not have been changed since the 1980s. (I won’t name the country because the ambassador bought me a beer and I don’t want to embarrass him.)

    But I was shocked. For the outlay of 25 quid we could have put on a decent show. OK, probably 1550 quid, for no doubt they would have had to fly out a security-cleared drawing-pin operative to put up the new posters from the UK. But even then it would have been 1550 quid well spent. Why even bother having an embassy at all if we’re going to use it to advertise the fact that the UK is so broke/decrepit/run-down/incompetent that it can’t even make its own noticeboard look nice?

    2. Consular advice for travellers is (or at least was) a joke. Maybe in emergencies they do great things, but in terms of good local on-the-ground advice from a consulate: forget it.

    A few years ago in Country X I followed the online FCO advice to contact the consulate for up-to-date information regarding travelling in Region Y. Eventually I was put through to someone whose job it was to supply that information. After a lot of paper-shuffling noises, she eventually read out to me, down the phone, the vague, generic information published on the website, word-for-word and including (and this is the good bit) the concluding advice: “travellers intending to visit Region Y should contact the consulate directly for up-to-date information”.

    I’m sure this is not universally the case, but in my experience many diplomats have little idea of real conditions in-country outside the “comfort zone” of the capital city (or in some cases even outside the diplomatic quarter of the capital city).

    One other thing. Do you think it’s time we considered moving our in embassy from Bonn to Berlin (section 2, para 6)?

    Keep up the good work.

  • Iain Orr


    You’re right to take a radical approach under the main cost headings. I don’t know how you calculated your savings, but the order seems broadly right given the job and property reductions you advocate. Overall, I make your annual savings £305 million with one-off property sales of £500m. On my calculations (FCO overall budget of £2.2 billion , of which 36% for core costs ?” ie excluding British Council, BBC External Services, International Subscriptions etc), your annual savings (£305) would be closer to 40% than 20% and the one-off property sales would be £500m, making Osborne and Alexander very happy.

    Delayering: as you say, there are various ways this can be done. Whatever names are used, I’d say that for most departments as presently structured one of the three levels (Head, Deputy Head, Section Head) should go. In Aviation and Maritime Department – which you and I both worked in at separate times – I was both Deputy Head and Head of Aviation Section. There was also a Head of Department and a Head of Maritime Section. It would have made most sense for the latter job to go – downgraded to Desk Officer; or for my role as Deputy Head to go.

    In terms of the people to keep or make redundant, ability and dislike for working to annual objectives should be the key criteria. The spirit should be: trust people to do their job properly – if they don’t know what the job entails or need to be blinkered by objectives, either it was a mistake to appoint them in the first place or their eyesight needs correcting.

    Your advice to Hague is sound. However, he will only be able to avoid capture by senior officials if he listens to them. His best way to test your advice to him will be by asking senior officials for their comments. It will be hard for them to avoid the traps of ad hominem arguments and defending their own record. Hague is, I hope, a wily enough Yorkshireman {even if not a Yorkshire Scot like me) to sus out bullshit.

    Radical cuts should mean room for additions or replacements. You note the need to reopen small embassies that have been shut. One of the daftest decisions (made with appalling lack of consultation was to close our Embassy to Madagascar on 15 August 2005). You and other will have more examples. The official line in King Charles Street (the FCO’s metonymic HQ ) is usually that simultaneous accreditation from a neighbouring post – supplemented by flying visits from London ?” is just dandy.. and cheaper. Cheap suits are cheaper. It takes time on the ground to know if the local government is telling you the truth or not.

    My other restoration candidates would be research analysts and the FCO language centre. That includes analysts for EU countries and training in EU languages. While I agree that EU posts can be vigorously pruned, let’s not lose the jobs that keep us in touch in their own language with local politicians.

    The FCO has a significant and growing role in coordinating policies across Whitehall that have an external (including EU) dimension. On issues like trade policy, international development, migration and population growth, climate change, water resources and loss of biodiversity, intellectual property rights and IT etc, the “lead department” will rightly be elsewhere in Whitehall, but the FCO needs its own expertise in such subjects (both in London and in key posts overseas) if the UK is to be as effective as possible in international negotiations on these subjects.

    Make sure that your words to Hague are not only read by visitors to this website. You must write to him direct ?” and by more than one route – copying in his ministers, Clegg and the Chairs of the Commons Select Committees of all departments whose work is significantly affected by how well the FCO plays its part.

  • Abe Rene

    If I were a FCO fat cat, I would try to make sure that such a message from you to Hague would get quietly buried. Therefore I would also write to your MP (especially if he or she is a Tory), and best of all, if circumstances permit, kick up a public fuss that ends up on the front page of tabloids. Not that I read such trash myself.

  • Alfred

    Having worked for three different governments, I have no doubt you are correct in recommending a reduction in the FCO hierarchy, but a reduction from ten levels to eight, seems hardly to touch the problem.

    I read many years ago (was it Northcote Parkinson?) that the success of the Mafia is largely due to its tight control of operations, which separates the bosses from the street operatives by only two levels of management for a four-level hierarchy.

    Ignoring the Minister who must be little more than an ornament, so far as the day to day running of the operation is concerned, why not cut the thing down to:


    Heads of Department

    Desk Officers


    Would that not work?

    It is said that in the days when Britain was a real power, Lord Palmerston ran the Colonial office with two undersecretaries and four clerks. The operation ran from Palmerston’s residence and the clerks, if they arrived before 11.00 AM, received breakfast. However, they were expected, if necessary, to remain until 10 or 11 in the evening taking dictated letters conveying Lord Palmerston’s directives to the colonial administrators.

  • Iain Orr


    In practice Craig’s proposal is close to your more radical delayering if you define the Assistants out of existence (some desk officers are more experienced than others and can mentor new arrivals).

    Your mafioso structure has the advantage of making clear who does what:

    PUS – gets money from the Treasury and lunches with other Sir Humphreys

    Heads of Department – develop policy for and in response to Ministers; make sure policy is implemented effectively

    Desk Officers – do the work

    Clerks – support services and keep desk officers on the ball by showing they can do tasks as well as them

  • Polo

    Any truth in the rumour that that delayering caused the cock up over the arrangements for the Pope’s visit because the boys who thought it would be smart for the Pope to visit an abortion clinic were not supervised.

    Opening salvo from the FCO?

  • Iain Orr

    Nice try, Polo! I think the cause was someone in the FCO who had time on his hands and got carried away by playing too much Catholicopoly. A delayered FCO would have less time for frivolity. Yes, I admit there are drawbacks.

  • Seb

    Thanks Craig – as an ordinary citizen belatedly taking an interest in how things work, I especially like this sort of post. I get the impression that rather few people are involved in FCO decision making. As a topical example, wonder if you would care to describe the rank and names of those who prepared and delivered the UK response to the recent israeli atrocity? Maybe various people would be consulted?


  • alan campbell

    They could focus on protecting UK interests rather than trying to fix the world. That would save a bit.

    I think a lot of residences are already hired out to private companies. The one in Bogota is.

  • Neil Y


    You are a Lib Dem with great experience and knowledge of FCO issues. The Lib Dems are now in government. What is the likelihood of your being asked to advise on, or participate in, reform of the FCO and its embassies/consulates?

  • Alfred


    You say “PUS – gets money from the Treasury and lunches with other Sir Humphreys,” so obviously here’s one layer to go.

    Getting money is a triviality. All it entails is asking the next level down to come up with a budget. The next level down sends the request to the next level, and so on. Eventually, a requests come back up the line for a total of twice last year’s budget. Then someone has to adjust everything to last year’s budget plus or minus x percent as dictated by the Treasury. Any clerk in the Foreign Secretary’s office can handle this chore.

    As for PUS gossiping with other PUS’s over lunch, all this does is strengthen the bureaucracy against the government and increase the incidence of heart disease.

    I spent a day in Whitehall many, many years ago. I was assigned to a Principal Officer who was to explain what his work entailed, which seemed to be basically four fifths of flip all. At midday he left for lunch and returned at two thirty seriously under the weather: a very unhealthy lifestyle. FCO staff should be expected to bring a bag lunch and eat it at their desks while they get on with the job. (At that time, there were notices in the washrooms stating that paper towels were for the use of visitors only and that staff should bring their own towels. I suggest the notices be reposted if they are not still around, since reinstitution of the rule would effect a useful reduction in expenditure during these difficult times.)

    In working for three governments, I never met a Director General or a Director who did anything the slightest bit useful. Sack them all, if you ask me. Ditto the Assistant Heads of Departments and the Section Heads. That way you’d have William Hague talking to a Head of Section who is talking with a Desk Officer who actually knows what is going on: information should be transmitted promptly and accurately from top to bottom and vice versa, it’s shouldn’t be massaged and muffled by multiple layers of Buggins’s.

    As for the Desk men teaching the assistant Desk men: just put ’em all in the same room, the novices will pick-up what they need to know fast enough without serving three to five years as an assistant.

    Obviously I am only sketching the new organization out on broad lines. But it will be immediately apparent that what I propose will enhance productivity and effectiveness, empower the Foreign Secretary and add several hundred million to your proposed savings.

  • Stephen Jones

    I think you’ll find the consulates in the first world actually do have a lot of work to do. There are still plenty of countries where the consul doesn’t turn up to assist those who have been arrested (a Barcelona policeman once told me they kept tabs on consular assistance and the difference between different countries was immense), and people do lose passports, fall ill, or have other emergencies.

  • Sauti Ndogo

    Good points, Craig. As others have noted, the trick is to ensure that Hague hears these points straight, and not after his officials have had a chance to explain why they wouldn’t work.

  • Andy Davis

    Agree with radical delayering of the stuffed FCO in London. Better still abolish all but a rump of the operation in London. Spend the vast proportion of money on shiny shoes on the ground where we can understand and influence in capitals.

    Sad fact is the Whitehall officials dealing with fish would not be able to convince one EU country to side with us on an issue of national interest. But diplomats on the ground can do this and have done this. We share sovereignty on an number of issues with 26 other EU countries. Its a good idea to understand them and to be able to influence their votes in the EU Council.

    Consulates in first world can do good work. Maybe there are too many.

    Too much duplication between MOD, DFID and FCO back offices. Much scope for savings from combining core HR, Finance, IT functions.

  • Sandra F

    I disagree with 3).

    Consulates play a big role for the expats communities, far more than for tourists.

    and the expats are in huge numbers in France and Spain for example.

    Since there’s many things for which you are forced to travel to the consulate, having only 1 consulate service in the capital can be very problematic (though I’d argue that in France for example the consulate would be better placed in Toulouse than Nice considering where most of the expats live).

    As a french expat in London, even though I live 20mn away from the embassy/consulate, it’s difficult enough to attend (stupidly narrow opening times), but I can only imagine if I lived in Glasgow and there was no consulate in Edinburgh!

    Also consulates deal with Visas. Whilst EU nationals don’t need visas, many non-EU nationals but EU residents do since the UK isn’t part of Shengen.

  • Albert

    Craig to be honest I had to recheck the date you posted this as most of what you suggest has at least in part already been implemented.

    Almost all Aviation & Maritime work was transferred to Dept Of Transport. So the FCO got rid of the hd of the Dept, asst. hd and all the Desk officers & clerks !

    The embassy in Berlin has I believe around 7 UK based doing bilateral & EU business – they will appreciate the extra member of staff you want to give them !

    around 80 SMS slots were cut about 3-5 years ago by downgrading many heads of dept slots (and getting rid of the Asst.head jobs) or downgrading DHMs in medium size embassies, and adding that job to the head of political section. In large embassies they did the reverse cutting the hd of political section and adding that job to the DHM. In more than 40 posts the hd of Post slot has been downgraded.

    In practice a submissions rarely starts at clerk level and usually misses out DG level and often a level(s) might be copied in but it does not formally go through a level before going further up. So for all but an exceptionally controversial subject a reply might be drafted by a Desk Officer sent to the hd of dept for clearance copying in the hd of section. Assuming the hd of dept is happy it would be then sent direct to the Private Office copying in all/most of those on other levels in the chain.

    Apart from residences and occasionally DHM houses/flats relatively few properties are owned in Europe, and recent guidance i believe is that in countries where entertaining at home is not usually done that smaller properties are now rented.

    Often current larger properties are still rented because the rate in the current lease the embassy holds is less than a new lease on a smaller property would be.

    Consular (and entry clearance) including all related accommodation and staff costs are 100% fee funded. So cuts there do not add to the overall savings pot one iota. They only reduce the service to the public and might possibly reduce the fee charged for a new passport by a pound or two at most.

    re bilateral EU work most OGDs are slashing their travel budgets and are attending fewer meetings – so they will have greatly reduced opportunities to see their counterparts in future.

    A bit more delaying in London with some palming off of some small bits of the FCO to OGDs should still be possible. But at most what is left to do might possibly save another 50-70 million at most.

    Anything more than that and many many posts will need to shut.

    personally I have always thought the main job of anyone above hd of dept level was to keep the ministers happy . so that those below that level could get on with the real work without interference from ministers………

  • lisa

    The African countries are the worst at it, especially Sierra Leone, where the ambasador sold the hight commission to a crooked Jewish man who knew the laws for fraction of the price, on the regent street. I think the sale had to be revoked.

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