On 16 June 2020, the Prime Minister announced that DFID and the FCO will merge into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. This decision has united development and diplomacy in one new department, fusing together the majority of Britain’s international policy and programming. In so doing, the PM brought an end to just over two decades of autonomy for the UK’s international development assistance effort, during which time DFID developed a reputation for being the most effective aid agency in the world.
Intriguingly, this decision was made ahead of the ‘Integrated Review’, not as a result. There is a certain irony that a department that prided itself on using evidence as the cornerstone of its decision making was denied the opportunity to make an informed case to justify its existence.
In the absence of such a process, we can only take the PM’s own words at face value, and conclude that the underpinning logic behind the merger is that by consolidating all assets, capabilities and instruments of foreign policy within one department the UK will be better able to both promote and protect national values and interests overseas, as well as project greater influence internationally. Thus, through greater internal consolidation and coherence it will achieve enhanced international effect.
So far, so logical in theory. Few would dispute that economies of scale can often be achieved through unification, and that if time spent on tiresome internal bureaucratic bickering could be reoriented towards external effort HMG would be all the better for it.
The creation of the FCDO is a further advancement of the ‘integrated’ or ‘full spectrum’ approach strongly advocated by the Conservatives since their election victory in 2010. The concept itself is not new – the ‘comprehensive approach’ was a term regularly cited by the Labour Government during their term of office. However, the shift from ‘comprehensive’ to ‘integrated’ is a subtle but important one, and is an area in which HMG, like many Western governments, has experienced challenges.
Over the past decade, many HMG country teams in both Whitehall and at post claimed to be delivering ‘comprehensively’. Usually this amounted to the articulation of HMG’s objectives for that particular country in the form of a UK country strategy, signed off by the Ambassador or High Commissioner, with limited external consultation with external stakeholders. The division of responsibility for the objectives contained within that document were then allocated to the various different departments at post, each of whom would have their own staffing and funding streams designed to deliver against those aims, as well as their own internal institutional incentives to plough their own furrow. The result was often somewhat less than the sum of its parts, and in some cases, there was limited appetite from any of the departments involved to expend effort or resources delivering for each other.
Two reasons oft cited by senior Government officials outside of DFID for this lack of collective delivery were that DFID had the lion’s share of the resources, and that their staff were primarily motivated by the interests of the poor in the countries of focus rather than the UK national interest. Upon re-election in 2015, the Conservatives adopted a twin-track approach to resolving these complaints: the increasing reallocation of Official Development Assistance (ODA) away from DFID to other departments, and in so doing, a softening of poverty reduction as the prime focus of ODA spending. Hence, in the past five years, DFID’s share of ODA spending across government has reduced from 95 per cent to just under 75 per cent.
The primary route through which these alternative ODA allocations were channelled was collective funding streams, such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and Prosperity Fund. However, these also have not always promoted integrated working. Both these cross-Whitehall funds allocate resources departmentally, so despite being collective funding streams, it is rare that programmes were actually delivered jointly between government departments. Thus, at best HMG would generate a collective approach at the strategic level but have operational siloes for delivery, and at worst, where strategies had been developed on the basis of the totality of the activities being delivered rather than on the basis of a clearly articulated set of overarching objectives, would yield duplicatory or occasionally contradictory activity between departments.
The creation of FCDO provides several opportunities in this regard. The intent behind the integrated approach that has seen the creation of the FCDO therefore is for there to be greater collective analysis, which leads to more coherent strategic objective setting, followed by enhanced collective operational delivery. As such, a priority for FCDO should be to ensure that when country strategies are updated they are informed by current analysis and reflect the views of the new integrated department, as well as HMG more widely. The second is that these strategies are subject to greater input from and discussion with informed external stakeholders. Thirdly, the risk of incoherence between country strategies could be reduced through a greater investment in regional approaches from which country specific objectives cascade. This is already being implemented in regions like North Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.
It will be no longer acceptable for the former departments that comprise the FCDO to deliver their objectives in isolation; instead where their skills, knowledge and experience can make a positive contribution to wider diplomatic or development endeavours these should be prioritised if HMG’s collective priorities require it. It is for this reason that the option of ‘full integration’ has been selected for FCDO, which will see no duplication of either thematic, geographic, or functional effort within the new department. Every section of the FCDO will have both DFID and FCO staff operating within it, and the days of buildings separating DFID and FCO staff at home and abroad will soon be over.
Whilst there is an inherent logic to such an approach, the transition to a new organisational culture will not be straightforward. There are significant differences between DFID and FCO staff that will require institutional incentives to overcome in order to maximise coherence.
The first issue is in whose interest are those in the department working? Much to the frustration of UK diplomats posted to developing countries, their DFID colleagues were guided primarily by the International Development Act (2002), which mandated them to act primarily in the interests of the poor within the population, rather than in the interests of the UK. This resulted in many a heated discussion within Embassies and High Commissions as to where allegiances lay. Further, because many DFID staff were development professionals rather than career civil servants, tensions arose where there were contradictions between policy outcomes informed by technical expertise and established best practice and those which were primarily driven by UK political interest. FCDO will need to find a means to incorporate development into the wider foreign policy specialism of the new department.
It will be imperative as FCDO evolves to achieve clarity as to the mission and values of the new department, and to ensure that wherever possible the interests of the UK and those with whom we seek to partner align. Where this is not possible however, and UK interests differ from those with whom we work, it will be necessary to ensure that staff involved in such scenarios are clear of their objectives and are willing to deliver accordingly. Without such clarity, there is significant risk of UK effort being undermined.
The second issue will be for FCDO to articulate an institutional culture, which seeks to preserve the strengths and alleviate the weaknesses of both of its parents. Again, this will not be straightforward. As one would expect, the FCO was a department that placed primacy on geography and context, and hence was staffed with diplomats with linguistic and cultural, rather than thematic expertise. Beyond languages, the FCO prides itself on a level of ‘gifted amateurism’ that sees bright and motivated staff apply themselves to a number of tasks using a set of core competences in which they are honed. DFID on the other hand placed precedence on thematic or programmatic expertise, and therefore prioritised proficiency in health, education, or governance issues over geographical knowledge. There is a level of intellectual rigor to the advisory cadres, which sees subject matter expertise often take precedent over broader management and inter-personal skills.
Given this approach, it is perhaps unsurprising that both departments had management and leadership challenges. It became apparent in FCO that the individualistic skills and experience required to excel in diplomacy did not always readily translate to wider organisational and leadership and management positions. DFID similarly recognised that an extensive knowledge of a thematic area also did not compensate for the wider inter-personal and emotional intelligence skills necessary for either leadership roles or cross-Whitehall skirmishes. The future FCDO will require geographical, thematic, strategic, managerial, programmatic, political, and bureaucratic skills to be successful, but how they will be fused together in FCDO’s embryonic stages will provide a strong indication to staff as to which will take precedence in the future. Staff will be watching initial appointments carefully, on the basis of which they will determine their own suitability in their new department. The formation of FCDO could provide a helpful opportunity to establish alternative diplomatic, development and departmental management career tracks within the organisation as a means of ensuring that those in leadership roles are assigned positions appropriate to their skill set.
The third issue will be the balance of effort afforded to content and process both at home and abroad. By the time of its demise, DFID had smothered itself in process and became obsessed by results, with the ability of the department to be innovative, take risks and learn from failure significantly diminished. Whilst this was largely due to the burden of the 0.7 per cent target, the intense media and public scrutiny that accompanied it, and a permanent political sword of Damocles hanging over the department, this ponderous and inflexible approach was the other factor that prompted the reallocation of ODA to other government departments.
In contrast, whilst the FCO embraced the allocation of in excess of £2bn worth of ODA onto its baseline via the CSSF and Prosperity Fund, it cannot be said that the department had adequately developed the infrastructure to accompany such large allocations of programme funding. Whilst this had the initial advantage of genuine innovation and experimental activity being implemented, over time significant criticism was directed by Parliament and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) regarding transparency, accountability, and effectiveness of their programming. The knack moving forwards will be finding a happy medium between DFID’s ‘oil tanker’ approach of large, often complicated, and cumbersome programming, and a nimbler, problem focused approach seen within the CSSF’s better interventions. Ironically, DFID could learn from itself in this regard, as many of the approaches it used during its first decade to provide proof of concept, create catalytic effect, and fill the space between what was required in the short-term and the more lumbering approaches of the EU, UN and World Bank are exactly what is needed today. It will also be necessary for the FCDO’s programmatic delivery systems to retain DFID’s focus on value for money whilst also learning from the FCO’s more insurgent approach through the CSSF to procure swiftly when required and evolve over the course of delivery where needed.
The final challenge will be establishing consensus on FCDO timeframes. Whitehall joked that 2030 to DFID meant the year, whereas to the FCO it was half-past eight in the evening. As an organisation primarily focused on understanding, engaging, and influencing, it is perhaps inevitable that the FCO’s outlook was more pragmatic and short-termist, whereas DFID’s was longer-term given the intractable nature of the problems with which it engaged.
It will be necessary for FCDO to embrace both approaches, and continue to provide their political masters with timely responses to political imperative, whilst also retaining focus on longer-term more strategic challenges. Developing systems that are able to cope with the ‘tyranny of the now’ whilst not allowing the urgent to be all encompassing will be a priority for the FCDO leadership in its formative stages.
Such an approach will be important for programming also – one dangerous consequence of the ‘results’ over ‘development’ mantra of recent years has been an obsession with focusing solely on activities which can be counted, or changes which can be swiftly delivered rather than the underlying problems that have created such symptoms in the first place. If the UK is to meaningfully engage in international activity it will be important that FCDO does not limit itself to simply pursuing short-term symptoms, but instead affords attention to root causes.
In conclusion, achieving successful integration will not be easy. It will be resource intensive, involve compromise, and will need to adapt approaches to suit the differing institutional cultures and incentives of the departments that have merged to form the FCDO.
Despite this, the benefits of fully utilising the range of tools and approaches HMG has at its disposal clearly outweigh the challenges. It is clear that the political appetite and imperative for integration will not abate, and as such, there is a need to embrace the political direction provided, and to ensure that as government structures and systems evolve, so that the best of both DFID and the FCO align to ensure that the FCDO continues to play a constructive role in the promotion and protection of British values and interests overseas.
- FCDO should use the opportunity of its formation to undertake extensive internal and external consultation to achieve collective agreement on the future mission and values of the new department. Such a process would provide an opportunity to restore confidence among staff, partner and beneficiary governments, and the extensive range of external FCDO stakeholders that the department is clear on its vision and mandate.
- Building on the NSC led country and regional strategy process, effort should be expended in updating all country and thematic strategies in line with FCDO/HMG (rather than DFID or FCO) objectives. Strategies should be informed by updated political and developmental analysis, and should involve informed external stakeholder consultation.
- Consideration should be given to an FCDO specific competency framework that seeks to align diplomatic and developmental expertise with civil servant core competences, and within this process assess whether multiple diplomatic, development and management career tracks are appropriate and what mandatory skills are required for all three specialisms.
- Specific investments should be made internally on training and promotion of the new FCDO culture and working practices, rather than risk operational siloes emerging between former FCO and DFID staff.
- As part of the re-alignment of Official Development Assistance (ODA) within FCDO, consideration to be given to creating dedicated pools of funding for smaller, innovative, and/or catalytic programming, as well as clarifying levels of political risk appetite (including for failure) for UK funded interventions.
Mark White is a Director at First Call Partners. He is a security and justice, governance, conflict and peacebuilding specialist with 15 years’ experience of designing, managing and evaluating complex DFID and HMG programmes. He has worked in a range of fragile and conflict affected states in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, North Africa and the Former Soviet Union. Mark was formerly Principal for Governance, Security & Justice at Coffey International Development, Deputy Head of the UK Government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and Deputy Head of the UK Stabilisation Unit.
Image by DFID under (CC).
 William McKeran, Fusion Doctrine: One Year On, RUSI, March 2019, https://rusi.org/commentary/fusion-doctrine-one-year
 The Comprehensive Approach, Parliament UK, July 2010, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmdfence/writev/comp/m01.htm
 International Development Act 2002, Legislation UK, https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2002/1/contents