Raphael Marshall resigned from the Foreign Office earlier this year, and submitted evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select over the Government’s handling of withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Last month’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on Afghanistan is a bleak litany of institutional failures. However, the report is also a vindication of our political system. Very few countries’ legislators would have produced such a detailed, apolitical, and clear-sighted report. This is British parliamentary democracy at its honourable best. Amidst the unending row about Downing Street parties, it’s worth remembering how much is right about our political system.
One of the many tragedies here is that the Foreign Office (FCDO) is often a highly effective institution. The FCDO excels in some areas, notably Russia and the Gulf. The problems with the Afghanistan response stem primarily from the weakness of the crisis structure and a failure to pivot sufficiently urgently back to a war which had slipped down the Government’s priority list.
Nonetheless I find it very hard to understand why, in the aftermath of the withdrawal, senior FCDO officials appeared to be so complacent. As well as concluding that the Foreign Office’s answers to questions were ‘at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading’, the Committee also judged that:
‘Despite the manifest problems with its role in the withdrawal, the department has been reluctant to admit to any shortcoming… The Foreign Office has sought to blame other departments for issues, claiming that delays in answering Special Cases emails were the Home Office’s responsibility. The department’s leadership has appeared to be more focused on defending themselves from criticism than on identifying and resolving issues… The Lessons Learned review does not acknowledge the scale of the problems with its response, or the fact that many were rooted in sheer mismanagement rather than in the scale of the crisis.’
It’s unfortunately difficult to disagree with this summary. That said, it’s worth remembering that behind the scenes at the FCDO there are many people who are much more thoughtful about institutional improvement than the leadership’s public lines suggest.
The Goverment is highly rhetorically committed to reforming the Whitehall machine to make it more effective. However, it is at risk of appearing to attack Whitehall rather than help it to improve. At the same time, in practice the Government can appear prone to defending the machine’s performance in specific instances rather than recognising and seeking to mitigate problems (notably Afghanistan and the initial Covid response). This is not an effective combination.
One question that the Government should consider is internal challenge and Whitehall’s internal whistleblowing procedures. There are many excellent and patriotic people in Whitehall; institutional change requires allying with them to push for greater efficacy rather than solely trying to direct change from the Cabinet Office. My experiences with Whitehall’s internal whistleblowing mechanisms last year suggests they lack rigour and could usefully be strengthened.
As described in my Committee evidence, I wrote to the Head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Philip Barton, in August to state that the flaws in the FCDO’s Afghanistan crisis response constituted breaches of the Civil Service Code (and also that I would likely resign to provide evidence to the Committee). Reporting breaches of the Civil Service Code is the established (although rarely used) mechanism for Civil Servants to escalate concerns internally.
I want to leave aside the question of Nowzad’s dogs. The FCDO maintains that it ‘inadvertently misled’ the Committee about Nowzad on at least five distinct points over the course of four months and coincidentally deleted relevant emails. The National Security Advisor maintains he has ‘forgotten’ all relevant information. This is scarcely credible, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that Whitehall is unsure how to address alleged Prime Ministerial impropriety, so I want to focus on the broader organisational questions.
Sir Philip met me the same day and appointed a senior diplomat to investigate. In this regard, he fulfilled his obligations to the letter. The investigation concluded that there was no breach of the Civil Service Code. Sir Philip told the Committee in December:
‘The central point he made, which we looked at, was that there had been a breach of the civil service code… a very senior diplomat who had not been involved at all looked at that and found no breach. She did point to some issues, but she did say very clearly that, under huge pressure, people had done their very best to deliver outcomes around the evacuation. Overall, I think some things he said are the sort of things we will look at in our lesson learning. Other things I do not think are fair’.
This gets to the heart of things. Of course, many people worked very very hard. However ‘people worked hard’ is not a coherent response to the structural problem that thousands of emails from the UK’s former allies were not even read, and decisions as to who to evacuate were made both too slowly and highly arbitrarily. Ironically, one reason many people worked so hard is because the FCDO failed to allocate sufficient staff.
One of the concerns I raised was that FCDO staff had been placed in an impossible position by being given (de-facto) responsibility for life and death decisions for which they had no relevant expertise without meaningful instructions. Sir Philip’s response was seemingly that, when placed in this impossible position, people tried their best. This is true but, to say the least, circular.
In essence, the FCDO’s contention appears to be that the Civil Service Code whistleblowing structure only applies to problems arising from malice or deliberate impropriety. This severely restricts the utility of the mechanism. There are probably very few (if any) genuinely malicious people in Whitehall; almost all problems stem from good-faith cock-up not malice.
I find this a puzzling reading of the Code; the Code calls for civil servants to ‘deal with the public and their affairs fairly, efficiently, promptly, effectively’. The evacuation from Kabul was an urgent public affair and it’s difficult to argue the FCDO handled it fairly, efficiently, promptly or effectively. Ultimately, what the Code actually says is less important than what it is perceived to say; the Government should redraft the Code to more explicitly require that the Civil Service be reasonably effective.
To my mind there are two other problems with the internal whistleblowing mechanism as currently set-up.
The first is that the Code is perceived to be primarily concerned with attributing blame to individuals; the result is that there is no formal mechanism to address institutional failure. Sir Philip’s line was, in-essence, that by invoking the Civil Service Code I was unfairly blaming colleagues who’d tried their very best. It would be useful for the Government to clarify that institutions can collectively breach the Code without anyone specific being responsible.
Second, responsibility for investigating alleged breaches of the Code lies in the first instance with departments themselves; it’s not reassuring that departments are responsible for marking their own homework. In my case, Sir Philip appointed a senior diplomat to investigate. On the plus-side, this shows appropriate seriousness. However, on the other hand the investigator had served in the Foreign Office for 30 years and likely had at least some acquaintance with all the senior officials involved. Without wanting to blame the investigator personally, it’s not clear this is compatible with a genuinely independent investigation.
In theory, the result of a departmental investigation can be appealed to the Civil Service Commission. However, as explored in a Policy Exchange report by Benjamin Barnard, the Commission has less than 20 full-time staff despite being responsible for around half a million civil servants. From April 2019 to April 2020 the Commission conducted only four investigations. The Government should strengthen the Commission, empower it to take an earlier role in investigations, and encourage more civil servants to raise concerns with it. This would be a cost-effective way to improve state capacity.