Raphael Marshall: What the Foreign Office does well, what it does badly – and why the Civil Service Code needs reform.

8 Jun

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.

The post Raphael Marshall: What the Foreign Office does well, what it does badly – and why the Civil Service Code needs reform. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Profile: The Foreign Office, damaged by the retreat from Kabul, but free at last of Blairite illusions

3 Sep

The retreat from Afghanistan leaves the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary much diminished in reputation. Dominic Raab was unable, in his appearance on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to efface the impression that until Sunday 15th August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he and his colleagues fell far below the level of events.

They were unable or unwilling to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Raab had gone on holiday, and at first refused to come back.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who should have been directing the urgent redeployment of staff and other resources to meet the emergency, was likewise on holiday, and disinclined to return.

And one regrets to say that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador in Kabul, had apparently been given instructions to leave, along with his staff, even though they were the people with the local knowledge needed to process the mass of applications from Afghans who had worked for the British – an order countermanded at the last moment as far as the ambassador was concerned.

It would be unfair to judge this lamentable performance against some imaginary standard of perfection. Evacuations are seldom easy, and this one could have been a hell of a lot more bloody, as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, points out in this week’s Spectator.

And the wishful thinking which permeated the Foreign Office, the belief (as Raab said on Wednesday) that it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year, was widely shared, not only in Downing Street but in Washington.

Wallace makes an astute point about the impossibility of knowing exactly when a regime will collapse:

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”

But in such circumstances, political judgement becomes all the more important. One needs to recognise the point at which changing facts on the ground have rendered the intelligence obsolete.

And long before that point, one has to be careful about relying too heavily on intelligence which says “we are winning”. When the intelligence agencies, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and others agree an assessment at the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is extremely difficult for them to be impartial.

No one has a strong incentive to say “we are losing” or even “my department’s work does not appear to be all that effective”, especially when the actual moment of defeat is probably still a long way off.

Considerable figures – Richard Holbrooke for the Americans and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles on the British side – who long ago warned that we had adopted a losing strategy in Afghanistan were not heeded.

Raab and his officials are reported to be on poor terms. This is in part a matter of personality. Raab likes to have things under control.

Everything has to pass through the Foreign Secretary’s extremely large private office. Officials and junior ministers are allowed very little discretion. Relations with other departments are likewise kept under strict control, and are not at all good.

But this is not just a matter of temperament, important though that is. It is also a question of what kind of a department the Foreign Office is, and what it is for.

Forget for a moment nation-building in Afghanistan. Within the Foreign Office itself, there has also been a kind of nation-building going on: an attempt to bring the department into strict conformity with the most progressive ideas of how the British nation should be, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Ambassadors recently started stating at the end of an email their preferred pronouns, and at the foot of the staircase in the Foreign Office photographs were put on display of the first woman ambassador, the first black ambassador and so forth.

All this was in full accordance with what Tony Blair and his followers were preaching both at home and abroad. Liberal interventionism, set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999, had become the new orthodoxy.

In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, Blair at once declared, in his Labour Conference speech,

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

And in his memoirs, published in 2010, he writes, with reference to Afghanistan and Iraq:

“I conceived of September 11 as making all previous analyses redundant, or at least duty-bound for re-examination. We could no longer presume that countries in which this virus persisted were none of our business. In the choice between a policy of management and a policy of revolution, I had become a revolutionary.”

So the costly attempt to build a liberal democracy in Afghanistan had begun. Successive Foreign Secretaries followed Blair’s lead and have spoken of our moral duty to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan.

This policy had the merit, for its advocates, of being impossible for any western politician to oppose. It nevertheless sounded like an inadequate reason for putting British troops in harm’s way, and now stands exposed as the most flagrant Blairite humbug.

All of which is rather confusing for the Foreign Office. To its dismay, it has lost the European Union, the cause to which so many of its best minds have been devoted since the 1960s.

True, it has gained the Department for International Development, but it cannot be said as yet fully to have digested this acquisition.

And yet through the fog of battle, elements of a new doctrine can be discerned. Spending on defence has already been increased, with the Treasury conceding, quite exceptionally, a four-year settlement, while spending on aid has been cut.

There has been a shift from soft to hard power; from liberal idealism to Realpolitik. The Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, John Bew, is the author not only of biographies of Castlereagh, one of the great Foreign Secretaries, and Attlee, but of Realpolitik: A History, a subtle study in which is found the observation:

“To define oneself as standing for or against something remains a natural human inclination, as does seeking reconciliation between one’s morals and the nasty, brutish world. Yet it is also an activity better suited to moral philosophy or theology than to foreign policy analysis.”

Realpolitik does not offer some simple key to foreign policy dilemmas. To understand reality, and act in accordance with that reality, is a complicated and never-ending endeavour.

But one of the themes running through the present Prime Minister’s career is a delight in exposing liberal humbug, and a keen appreciation of the real balance of forces in any particular situation.

Boris Johnson is not, palpably, a perfectionist. Nor is he a preacher who gets caught up in visions of his own moral greatness. He is a realist, an anti-Blair, inclined to take people as they are, rather than attempt, whether in Britain or Afghanistan, to remake them as they ought to be.

One aspect of realism in foreign policy is to recognise that success may hardly be noticed; may indeed be achieved because no one is boasting about it.

Our policy at the United Nations, carefully concerted with France and apparently working rather well, is a contemporary example of this.

Triumphalism in foreign policy can be a very dangerous sign. One thinks of Neville Chamberlain giving way to it after Munich. Nor is expertise of much value, when unaccompanied by a commonsensical estimate of what is and isn’t possible.

Sir Anthony Eden offers the great modern warning: an expert who lacked the mental robustness to cope at the highest level, and got us into Suez. In the mid-19th-century, we find Lord Aberdeen, the Conservatives’ most trusted authority on foreign affairs, a man with a deep horror of war, who got us into the Crimean War because he failed to impress on Tsar Nicholas I the danger Russia would run by seizing Turkish territory.

It is fruitless to seek for some golden age in British foreign policy. Even at the height of the British Empire, it consisted most often in the management of weakness.

No sane British statesman ever committed the British Army to a continental conflict except in case of dire necessity, and victory could only then be attained by building coalitions.

Britannia ruled the waves for a hundred years after Trafalgar, but the Royal Navy could not avert humiliations which occurred at numerous points on land, including the retreat from Kabul in 1842, from which there was only one survivor.

The expedition in early 1885 to rescue the wretched, rash, intruding General Gordon from Khartoum arrived just too late.

And within living memory we have seen America, as the great imperial power, exposed to similar humiliations, of which the worst was in Vietnam.

But America still emerged victorious from the Cold War. The retreat from Kabul has filled the August press, and prompted a cry of anguish from Blair.

It marks a change of tone in western policy: a move away from the hubristic policy of nation-building. But there is no reason why, in any but the very short term, it should signify a weakening either of the United States, or of the British Government’s development of a more realistic foreign policy, entrusted to a revived Foreign Office and, before long, to a new Foreign Secretary.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Raab fails to win friends and influence people

1 Sep

It is a rare gift to be able to spot the exceptional occasions in politics when all previous assumptions must be abandoned and precipitate action taken.

On the basis of Dominic Raab’s evidence this afternoon to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, nobody at a senior level in the Foreign Office possesses that gift.

The department seems to have been sunk in summer torpor as the Taliban advanced at lightening speed across Afghanistan.

Nobody in King Charles Street, or in Downing Street, had worked out that at this rate, Kabul would fall within weeks, days, even hours.

The conventional wisdom in Whitehall was that this was a time to relax, a chance to take oneself off and recover from the exertions of the past year. Even the Prime Minister had at long last departed for the West Country.

Raab himself was already on holiday in Crete, though he today refused, somewhat petulantly, to say on which day he had departed. He said he had already made “a fulsome statement” on that matter, unaware that the word “fulsome” means (as Chambers Dictionary puts it) “cloying or causing surfeit: nauseous: offensive: gross: rank: disgustingly fawning”.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary, to whom would normally fall the administrative responsibility for responding at high speed to the unfolding disaster, by assigning the people and other resources needed to carry out the evacuation, was likewise on holiday.

Tom Tugendhat (Con, Tonbridge and Malling), the chair of the committee, sought to establish how much attention ministers had been paying not only to Afghanistan, but to neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, through which evacuation by land might or might not be permitted.

The only conclusion to be drawn from Raab’s evidence was that almost no ministerial attention had been paid to those countries, few if any ministerial visits had been paid, and even ministerial telephone calls to their opposite numbers in those countries were almost unknown.

Nor did ministers consider it worth speaking to the British ambassadors in Kabul and neighbouring countries. That, the Foreign Secretary explained, was not how things worked: “All the ambassadors would feed in their advice.”

If any of the British diplomats on the spot sought to raise the alarm, and there is no evidence that any of them did, the message got lost as it travelled up the chain of command.

According to the central intelligence assessment in Whitehall, Raab told the committee, “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.

All he could offer, as evidence that Afghanistan had not been entirely forgotten in recent months, was the curious statistic that there had been “over 40 meetings” about Afghanistan in his department between mid-March and 30th August, which meant there had been “at least one” meeting “every four days”.

Kabul fell on 15th August, so one assumes the meetings became remarkably frequent in the last two weeks of that month, leaving not very many to cover the earlier period.

Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) reminded Raab that the Foreign Office’s travel advice for British nationals in Afghanistan only changed on 6th August.

Raab is now travelling to the region. “This isn’t the time to be making best friends,” Tugendhat remarked.

“Better late than never,” Raab might have replied.

The Foreign Secretary was tense, lucid, disciplined, unyielding and isolated, and had certainly not made best friends of the committee.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.