U.K. politicians raised concerns around the strategic direction of the new government department. Photo by: Rian (Ree) Saunders / CC BY

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office “risks operating for months without clear strategic direction,” according to politicians specializing in foreign policy.

DFID merger: FCDO will not house a separate ODA department

Senior DFID officials say it could take years to properly integrate staff in the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

There is also the possibility of “conflict” between some strategic objectives of the Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which will merge and begin work as the FCDO in September.

The findings were published in a report by the Foreign Affairs Committee, a cross-party group of politicians who monitor the FCO, and throws yet more attention onto the challenges facing the planned merger.

The report highlights the risks of working without a strategy, losing expert development staff members, and the need for high standards of scrutiny and transparency — including a separate, dedicated committee monitoring aid.

“Creating the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office from two Departments with their own cultures will require strong strategic direction and leadership from the beginning,” the report states. “With urgent responses needed to global challenges, the new Department will have no time to settle in,” it warned.

Despite the government’s justification for the merger — to improve coordination on international policy — the members of Parliament expressed concern that the speed of the change, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in June, would leave the new department vulnerable to working in a poorly coordinated fashion. The merger is also taking place before the results of the government’s integrated review of international policies, which could provide evidence or a framework for the department’s strategic direction.

“In the interests of accountability, the Government should explain the process that led to the decision to merge the FCO and DFID.”

— The Foreign Affairs Committee’s “Merging success: Bringing together the FCO and DFID” report

“Given the gap between the merger and the reporting date of the Integrated Review, the FCDO risks operating for months without clear strategic direction, which will be compounded by the likely productivity dips which follow departmental mergers,” according to the report.

It adds that different departmental objectives — the FCO’s goal to “promote our prosperity” and DFID’s hope of “promoting global prosperity” — leaves open the “possibility that some will see conflict” between the two areas.

The committee recommended that FCDO should consult Parliament on a “clear set of strategic objectives” to be published by the end of September, just several weeks after it begins work. The public should also understand these objectives, it said.

Greater development spending in “the national interest” is another government objective for the merger, but ministers have so far failed to clearly define what this means. The committee said the government should “establish and deliver on a clear strategy for communicating its interpretation of the ‘national interest’ to Parliament, institute regular reporting to Parliament, and be explicit in the ways in which the FCDO will help deliver it.”

The report also highlights the need to take steps to limit the loss of expert staffers — something that has happened after previous mergers — including the “importance of communicating to staff what the future roles and responsibilities in the Department will be; the need to prioritise staff wellbeing and the retention of those with technical development knowledge; and the need to maintain in-country expertise for diplomatic and development projects.”

A highly skilled permanent undersecretary, the most senior civil servant in the department, will be “crucial” to a successful merger, according to the report. It said the successful candidate should be experienced in major project management, managing large budgets, multilateral diplomacy, and leadership of change in a large organization.

Because of the “increasing role of No. 10 [Downing St.] in senior civil service appointments,” the committee recommended that candidates for the role be interviewed by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

The report also drew attention to the consultation that Johnson said was held on the merger — but that civil society groups deny took place. “In the interests of accountability, the Government should explain the process that led to the decision to merge the FCO and DFID,” it says. “We ask that the Government publishes the findings of its consultation, including a list of contributors and the timeframe in which it was executed.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.