The Foreign Office has not regained its footing under the leadership of the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, staff morale is low, not enough employees are posted abroad, and there is an unsustainable lack of expertise on Russia, a report by the independent thinktank Institute for Government has found.
It also finds the merger between the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign Office remains incomplete, and relations with other Whitehall departments are strained.
Despite the war in Ukraine being the No 1 priority for Truss, who is now competing to be the next Conservative party leader, the report finds the number of full-time equivalent staff who work in the Indo-Pacific is three times more than the eastern Europe and Central Asia unit.
Only 160 staff cover the entire region and just 20 of those are in Moscow. The number of staff in the department who speak advanced-level Russian has dropped from 83 in December 2017 to fewer than 60 in February 2022.
The report says: “We were told of strained relationships between the different parts of government involved in enacting sanctions policy – which included the Foreign Office, Treasury and Home Office”, adding this stemmed from the Foreign Office’s apparent reluctance to dedicate resources towards sanctions policy “leaving the department on the back foot when the issue rose to the top of the agenda in February”.
The report, entitled How the Foreign Office Should Change, points to a large reordering of ministerial and official portfolios in the FCDO, as recently as March 2022, as a sign the “department has still not found its feet. Many we spoke to also told of longstanding issues of morale in the department, particularly among former DfID staff – many of whom see the merger more as a takeover by the FCO than a marriage of equals”.
In May, after scathing criticism of the Foreign Office’s handling of the Afghanistan exodus last August, including calls for the permanent undersecretary, Sir Philip Barton, to resign, Truss oversaw big changes in the department, including the appointment of a second permanent secretary with greater responsibility for policy work. The institute said the reorganisation, not reported to parliament, was a sign the merger had not worked as intended, or created a single culture.
The restructuring, in turn, led to the resignation of the director for Africa, Moazzam Malik. He later said the Foreign Office desperately needed stability as well as clear, long-term objectives, adding that the pursuit of “national interest does not mean anything”.
Hinting at the conflicts inside the department about the role and scale of overseas aid, he said “development cooperation still has a major role to play in achieving real-world outcomes but if it is used as a bargaining chip in a transactional geopolitical game it will deliver poor value, weak impact, lead to scandals and damage the UK’s credibility internationally”.
In the report, the institute points out that seven of the nine directors general are former FCDO employees, as are both permanent secretaries – which “will not have helped to reassure former DfID staff that the merger is not in effect a takeover”.
Despite UK aid as a proportion of GDP remaining higher than four of its G7 partners, the report says the large “aid cut broke a manifesto promise, damaged the UK’s international relationships and has reinforced the sense among some European countries, in particular, that the post-Brexit UK pitched as ‘global Britain’ is in fact more insular”.
In support of its claim of low morale, the report pointed to a civil service people survey showing engagement dropping to below the civil service average last year.
One former foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the institute he thought the department had suffered “systematic humiliation”, with many of its key roles taken by the Cabinet Office or the national security council.
It also finds that only 29% of “UK-based staff”, just over 2,165, were actually working abroad, since it is cheaper to employ locally engaged staff than to send UK-based civil servants overseas. As recently as 2008, more than 50% of UK staff worked abroad. Local staff do not have diplomatic immunity, the same security clearance or working hours.
The report adds that staff morale needs urgent protection by creating a culture in which complaints can be raised without fear of reprisals and with confidence concerns will be acted on.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Staff across our organisation are working together to promote and defend the UK overseas, deal with crises and fight global challenges.
“We led the international response to the war in Ukraine, introducing the largest and most severe package of sanctions ever imposed on Russia, and are at the forefront of the humanitarian response.
“Our integrated department brings together the best of what we do in aid and diplomacy, maximising the impact our world-leading development and foreign policy experts have across the world.”
• This article was updated on 29 July 2022 to add a statement from the Foreign Office provided after publication.