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Engaging with the Foreign Office

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is one of the great Offices of State, once presided over by great historical figures like Balfour, Eden and Bevin, responsible for a £1.5bn budget, employing over 14,000 people across the World, and housed in one of the most impressive Italianate buildings on Whitehall. Engaging with it can be daunting.

But like all government departments it struggles with internal and external pressures, funding shortages, and the lack of hours in the day. Contrary to what is often reported in the media, public affairs professionals (“lobbyists” if you want to use the dirty word) are vital to the provision of information required for effective decision making and for alerting ministers to oversights and errors. By their nature many politicians are forced to be a jack of all trades and can often rely on the public affairs community to fill in the gaps and express what those outside the Westminster bubble are thinking.

One of the most frustrating things for anybody in Public Affairs is spending years cultivating relationships with particular Secretaries of State and Ministers, only to have to start again when they get reshuffled elsewhere and a new face comes in. Thankfully, with the respected William Hague at the helm, the Foreign Office has remained relatively stable compared to other departments, with both David Lidington and Alastair Burt working alongside him since the 2010 election. There have been some changes, with Hugo Swire moving from the Northern Ireland Office, Mark Simmonds joining Burt as a fellow Parliamentary Under-Secretary, and Baroness Warsi shoehorned in as the Minister for the fluffier side of Foreign Policy.

Nevertheless, the problems of the never-ending ministerial merry-go-round reinforce the importance of devoting time to the more static civil service. The Permanent Secretary at the FCO is Sir Simon Fraser, an experienced career diplomat who presides over a Management Board and several sub-committees as well as a host of experienced and knowledgeable civil servants that concentrate on specific issues and are usually grateful for updates and information from the outside world.

Of course the problem with Foreign Affairs is that everybody has an opinion on them. They gain a great deal of media coverage and there’s never a shortage of protesters challenging the department, most of whom fail to get their point across effectively and are often considered to be nothing more than a nuisance. It is vital that those who want to make a genuine difference don’t fall into that trap.

Central to productive public affairs is knowing how best to play the cards you’ve been given, but unlike poker the best result is when there is more than one winner. Taking into consideration what the department’s current aims are and assessing how your interests can fit within them is essential. With all departments under increasing budget pressures, the easier you can make their lives, the better. Often they are genuinely grateful for the provision of good research (particularly if it is independent) and accurate information. But it is also important to be realistic about what can be achieved. Unfortunately, you’re never going to stop a war (nor start one, hopefully), but aims below this threshold still need to appear to be in line with general policy direction and in an ideal world also save money. David Miliband attempted to pull together the department’s strategic objectives in the last Parliament and much of it remains the same, but in the fast paced world of foreign affairs, and given the ever-present risk of terrorism and the change of government, priorities can shift so it is important to keep an eye on policy announcements for an indication of direction.

One of the most important things in any campaign is motivating third party advocates – those who are independent but support the same goals, although not necessarily for the same reasons. There is an obvious reason why a lobbyist argues the case that he or she does, usually because they’re paid to do so. But if others can be encouraged to argue the case too, not only can energies be diverted elsewhere but additional credibility is lent to the campaign.

Other MPs are an obvious starting point for this. The FCO is shadowed by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which contains twenty MPs with experience and an interest in this policy area, and who scrutinise the department, run consultations and often offer advice. There are also Committees for the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, which inevitably have some crossover. Then of course there are All Party Parliamentary Groups, which represent and promote particular areas of interest. Foreign Affairs is awash with them … not only is there one for most countries (not including Fiji), but there are APPGs dedicated to Conflict Issues; Global Security; Human Rights; International Relations; United Nations; and so on. Each of these contain MPs who can take up a cause with the Foreign Office directly.

Of course politicians, whether they are the Foreign Secretary or a back bencher, are also motivated by winning their next election, so voters are great potential third party advocates. When Westminster Russia Forum was campaigning for the British World War Two Arctic Veterans to receive the medal they rightly deserved, we first identified which constituencies surviving Veterans lived within, and then wrote to their MPs suggesting that they take up the cause on behalf of their constituent. This makes the case far more powerful and also gets the attention of local media, who love a good story and visual about a local campaigning against the Government. We also organised a letter signed by supportive MPs to be sent to the Foreign Secretary, an act which gained national media coverage and cranked up the pressure on the decision makers.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gigantic and daunting as it is, is still motivated by many of the same problems as other departments – trying to balance the budget, remaining abreast of an overwhelming number of issues, and its political masters trying to keep enough people happy to remain in their job. If you can help them to resolve some or all of these problems, you’ll get off on the right foot.

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