British diplomats leaving their posts used to be allowed to fire off Parting Shots, which is the title of an interesting series on Radio 4 -
Matthew Parris marks the passing of the valedictory despatch, the traditional final telegram home in which British ambassadors could let their hair down and settle a few scores. The series features newly declassified Foreign Office files alongside interviews with the diplomats who wrote them.http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n85t5
Valedictories which embarrassed ministers. Featuring interviews with Sir Ivor Roberts, whose 2006 valedictory led to the Foreign Office banning their circulation.
"Sir Ivor tells of a Foreign Office under siege by management consultants, efficiency drives and Wall Street business-speak mumbo-jumbo:He went on to say,
“The culture of change has reached Cultural Revolution proportions, with no opportunity for new working methods to put down roots. Can it be, that in wading through the plethora of business plans, capability reviews, skills audits, zero-based reviews and other excrescences of the Management Age, we have indeed forgotten what diplomacy is all about?” - Sir Ivor Roberts, Rome, 2006
“Priorities and objectives have their place, clearly, but an excess of them smacks of a command economy, with its long and inglorious pedigree. Ordered to come up with a business plan by Stalin in 1929, Commissar Maxine Litvinov refused. “The Commissariat for Foreign Affairs cannot, unfortunately”, he said, “Put forward a 5 year plan of work. International affairs are composed of a large number of countries pursuing other aims than ours, and using other means to achieve those aims than we allow.” I suggest a variant of this be used on the Treasury.”
“Too much of the 'Change-Management Agenda' is written in Wall Street management-speak, which is already tired and discredited by the time it is introduced. Synergies, value for money, best practice, benchmarking, silo-working, roll out, stakeholder, empower, push-back, deliver the agenda, fit for purpose - are all prime candidates for a game of bullshit bingo, a substitute for clarity and succinctness."
He adds: "Can it be that... we have indeed forgotten what diplomacy is all about?" The dispatch says there has been an "explosion" of reports commissioned by management consultants, "many of whose recommendations do little more than reverse the previous recommendations of the consultants 15 years ago".
It says there is a "perverse comfort" in knowing that the costs alone of consultants engaged by Dfid are "said to match the whole of the FCO's budget".
The dispatch also complains of a "malaise" because of funding cuts and says that diplomats risk "being demoralised".….................................................
Relieved of ambassadorial restrictions, he’s even more outspoken. His hackles rise describing what he claims is the “dismantling from within” of the British Diplomatic Service, “once enviously regarded as the finest in the world”.
He can barely contain his contempt for the “politicisation” of the Foreign Office under Tony Blair’s Labour government, with highly experienced and skilled senior diplomats being bossed around and over-ruled by ignorant and arrogant young party officials and consultants.
“You have ambassadors and senior diplomats filling in multiple Foreign Office forms about achieving management performance targets.
“Or they’re having to waste time assuring Whitehall their embassies are cutting carbon emissions by 7% over last year.
“Meantime, where are the memos from the Foreign Office about foreign policy? Or debating how we intend to get out of the mess we’re in with Iraq?
“High quality diplomatic negotiations can stop wars and are infinitely cheaper than going to war and later clearing up the resulting physical, social and political wreckage.”
So, beneath all the international glamour and diplomatic corps savoir faire, he’s really just another subversive Scouser?
“Absolutely,” he chuckles, embracing the soubriquet without hesitation.…......................................................
Ivor Anthony ROBERTS (born 24 September 1946)
“When I left the Foreign Office last September, I think there were thirty-four separate management reviews going on into various aspects of the organisation, and that cannot be right. It distorts the whole balance of the organisation if you are endlessly pulling the plant up by the roots. You have to say ‘this is as far as we are going for the moment. We’ll allow things to bed down. We won’t look at anything in this area for five years, and see how it’s gone.’ That is the normal way of conducting business.
But when you are buried under an avalanche of management reviews by less than impressive management consultants who are charging huge fees for their services, and then have to undergo follow-up Treasury-led reviews and things called ‘skills audits’ or ‘capability reviews’, ‘zero-based reviews’, ‘comprehensive spending reviews,’ exhaustion sets in, together with a sense of demoralisation that you don’t actually know where you are going to be, or if you are going to have a job, or what direction the Foreign Office is taking, I think it has been very negative.
I think the other failure has been to impress on people like the Treasury and the Cabinet Office that diplomacy isn’t something measurable, like hospital waiting lists, but you have to expect that diplomacy is largely a matter of failure, in the sense that it really is the ultimate Sisyphean task of pushing your boulder up hill while lots of other boulders are going down hill as fast as possible. I remember my earliest days when I was in Arabian Department, my Head of Department saying, “Dear boy, you mustn’t think there is an answer to the Middle East question.” Forty years on, there isn’t one yet. In many ways, the answer seems to be further away. So it is a difficult task; very often we’re not capable of finding solutions.
How do you find solutions to the war on terror anyway? When do you declare the war on terror won? I don’t know. Democracy in the Middle East? There are plenty of other areas where we can’t expect to see concrete outcomes, and I think we fool ourselves and delude the Treasury if we think that we can always reduce things to neat objectives which can be met.
I remember the first time this objectives exercise began I set myself a goal to bring the Bosnian War to an end, and of course at the end of the year I hadn’t, so that was a total failure. These things are absurd and we really must put these things in proportion. I think we spend so much time trying to measure the unmeasurable that we don’t allow enough time for those people who have good long-range diplomatic grasp to address questions such as Iraq, how we got into this mess and how we extricate ourselves. Those are the longer-term questions we ought to try to address.”
I believe Sir Ivor could have highlighted this MBA management-speak bullshit bingo as a phenomenon that's afflicted the whole of our public services these past 20 years or more, not just the diplomatic service. Anyone who's worked as a public servant knows this is the case. Many of us have cringed for years every time we hear people talking about “business plans” and “value for money” in the context of health, education, social services, etc.
To the New Labour mob and their smart-arse advisors and consultants, and their civil-service wide boys, 'value for money' has meaning, and all it means is achieving numerical targets at the top end of the continuum of what schools and hospitals, for example, achieve, and what all of them should apparently achieve if they're to be deemed to be offering 'value for money'. Exams and tests scores, waiting list reductions, operations carried out, and so on - this sort of raw data determines whether something or somebody is offering 'value for money'. Regardless of any qualitative assessments, such as pupils' attitude to school and learning, and patients' attitude to their treatment and care. Regardless of the social context and the stage of development of the individual school or surgery or hospital.
Which, incidentally, as a matter of fact, are not fucking businesses. So why use the expression 'business plan'? Simply because the graduates of the business schools, the Masters of Business Administration, have become accustomed to it, if not brainwashed by it - by the constant repetition of the expression “business plan” as they go through their indoctrination? So that means the rest of us have to use it as well?
As for bilge like benchmarking, silo-working, rolling out, empowering and delivering the agenda – the next time I hear someone using those words I'm going to have to tell the user to please stop speaking in pathetic cliches and to try to grow up and start thinking for themselves if they want to sound like a human being and not like a business school brainwashed parrot, or somebody who's allowed themselves to be brainwashed, bullied or browbeaten by one.