Cook tells FO: shake off stuffy image

Tim Hulse on the attempt to woo job applicants from ethnic minorities
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The Independent Online
"I THINK there is still a tendency, when the Foreign Office is written about, for people to reach for a stereotype of diplomats of the past in hats with feathers, swords at their sides, sipping tea and having cucumbers," said Robin Cook, who probably meant to say "eating cucumber sandwiches", but his drift was clear. "I'm afraid it's not like that now," the Foreign Secretary continued. "Life's moved on and the Foreign Office is part of the modern age."

Although Mr Cook was speaking in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's elegant Durbar Court, with its marble floor and imposing columns, and although tea was available in a room upstairs, not a single feathery hat, sword or cucumber was to be seen. A wind of change is blowing through the FCO, and on Wednesday its hallowed doors had been thrown open for a recruitment fair aimed specifically at minority ethnic groups and the disabled.

In a speech opening the event, Mr Cook made it clear that he thinks the FCO should "reflect the full diversity of modern British society" and be "representative of modern Britain". The phrase "modern Britain" is one he uses a lot, almost like a mantra, and it is in stark contrast to the Britain he considers the FCO has hitherto embodied. "The problem we have is that we have an image of being stuffy, living in a white tower full of people sitting at their desks with umbrellas up their backs to make them sit up straight," said Mr Cook, who probably meant to say "ivory tower", but the slip was somehow apt, considering that only 3.3 per cent of the FCO's 5,800 staff are from minority ethnic groups, and the majority of that 3.3 per cent are doing fairly low-level clerical work.

Hence this special recruitment fair. Advertisements had been placed in newspapers such as the Caribbean Times and Eastern Eye, and outreach groups had been contacted, with the result that around 1,000 undergraduates and graduates from minority groups were expected to come along and find out what a career in the FCO involves.

In fact, this was just a small part of a much bigger operation, which is the brainchild of a 50-year-old management consultant and equal-opportunities expert called Linbert Spencer. Last December he was appointed the FCO's part-time Minority Ethnic Liaison Officer, the first post of its kind in Whitehall. "The idea was that I would put in place a strategy to bring about change relating to a vision of the future which is about an organisation that is seen as being open to and indeed looking to actually benefit from ethnic, religious and cultural diversity," said Mr Spencer, who probably meant to say something in plain English, but you know these management consultants.

In January Mr Spencer produced a strategy document, and since then community forums have been held all over the country, at the rate of about three a month, at which FCO staff meet members of ethnic-minority communities and discuss career opportunities. This, together with better targeting of recruitment information and advertisements, has already resulted in more than twice as many minority ethnic applicants in the latest round of recruitment, which would seem to justify Mr Spencer's favourite slogan: "If you want things to be the same, don't call me."

It's probably fair to say that a career at the FCO hadn't been high on the list of potential careers for most of those attending the recruitment fair, but many of them were impressed with what they saw, and indeed very impressed by the fact that the Foreign Secretary himself had turned up.

"I like the fact that you can do different things, and the travel part is quite good too," said Olatunde Olagunju, who has just graduated in accountancy. Patrick Aniagolu, who is studying systems engineering at Loughborough, said he was definitely thinking of applying. However, Heena Mistry, 20, wasn't keen on the idea of an overseas posting: "I don't mind going on holidays, but going away for two or three years..."

Everyone I spoke to thought the fair was a good idea. "I appreciate the extra chance to come to something like this," said Serena Gilbert, a student at King's College, London. Marcus Gibbs, who is studying at Brunel University and had been told about the event by his grandmother, said: "When things like this happen, it opens your eyes.I suppose there's that image of the Oxbridge candidate and the idea that if you're not at Oxbridge you won't get in, so it's not worth applying."

Until now there's been a certain truth to that idea. Of the successful applicants at policy grade last year, 48 per cent were Oxford or Cambridge graduates. The Foreign Office is seen as an Oxbridge kind of place, but Oxbridge is not representative of "modern Britain". This was made clear by the Foreign Office minister of state Derek Fatchett, who told me he was keen to change the image of the FCO "so that we're not stuffy, we're not Oxbridge, we're not male-dominated".

Mr Fatchett wants not only fewer Oxbridge graduates but also "fewer from private schools, fewer from a secure, middle-class background".

Of course, it remains to be seen how many of the unstuffy, non-Oxbridge applicants attracted by this initiative will successfully negotiate the demanding tests and selection boards which stand in their way before they can take their place in Mr Cook's funky new FCO. Nevertheless it's an admirable initiative and one which, as I suggested to Mr Cook, other government departments could usefully take on board. "That's for other government departments to decide for themselves," replied Mr Cook diplomatically. "But I'm proud the Foreign Office is in the van and is leading the way into the modern Britain."