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UK Politics

Foreign Office is beset by culture of timidity, say staff

Internal audit says pervasive fear of failure allows mediocrity to flourish

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been condemned as a "timid" organisation, terrified of failure and incapable of defending itself within Whitehall, let alone around the globe. Worse, for David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, this withering assessment of his department's performance has come from his own staff.

An unprecedented internal report on how the FCO does its job has laid bare employees' concerns in a catalogue of areas, including "risk-averse" management, "political jockeying" and what they see as the triumph of mediocrity over talent.

The audit by the human resources specialists Couraud begins with a quote from Oprah Winfrey: "You can have it all. You just can't have it all at once." It says the department is "a fairly enlightened employer" and most staff enjoy working for it. But the internally commissioned report, compiled after interviews with almost 50 employees, goes on to list a series of complaints about politicians and senior civil servants.

"Participants complained of the Office being insufficiently brave; of it over-anticipating likely press coverage; of it being poor at defending itself within Whitehall... and – perhaps most depressingly of all – of people getting to the very top of the Office by never making any mistakes... To this extent, we believe the Office to have been seriously and consistently under-led," the report says.

Veteran diplomats, MPs and opposition parties last night claimed the unrest revealed by the survey had contributed to the department's political failings. Craig Murray, the outspoken former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said the "touchy-feely" approach demonstrated by the audit exercise highlighted a significant problem within the Foreign Office: "If management feel the need to pay a private organisation to tell them what is going on with their own staff, then that should tell us something about how out of touch they have become.

"But this is not confined to how they treat their staff. The results show that the timidity that has prevented Britain taking the initiative over issues like Zimbabwe and Darfur runs right through the organisation."

The shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said the findings confirmed that the Foreign Office had been undermined by the "sofa-style decision-making process of the Labour government". He said: "As we have long argued, we need to restore proper cabinet government and let the Foreign Office to do what it is supposed to do, which is to be the lead department in dealing with our foreign policy."

Couraud analysts questioned 47 FCO employees on issues ranging from decision-making, "communication and knowledge-sharing" and "thriving in the FCO" to leadership and the working environment.

They found that "the risk-averse culture is fed in part by the perception that failure is not acceptable, at any level. As a result, mediocrity flourishes because mediocrity is seen to be safe." The report added that the FCO recruits bright young people "but then proceeds, both intentionally and unintentionally, to apparently 'clone' them".