In terms of what background people have that join the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I’ve seen a great variety. Lawyers, police officers, new graduates, teachers, linguists. What you have studied or have worked in before is not as important as the skills that you have acquired. People join at different stages of their careers, different ages, with all kinds of backgrounds, some straight from school. For those who have no work experience yet and this is the start of your career, there are still ways to show you have the necessary skills. Think about the work-related skills you have already shown, say in volunteering work, summer jobs or being on the committee of a sports team.
For those joining the Diplomatic Service in particular, an aptitude for languages is desirable, but you don’t need to have learnt a language beforehand. You could be posted anywhere in the world, so if you need a language for a posting, you will be provided language lessons. If you have learnt a language already, this will help you learn a new one. When you join, you will be asked to sit a Modern Languages Aptitude Test that assesses how well you can learn “hard” languages, such as Mandarin and Japanese, which are very different from English.
Work is constantly going on within the organisation to improve diversity, particularly at more senior levels, mainly through our Diversity Strategy. This involves changes to our recruitment methods, staff training and regular staff surveys on how we are doing, with follow up on the results. I can see these measures being taken as a staff member, but I would be interested to hear your comments on how the FCO is perceived from the outside in terms of diversity in all its forms.
P.S. Keep up to date with career opportunities at the Foreign Office by following our Twitter site: fcocareers
A lot of my work involves working in small posts in multi-hatted roles. My last two floats in Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana are good examples.
There was a striking headline in Trinidad & Tobago's national newspaper – 513 murders and 224 road accidents for the year 2008, which highlights two major problems the government has to grapple with. They were given another difficult task during my second week when constant rain fairly quickly started to flood the capital, Port of Spain, and beyond, damaging houses and washing away cars.
We had a few problems of our own the day I took over in the management section with power loss to the High Commissioner's house and a burnt out switch setting off the fire alarm in the early hours, which resulted in the water supply stopping in the High Commission. It was my job to co-ordinate solving these problems, with help from the very capable local staff. I oversaw our small consular and visa operations too, including monitoring the welfare of British Nationals in prison for drug offences, as well as answering the out-of-hours emergency phone.
In my subsequent post in Georgetown, Guyana, I had the same mix of roles, and once again, there was a high threat of major flooding, as it was rainy season. I drew up some short term contingency measures, mainly stocks of water, sandbags etc. taking advice from local staff experience of the severe floods in 2005. Guyana is roughly the same size as the UK, but only has a population of around 700,000, concentrated on the coast. The rest of the country is mainly untouched rain forest, with incredible, rare creatures such as giant otters, huge fish with razor-like teeth and exotic birds. See the BBC's recent DVD, Lost Land of the Jaguar, if you want to find out more. Our High Commissioner, Fraser Wheeler makes a brief appearance in there, as we are supporting Guyana's efforts to preserve the rainforest for future generations.
Management work overseas presents very different challenges to what management would mean in the UK; you might not have reliable water, electricity, supplies etc. You are responsible for all the basics such as staff housing, the office buildings and transport, local staff interests and welfare, accounts, supplies, in environments where things we take for granted in the UK don't exist or are hard to find.
Matthew, thanks for your question on what I did before the FCO. I have included a bit about that in my biography. But I'll say a bit more in my next blog.
Things have been busy of late, so I haven't been blogging much. That’s what New Years' Resolutions are for though! I've been in two countries since the Seychelles and am just preparing for my next (Sudan).
To finish my description of Lagos, I said I would give more details about my job as Vice Consul. This meant passport issuing and helping British nationals in Nigeria. Part of passport issuing was determining claims to British nationality for Nigerian citizens. This was pretty complex, depending on where and when they were born, their parents' and sometimes grandparents’ nationalities, amongst other factors.
Consular work is one of the most publicly visible things that the FCO does. Unfortunately, we sometimes meet our customers during the worst time of their lives. For example, my colleagues were dealing with a recent and sudden death, as well as the kidnapping of British citizens working in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south. This was my first opportunity to do a purely consular role and draw on the vast experience of others.
The British Deputy High Commission Lagos, to give it its full title, also deals with important trade relations between the UK and Nigeria and has a huge visa operation, one of the largest we have in the world. Despite the difficulties of the environment in which staff were working, the fact that so many people I spoke to had extended their postings showed how stimulating they found it. And where else would you see a naked guy cartwheeling into the morning traffic?!
I'm writing this blog in Georgetown, Guyana, having arrived a few weeks ago from Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad & Tobago. Neither of these places was as I'd imagined beforehand and I have learned a fair bit about them in a short time.
I said in my last blog that I’d talk more about my previous posting in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is one of the more challenging posts. Particular risks include violent crime and the prevalence of malaria. The climate is hot and humid and Lagos is densely populated (between 15 and 23 million inhabitants - no-one knows for sure how many), putting pressure on infrastructure and traffic flows. We confine daily life to two islands connected to the mainland by bridges (and we’re not talking palm-fringed beaches – more like bits of the city that happen to be surrounded by water). We have to drive everywhere we go, no matter how close it is.
So movement is restricted and involves forward planning, sensible precautions and alertness. Areas can become out of bounds or curfews imposed suddenly following an incident. Despite the security situation though, Lagos is a busy, bustling place, in the most prosperous country in West Africa. Nigeria is the sixth largest oil exporter in the world and the major oil companies have employees there from many different countries. Major airlines provide three to four flights daily to London and UK ties to Nigeria are strong. Investment is rising and there are significant Lebanese, Chinese and Indian communities with established businesses.
Lagos was the former capital and has plenty to offer in terms of restaurants, supermarkets and cinemas outside of work. And the more difficult the environment, the more the staff help each other out and socialise together. Until I started this job 18 months ago, I didn’t realise how important that is when your friends and family are miles away. I have a positive view of hardship postings from what I’ve seen so far (not just Lagos). There are clear difficulties and dangers, but if you are well prepared and alert, they are very rewarding in terms of what you can achieve. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, which will feature in future blogs.
I’ll tell you next about my job as Vice Consul in Lagos and. more about what the mission does. You can also check out the British High Commissioner to Nigeria’s blog for more about the country.
Thanks for the comments on my intro blog, both positive and negative. The strength of the media reaction came as a bit of a surprise to me, but it has certainly stirred the debate about people’s image of the FCO. I take the point that during the current financial crisis people don’t want to hear too much about the upsides to what I’m doing (tricky because I am trying to encourage new people to work for us!). Having just spent two months in Lagos, Nigeria, one of our high threat posts, maybe I was over-enthusiastic about the change of location and the contrast (more about Lagos in a future blog).
I’m not sure either that the Seychellois will see the joke about life being a beach here. On 31 October, the President of the Seychelles, James Michel, made a national address to announce new economic reform measures that he acknowledges mean tough times ahead. This included the floating of the national currency, the Seychelles Rupee, on 1 November. Since then, its value has dropped significantly and continues to move as the world market resets its value. Petrol prices have immediately risen and costs are going up. Understandably, people here are worried about the effects (from which the mission's staff won't be immune). The Seychelles has a national debt of around US$800 million and the President is seeking to address this with Government reforms.
The High Commission in Victoria is engaged on these issues, as well as supporting the International Monetary Fund’s reform programme for the country. And with all of this going on domestically, there is also the global financial crisis and its potential effects on the Seychelles. For example the tourist industry, a major source of income to the local economy, may be affected as money gets tighter across the globe. (16,000 British tourists visited the Seychelles in 2007 – another reason for our presence here as we provide consular help when things go wrong for them.)
Supplies to the island have always been problematic due to the isolated location and tight legislation on using foreign exchange. Basic food items can be hard to come by. There is often a flurry of excitement in the office when we hear that a nearby supermarket has had a delivery of UHT milk! And when cars or machinery break down, it can take months for a spare part to be delivered.
The reason that I have been sent here is to provide cover for the Deputy High Commissioner, who in turn is covering the Head of Post position whilst both the High Commissioner and locally engaged Vice Consul are on training in the UK. Everyone is multi-hatted, being a small mission, so for me this has meant assessing visa applications, authorising passports, authorising payments for goods/services, the formal and rigorous check of the accounts at the end of the month and a “surprise check” of the account during the month. “Captain 31” makes a good point in his/her comment on the BBC website (Radio 4, PM) when s/he says that local staff should take on most of the work and UK staff should only be sent out when essential. The FCO has been putting that very idea into action for some time now and lots of UK-based staff have already been re-deployed with local staff taking their place. The Deputy High Commissioner slot here is being cut in December. And our visa service has very recently been “hubbed” into Nairobi and Port Louis as part of a world-wide scheme to rationalise the network.
Another aspect to my current posting is helping to organise a Royal Navy ship visit. It is the first time that I have dealt with one – permission has to be sought from the local authorities for the ship to dock, calls on the key contacts have to be arranged, logistics for its arrival and transport have to be sorted out. And importantly, the visit coincides with Remembrance Sunday, with the Acting High Commissioner reading a lesson in the cathedral. I’m about to leave for my next post, so unfortunately, I will miss the service here. When I’m in London, I volunteer every year as an usher at the FCO for the Cenotaph service down Whitehall. So, I’ll leave this blog with a reminder to buy and wear your poppy.
I probably have the best job in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (well at my grade anyway), so I thought I should share the experience. Mainly with anyone thinking of working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), but also for anyone else who wants to know what kind of things we are doing around the world. So welcome to my new blog. This is my first overseas job and involves travelling the world to our various missions, covering for staff temporarily absent for one reason or another. I spend between 3 weeks and 3 months in each place and the whole thing will last for two years in total. My first assignment was Panama in June 2007 after three (rather long, but stimulating) years in London and six months of training courses. A downside is my job title’s unfortunate connotations – World-wide Floater – but I can just about live with that.
You join me in one of the more cushy postings – Victoria in the Seychelles. So yes, it’s all amazing beaches, palm trees and jealous friends and relatives. The sea is an incredible colour ranging from jade green and turquoise to deep electric blue. I’ve only been here two weeks and leave for my next post in another two, but I have hit that point where I feel settled and new possibilities are opening up. With my pale Celtic skin, I have decided that I am better off under the sea rather then turning into a human lobster next to it on the beach, so I have started diving. And that is leading to new friends and a preoccupation with understanding the physics of pressure.
So what exactly do I do? Well pretty much any of the jobs relevant to my grade (I joined as a mainstream graduate, called “operational entrants”). That means consular work (passports and helping Brits in distress mainly), visa work, management work (supervising the accounts, day-to-day operation of the mission, countless information returns to London), some IT and admin support, event organising, tea making and any other random request. It also explains why I spent so long in training. I have covered jobs at the grade below and up to three grades above so far (which is a brilliant opportunity for development) and in very different environments from Sierra Leone to Denmark. That is why for me, this is the best job I could have chosen. When it is time for me to pick another overseas posting, where I will remain for typically 3 – 4 years, I will know what job I want, what size of post and where I think I’d like. And that’s not to mention the amazing time I’m having in all these different countries that I would never normally get to see. This is the reason I joined the FCO and I love it.