The blog of Foreign Secretary David Miliband on the FCO website is an interesting attempt to make Ministers and the foreign policy process more accessible to the public.
The tricky thing with such initiatives aimed at reflecting what busy senior people think is that busy people are busy. So keeping a blog fresh (and plausibly looking like the busy people themselves have written it) is not easy.
One entry says the following:
And the foreign policy priorities we pursue define key issues in our foreign relations. From April there will be four of these priorities (replacing the combination of ten policy and service priorities until now – no organisation can have ten priorities).
This thought was expanded in his article in The Times on 6 January. The FCO is going on a Diplomatic Surge. Instead of the previous ten Strategic Priorities the FCO now will have four ‘key policy goals’.
Do I detect a wisp of ‘thank goodness the grown-ups are in charge now and getting a grip on this collection of twerps who overloaded themselves with far too many priorities’?
The blog formulation is carefully worded. It was not the Government which erred in having too many foreign priorities – it was the organisation!
Yet don’t I dimly recall that it was Ministers in this Government who made us draw up Strategic Priorities in the first place? Yes, it’s all coming back …
First we had seven.
Then we had eight.
Then we had nine.
Then, gloriously, we reached ten!
Now we are reduced to a measly four Key Policy Goals, albeit with free added Surge. All in some 260 weeks.
Each strategic change ordered, endorsed and indeed proudly announced by FCO Ministers themselves and supported unambiguously by Cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister.
Each with laborious consultation processes around Whitehall to get ‘buy-in’ and then all sorts of attempts to rejig FCO internal structures and spending to fit everything neatly into one or other of these seven/eight/nine/ten/four boxes.
Each with diplomats at all levels fretting over forms allocating the time of every member of the FCO in miscroscopic percentages to each of the seven/eight/nine/ten/four Priorities/Goals, rather than just getting out there hard to promote British interests.
Crawford’s First Law of Bureaucracy: The capacity of a Ministry to do anything useful strategically is in indirect proportion to the amount of time it spends preparing its strategies.
A Yugoslav joke about the endless and pointless rearrangements of the communist self-management system by chief ideologue Kardelj.
Kardelj was asked how to cure a sick cow. He advised cooling it right down with ice-packs. The cow got worse.
He recommended heating it right up with blankets and electric fires. The cow got worse.
He recommended feeding it masses of extra food. The cow got worse.
He recommended starving it. The cow died.
"Boze boze, what a tragedy! I am a skilled vet and I had so many more cures to propose…!"