Impact talks to Adam Thomson, a senior diplomat at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, about careers in the Civil Service.
What’s your role in the Foreign Office?
I’m responsible for overseeing Foreign Office policy towards South Asia and Afghanistan. I focus overwhelmingly on Afghanistan and Pakistan, British policy there, and relations with those two countries.
And is your work mostly in London or is it abroad?
Well I’m London based, so I’m overseeing three groups, perhaps 70 staff, who are working in this area, and liaising with our embassies in the region.
What’s an average week like at the Foreign Office?
I don’t think there is an average week. We all try very hard to keep our hours down, although they usually for more senior people creep above conditioned hours somewhat. It can be a little unpredictable, depending on events in the region. We weren’t expecting the Mumbai attacks, for example, and that certainly changed the work a lot of people were doing in my part of the Foreign Office very quickly. It depends what you’re working on, and what grade you’re at.
So it’s very much varied?
Very varied. And you will be the expert at whatever level you are, because we don’t have that many staff working on any one thing. It’s just that when you go up the organization your overview expands.
For someone considering applying for a job in the FCO, what’s the best route in?
There are a number of ways in. Looking at talented undergraduates at Nottingham University we’d expect them to be applying for the Civil Service Fast Stream process, and if they’re interested in joining the Foreign Office they’d select us as their first choice of government department. But you can apply for the Foreign Office’s operational stream – you come in at a lower grade, but you have, after a number of years, pretty much equal opportunity to make it to the top. And there are other points of entry for specialists or for clerical staff as well.
And what kind of skills or traits would you look for in an application?
What we’re looking for is people who are adaptable, good at communicating, fast on their feet, and able therefore to work well in either the Foreign Office’s service delivery, or on the policy side. That can mean almost any kind of background. It’s much more about who the individual is than their particular qualifications or experience.
Some people would assume that the Foreign Office is still white middle class Oxbridge biased. Is that still the case or has that changed?
No it really isn’t the case, and it’s something that we really, really don’t want to be the case, because we very much as an organization want to represent the whole of British society abroad, and have people from all parts of British society doing our work. We think we will be a better organization for that. So we’ve now got good gender balance, numerically, we’ve got a respectable portion of people who are from ethnic minorities or are disabled. But we can do better, and especially we need to push more people from those minorities into our senior grades.
Some people might say that, although job security is very good, pay isn’t as competitive in the Civil Service as it is in the private sector. What would you say to that?
For a very able person that’s probably true, so if money is the be-all-and-end-all you would’nt necessarily look first at the civil service. But – an important ‘but’ – looking at the Foreign Office you might want to think about the fact that on top of your salary when you’re abroad you’re paid sometimes quite significant allowances, when you’re abroad you can rent your flat or your house, which provides another source of income, and because you’re in the Foreign Office with a global mobility obligation the office will pay most of your children’s boarding school fees.
A slightly different question now. MI6 now advertises jobs on its website, what would you say to any students who want to be the next James Bond?
I think it can provide an exciting career for the right type of person. Some of the work is quite similar to the Foreign Office. Some of it is quite a bit different – the more operational side, running agents and so on. It’s, I think it’s true to say, a slightly shorter career on the whole. People retire from the SIS a bit sooner than they do from the Foreign Office.
If someone was interested in working at the FCO but wanted to find out what it’s like to work there before applying, are there any schemes they can do to get experience with you?
Yeah, there are a number. Consult the FCO website for details, but one that ‘s new and we’re particularly keen on is the partner university placement scheme, which is targeted at ethnic minorities and lower-income students to build up the FCO’s diversity. There’s a regular university placement scheme which is open to all in their penultimate year. There is also a year-long work experience scheme for a few people.
And these are open to people regardless of what degree they’re doing?
Yeah, all of them are open to people regardless of language skills, and regardless of degree, and that’s true of applying for jobs with us as a whole.