I first came across Caroline when she sent us this post for International Women’s Day. I got slightly over-enthusiastic about it, and received a lot of mockery from my nearest and dearest as a result. You see, they know it’s a job I’d love to have. And whilst I am also a civil servant, working in international matters, I can assure you that a high-octane typical day for me involves typing particularly fast and perhaps getting two coffees instead of one. It does not involve a bullet-proof vest or nipping off to Ethiopia.
Caroline works at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which is the Government Department responsible for ensuring Britain’s national security (by countering terrorism and weapons proliferation, and working to reduce conflict); building Britain’s prosperity (by increasing exports and investment, opening markets, ensuring access to resources, and promoting sustainable global growth); and supporting British nationals around the world (through consular services).
So, I kicked off with asking what a typical day involves. Even I know not every day is a bullet-proof vest day. As Caroline explains: “A typical day really depends on whether you’re based in London, or in an Embassy or post overseas. For example, at the moment I head up the team in London working on Sudan. This means, in a typical day or week, I’ll spend a chunk of time at my desk emailing and talking to the team in Khartoum, agreeing how to handle discussions with the Government there, what we want to achieve through Security Council debates, what we should be saying to other countries and so on – all aimed at supporting efforts to end the ongoing conflicts in Sudan, and the development of a more open and democratic society, and deliver development assistance throughout the country. “
And then there’s the fare of every civil servant, of course – The Submission. “I also work with the team here to respond to questions from MPs and enquiries from the public – we write a lot of letters and answer a lot of questions! Finally, again working with the team across the whole of Whitehall, I will on a fairly regular basis develop written “submissions”, that basically are papers on suggested policies, for our Ministers to read and decide what they want us to do.”
And what about when you are on postings overseas? What happens then? “There is a lot more getting out and about – your job is to understand the country you’re in and the ideas and attitudes of the people there, and to promote and pursue the UK’s objectives there – be they on trade, security, ended conflict, or influencing the UN. The two overseas postings I’ve had so far have been in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan (by choice, they didn’t force me to go!). In Sierra Leone, I was on secondment to the UN, and I spent a lot of time with the bits of Government that were preparing for their first elections (in 2006) since civil war. I’d then feed information back to London, to the UN and the High Commission in Freetown, so that they knew how things were going and what we needed to do to support the elections. Again, I also spent time meeting with international colleagues, so we could make sure we were all working along the same lines and pressing for the same things.
In Afghanistan, I spent a lot of time with the military, understanding their planning and helping to ensure that the military and civilian planning was well joined up. Of my two years there, I spendt my last six months in Helmand, as political advisor to the US Marine Corps General. My day to day routine was a lot more frontline- literally and figuratively! I’d attend a lot of planning briefings and meetings (seeing a LOT of powerpoint presentations!) so I could help make sure the civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team were well plugged in to the military planning. I’d also go out for a couple of days at a time to stay in the “forward operating bases” across Helmand, as it was important to understand how things really worked on the ground, what was possible, what wasn’t and so on. Those trips were brilliant fun, involving lots of moving around by helicopter – although they were also completely exhausting, hot and dusty (temperature were often in the 40s…).”
Me on a helicopter in Afghanistan!
Extended periods away and this much hard work must be difficult. What’s the motivation? What drives Caroline?: “It sounds cheesy, but the bits that make my eyes light up is when you can see that work you are personally doing is having a difference somewhere in the world. Whether that be through supporting projects that are helping civil society have more of a voice, influencing senior officials in the decisions they make, or playing your part in putting forward ideas that then turn into UK policy and are put into practice.
I also love the more “hands on” stuff – my current role on Sudan involves supporting the start of negotiations to try to end an ongoing conflict in Sudan, which has involved some trips out to support the negotiations. It feels like a real privilege to be the person that gets to do that kind of stuff, even if sometimes I worry that there should be someone better qualified!”
And what of the bad bits? The bits of their job that everyone hates? “I actually struggled with this question! I think its probably the time away from friends and family on trips and on some postings where your family can’t accompany you. Lots of my friends still think I live a glamorous life jet setting everywhere, but it’s really not like that! Apart from that – there is a certain amount of bureaucracy involved in making decisions – you have to make sure everyone is on board with a plan of action – the embassy in the country you’re working, different bits of the FCO, and sometimes other bits of Whitehall. It can be frustrating and quite time consuming, and sometimes you write multiple version of a paper until everyone agrees – but it is necessary, and worth it once you get to the final product.”
Walking around small town in southern Helmand, in our required body armour and helmets, just getting back to the US base.
And how do you get to do this kind of job? (getting into the FCO has a reputation for being really tough). What training do you need, if any, to take on this kind of work? ”There are some specialist roles in the FCO – legal advisors, economists, that sort of thing, but I was recruited as generalist, and didn’t need any specific training or qualifications to get the job. The recruitment process more tests you against the types of skills and abilities you need – for example you needed to demonstrate you were a good team player, that you were able to write clearly, you could come up with creative solutions to complicated problems – that kind of thing. Experience of working overseas, for example volunteering with an NGO or something, is useful, but not essential.”
And what qualities do you need to be this kind of civil servant? “I think you need to be really good team player – most issues you’re working on need a range of people involved to help work out what to do, how to do it, and then put it into practice. Being calm and confident in a crisis is pretty essential – no matter what you’re working on, there will be times when something big or surprising happens and you need to be able react quickly. I was working in the press office at the time of the Arab Spring, and every day there was a new challenge to deal with! It’s important to be able to think clearly through a problem and identify the best solutions, then be able to present them clearly so your colleagues and senior officials can consider them. This is the bit I’m still working on – often Ministers will only have a few minutes to read and decide on a proposal you’ve worked on for days on, so its important to be able set out options, pros and cons and arguments, in a clear way.
The FCO puts quite a lot of emphasis on helping you develop the skills you need – there’s on the job training, seminars and mentoring, as well as courses for job-specific stuff, it’s something you’re really encouraged to spend time on.”
International work can sometimes move at a snail’s pace. How do you stay motivated, in long-term work such as this? “Some of the problems and issues we work on are really long term, and the nature of diplomacy is that it is hard sometimes to really identify when or how you are making a difference, and whether the ideas you’re putting into practice are the right ones – so sometimes that can make it hard to keep the motivation up, when you’re not seeing immediate results or the ones you want to see. But I always try to remind myself its about the people, those that are directly affected by the issues you’re working on, that will benefit it you stick it out and play your part, no matter how small.”
Visiting the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur
Now onto my favourite question (you find out a lot about people from their answer to this). Did you have a Plan B, if this job hadn’t worked out? “Getting into the FCO took me a couple of attempts, and I made a resolution on my last attempt that if I didn’t get in I’d head out to Caribbean and get a job crewing on a boat somewhere (I do lots of sailing and sometimes some racing) – essentially to become a boat bum for a bit! If I were to do something else now, it would still be in the international field, doing something on conflict mediation/resolution. But I hope I’ll be in the FCO for a bit!”
Does your work push you outside of your comfort zone? If so, when? “Definitely! I think the time I felt most out of my comfort zone was in Helmand – I was one of two civilians based with the US Marines, one of very few women, and one of three Brits. There were many times in planning meetings and so on that I had to speak up, stick my neck out and ask the difficult questions to ensure we were doing the right thing. That’s really what I was there for, but it was hard when you were in a rom full of enthusiastic marines who were convinced their plan was the right one!
More broadly, working at the FCO often means you’re at events where you don’t really know anyone in a room full of strangers, and you feel a bit nervous about just going up and talking to people! I try to remind myself that everyone probably feels that way… Also, as the “subject expert” you are quite often in meetings with people more senior to you, but who are looking to you to provide information, views and ideas – it can be quite daunting, but again a privileged position – which is what I remind myself when I’m nervous!”
Thank you so much, Caroline, for letting us take a glimpse into your workngn life, and for telling your story with such passion. If any of you reading are interested in a career in the Civil Service, you can look at the CS Jobs website here, and you can read about the graduate scheme called the “Fast Stream” here (hint, you don’t have to be freshly graduated to join). I love my (Black Hawk-less) Civil Service career, and it really means something to wake up in the morning and see your work all over the front pages.
I hope Caroline has inspired some of you!