A Diplomatic Services operational officer works within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to protect and promote UK interests throughout the world in a variety of ways.
The FCO deals with issues such as:
- climate change;
- conflict resolution;
- counter terrorism;
- forced marriages;
- human rights;
- trade and investment.
Operational entrants specialise in the practical side of diplomatic work and will work in foreign policy and service delivery overseas. There will also be the opportunity to influence international and diplomatic development.
An initial period will be spent in London before the operational officer is posted overseas in a British embassy, high commission or consulate. Each posting lasts for three to four years
Diplomatic Services officers rotate between an assortment of roles, including many overseas. This will affect the specific type of tasks carried out but they may include:
- drafting and proofreading written reports;
- liaising with high commissions and embassies;
- organising and ensuring the smooth running of ministerial and diplomatic visits, from transport arrangements to entertainment;
- answering general written correspondence by letter or email;
- analysing and interpreting written material;
- handling queries by telephone from other departments, members of the public and overseas contacts;
- dealing with queries from the public face to face;
- updating travel advice and information;
- managing staff, including overseeing staff performance and carrying out annual appraisals;
- handling departmental or project budgets;
- updating and completing personnel details, accounts and other administrative tasks;
- supporting and assisting colleagues with their policy work;
- undertaking other specific activities related to your particular department.
Overseas, the role may involve similar activities to those listed above, in addition to:
- assisting British exporters and individuals;
- working as an entry clearance officer, assessing visa applications and conducting interviews;
- undertaking specialist project work, depending on where you are posted.
These initial postings are decided on the basis of candidates' experience and skills at entry. For later postings, post holders apply internally and go through a selection process.
- Entry is typically through the Civil Service Fast Stream programme where starting salaries are in the region of £25,000 to £27,000.
- Pay increases are based on performance. It is possible to be promoted after four to five years and then earnings may reach over £45,000.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
A competitive, well-regarded pension is available along with a range of allowances for officers posted overseas. These include hardship allowances for posts where living conditions are considered difficult, education allowances for children, travel expenses, and rent-free accommodation.
Working hours within the UK are mainly 9am to 5pm, possibly with some extra hours, depending on the department in which you are based. However, some of the work may involve being on-call 24 hours a day or undertaking short overseas visits (e.g. one to five days). Hours may vary for overseas posts depending on the country.
What to expect
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is committed to recruiting a diverse workforce. For more information see Civil Service: Equality and Diversity.
- The Civil Service Fast Stream is ranked 11th in The Guardian UK 300 most popular graduate employers.
- Initially, new entrants will be based in the central London offices of the FCO in Whitehall.
- Following this you will be posted overseas, usually for three to four years at a time. You can state your preference as to where you would like to be posted, but you should be prepared to serve in any country.
- About half of your career will be spent overseas.
- Dress code varies between departments. If you are in regular contact with the public, dress is required to be smarter.
Currently the main entry point into the Diplomatic Service with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is through the Civil Service Fast Stream programme.
You will need to have at least a 2:2 degree but this can be in any subject. The following criteria must also be met:
- You must be a British citizen. Candidates with dual citizenship may apply as long as one of those nationalities is British.
- You must have been resident in the UK for at least two of the ten years preceding your application.
Applicants are subject to a stringent security check.
It is not necessary to speak a foreign language but it is viewed favourably by the FCO, particularly if it is one of their priority languages such as:
If any of the overseas postings require specific language skills that you don't have, you will receive intensive tuition to get you to the right level.
The application and assessment process is thorough and involves:
- Self-assessed reasoning tests - verbal and numerical questions.
- Situational judgement questionnaire - picking courses of action for different scenarios.
- Online selection tests - verbal and numerical reasoning and a competency questionnaire. Results of these will determine if you'll progress to the next stage. There is the chance to complete some practice tests first.
- Analytical fast stream assessment - half day event in London testing technical skills.
- E-tray exercise - tests ability to handle workload that is typical of a fast streamer. Results of this determine if you will be shortlisted for the next stage.
- Final assessment - one day assessment in London covering written, leadership and group exercises plus an interview. Success in this is followed by a final selection board for the Diplomatic Service.
Competition for places in the FCO is extremely fierce. You need to make sure you select the Diplomatic Service as your first choice when applying through the Civil Service Fast Stream else you will not be considered for a role in that department. For more information on making an application, see Civil Service Fast Stream: how to apply.
Entry to the Diplomatic Service through the Fast Stream comes under the 'generalist' category and means you will rotate between a variety of roles, including many overseas.
It is possible to be recruited as a specialist through the Government Economic Service Fast Stream. This is for those who wish to work as an economist and you must have at least a 2:1 in an economics related subject.
The FCO look for candidates who have:
- ability to work to a high standard, often under pressure or in difficult places;
- strong interpersonal and teamworking skills;
- initiative and a self-reliant, flexible and adaptable attitude;
- a practical approach to problem solving;
- capacity to think clearly and analytically;
- ability to clearly explain complex and unfamiliar matters to others;
- numeracy (there is often a financial element to the role);
- an interest in foreign affairs.
Pre-entry experience is not essential but it can put you at an advantage in the competitive application process. The FCO tends to run several work experience programmes each year, which include:
- Civil Service Fast Stream Summer Diversity Internship Programme - for candidates from a black or an ethnic minority background, or who are socio-economically disadvantaged or have a disability.
- Government Economic Service Summer Student Placement Scheme - for economics students who are considering a career in the Government Economic Service (GES).
Any experience that shows you have skills in project management, economics, accountancy, contract management and managing change will be useful.
The only employer for this role is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which is based in London and overseas.
The variety of the work of the Diplomatic Service is large and comes into play whenever British interests have an international dimension.
The Diplomatic Service works in association with other government departments and agencies including the:
Specialist diplomatic posts for economics graduates are also offered by the Government Economic Service (GES).
The role offers the chance to travel, live and work in many different countries but you will be based at the FCO's UK offices for the first two years of your career, while you gain an overview of the work of the service.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Civil Service Fast Stream - you must select Diplomatic Service under the generalist category of the online application system.
- Fast Stream: Government Economic Service - for those who want to work as an economist in the Diplomatic Service.
- Civil Service Job Search
Vacancy information is produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Recruitment freezes may sometimes be in place, meaning you can only enter the Diplomatic Service via specialist programmes.
The Civil Service has a strong commitment to training and developing its employees. All entrants complete an induction course that introduces them to the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Diplomatic Service.
Your first two years will be spent in Whitehall in London and will be structured as follows:
- first year - policy delivery, which covers handling relations with other countries, dealing with security and defence issues and working to improve human rights abroad.
- second year - service delivery, which involves working in consular departments helping distressed overseas British nationals. You may have the option in the second year to study a language such as Mandarin or Arabic.
This work in the first two years will lead you on to an overseas posting, which lasts for three or four years. You will work in one of the FCO embassies, high commissions or consulates.
You are encouraged to carry out professional development throughout your career, which can include training in IT and foreign languages. Good facilities are available to develop these skills.
Once you have accepted an overseas posting, you will be given intensive tuition in any necessary language to get you up to the right level. You will also receive 'pre-post training', which covers specific skills needed for that particular post.
Learning on the job is an important part of developing your knowledge of the way the Diplomatic Service operates. The ability to take on new information and deal with different situations is important for work both in the UK and overseas.
The training and development process also involves annual appraisals for both development and salary purposes.
If you have entered through the Civil Service Fast Stream programme, your first two years in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are clearly structured.
You will spend the first year working in policy delivery and the next year in service delivery. The exact nature of the roles will vary depending on your entry skills and business needs.
Following this your career will be made up of many overseas postings. It is likely that half of your career will be spent in London and half abroad.
When planning overseas postings, you will be able to state your preferences against a list of available roles and the FCO will try to match your request with the needs of the office.
With 270 diplomatic posts in 160 countries throughout the world, the scope for postings is very broad. The majority of overseas jobs involve working in the missions on consular, management and immigration-focused work.
However, opportunities are also available to work on information, political and commercial projects. Postings vary to ensure that you develop a wide range of skills required for the job.
Roles are focused in three main categories:
- policy expertise and analysis;
- operational delivery;
- corporate services.
Career development will involve gaining experience of at least two of these areas. Progression to senior management in the FCO will normally require you to have developed skills in all three. There are opportunities to gain experience in all these areas at operational level.
Promotion is not automatic and depends on merit, individual performance and the availability of posts. On average, operational officers can expect to spend four to five years in this grade before promotion.
Longer term, there are many opportunities to develop an interesting and varied career.