Amit Thapar

Senior Policy Advisor, Department for Exiting the European Union

Guest blogger for Leigh Turner

Part of UK in Austria

5th February 2019 Vienna, Austria

Shadowing in the FCO: One week in Vienna

Guest blog by Amit Thapar, Senior Policy Advisor, Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU​)

Last autumn I participated in the cross-Whitehall Senior Civil Service shadowing scheme for Grade 6/7 BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) civil servants, which allows for BAME staff at G6/7 to shadow a senior colleague in order to gain insight into leadership at the top of the Civil Service. I was thrilled to be chosen to shadow Leigh Turner, HM Ambassador & UK Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna.

Whilst my current role in DExEU’s International Agreements Unit (the team responsible for coordinating Whitehall’s work to transition existing nuclear, trade, aviation and other agreements) is international-facing, I have never worked abroad. I therefore jumped at the opportunity to see an embassy in action and went into the week with three key goals:

  1. To understand what the different roles within an embassy, in particular the Ambassador, do on a daily basis
  2. To learn how different senior colleagues seek to deliver most effectively, and;
  3. To develop my own interest in pursuing a career in the diplomatic service.

This rest of this blog focuses on the first of those goals, where one advantage of going to Austria was that the UK had not just one but three ambassadors based there; Leigh Turner, Dave Hall and Sian MacLeod. As such I was able to see the full breadth of activity carried out across both bilateral and multilateral missions/delegations. Shadowing primarily Leigh, in five days I was able to; attend a series of senior strategy meetings; meet with interested parliamentarians from the Austrian National Council, a significant media influencer, and the Japanese ambassador; and attend a lunch of interested parties to UN reform.

I observed the balance required between external engagements, maintaining strong relationships with Whitehall, and demonstrating leadership and visibility within the office, including for both real and fake crises. A crisis exercise on day five was certainly a new experience and I was thankful that no actual avalanches involving ministers happened during the week… Shadowing for a full week meant that most importantly I was not only watching Leigh and his colleagues, but also had the time to discuss my observations with them and learn how each individual engagement, and each person at post, helped achieve the embassy’s broader objectives.

Not having any experience working in the diplomatic service meant that, what may be routine for some of you reading this, was an insightful, new experience to me; from the formalities of engagement in multilateral fora, to the attention paid to external events and ‘art gallery diplomacy’. Although it left me slightly fearful of my lack of knowledge of the arts world, I became much more conscious of the cultural opportunities, networking, and soft power offered by the latest gallery opening, and most importantly the value in identifying an ‘excuse’ to engage!

On the multilateral side, Dave and Sian helped me to attend meetings of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) EU Heads of Missions (HoMs), the OSCE Permanent Council, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). EU HoMs was a somewhat surprising experience as I definitely wasn’t expecting Word 2010 on a projector, with 28 ambassadors trying to squeeze in an edit on tracked changes. Similarly, between the grandstanding and the laudatory statements the IAEA and UN plenary sessions were very interesting to observe.

My week shadowing Leigh in Vienna was a vital experience to have access to people and experiences I would otherwise never have seen and have the time to observe and then discuss in detail how diplomacy is delivered in the 21st century. I left with confidence in my knowledge of the role of HMG abroad, a clear determination to understand where my career path and the diplomatic service would best intertwine, and more certainty than ever that I wanted to, and had the potential to, work abroad for HMG myself.

About Leigh Turner

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of…

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of the UN and other organisations; stories here will reflect that.

About me: I arrived in Vienna in August 2016 for my second posting in this wonderful city, having first served here in the mid-1980s. My previous job was as HM Consul-General and Director-General for Trade and Investment for Turkey, Central Asia and South Caucasus based in Istanbul.

Further back: I grew up in Nigeria, Exeter, Lesotho, Swaziland and Manchester before attending Cambridge University 1976-79. I worked in several government departments before joining the Foreign Office in 1983.

Keen to go to Africa and South America, I’ve had postings in Vienna (twice), Moscow, Bonn, Berlin, Kyiv and Istanbul, plus jobs in London ranging from the EU Budget to the British Overseas Territories.

2002-6 I was lucky enough to spend four years in Berlin running the house, looking after the children (born 1992 and 1994) and doing some writing and journalism.

To return to Vienna as ambassador is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope this blog reflects that.