UK wants to hire business leaders as ambassadors

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to open ambassador roles to a wider range of candidates (file photo).

London (CNN)The UK wants to hire ambassadors from the private sector in a dramatic shift that could install corporate executives in key diplomatic posts.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will announce the move in a speech later Wednesday. He is expected to frame the change as part of a broader effort to expand the country's diplomatic network.
"The strength of our network is its professionalism, which has given us what I believe is the finest diplomatic service in the world. But we must never close our eyes to the approaches and skills of other industries," Hunt will say during the speech in London.
    Hunt will announce 12 new posts and nearly 1,000 new personnel in the largest expansion of the diplomatic corps in "a generation." The UK Foreign Office says there will be 335 new diplomatic posts overseas, 328 new roles in London and 329 new locally engaged staff.
    Unlike in the US, UK ambassadors have traditionally been selected only from the ranks of the civil service. The announcement heralds a departure from that practice.
    The US is unusual in that certain ambassadorial posts are often given to political donors, some of whom have no experience in diplomacy or government.
    The current US ambassador to the UK is Woody Johnson, a businessman and owner of the New York Jets football team. Johnson helped raise money for President Donald Trump's campaign and donated to his inaugural committee.
    The news was met in the UK with skepticism and concerns about potential political cronyism.
    Dave Penman, general secretary of the civil servant trade union FDA, said in a tweet that diplomats receive years of training because representing the UK abroad is about more than just trade.
    "Diplomats are made, not born & the UK's interests are best served by a professional diplomatic service," he said.
    Speaking to BBC Radio on Wednesday, Hunt said "there will be absolutely no conflict of interest allowed and anyone applying for these jobs will apply through normal foreign office processes."
    Peter Westmacott, who was British ambassador to the US, France and Turkey, told CNN that opening up the applications to business leaders could be a good way of trying to draw upon the best available talent.
    "I agree with others who have said that if we are doing this, we should not go down the route of cronyism which sometimes you've had in America when money or friendship have counted more than talent," Westmacott said.
    "It has to be done on a basis of careful assessment of the credibility of the candidates in open competition. If they're the best, then that's just fine. There's a lot to be said for having more diversity of background, and for bringing business experience to the conduct of diplomacy, especially but not only where UK business interests are at stake."
      Westmacott said that the Foreign Office had already opened itself up to applicants from other areas of government, such as the intelligence services.
      "If there are business leaders out there with the skills and commitment, the willingness to take what is probably a big pay cut, and who love the idea of representing their country abroad, I think that's fine. I welcome the idea," he said.