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Reflections on a Civil Service career

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Portrait of Sue Owen

Events are arguably more important in the Civil Service than in most jobs. You have to be ready for anything. In my case, that included dealing with protestors throwing rotten tomatoes at the Chancellor; getting the RAF to chase off low-flying aircraft that were ruining a meeting; and welcoming my sixth Secretary of State in 5 years at 30 minutes’ notice.

I joined the Civil Service 30 years ago, after a decade in academia. My research on the distribution of unemployment spells, and on the implications of women’s lower lifetime earnings, had brought me in close contact with the Department of Health & Social Security (now the Department for Work & Pensions), and it seemed a government role afforded a much better opportunity to effect real policy change. A varied career followed, first as a government economist, and then in leadership roles.

During 14 years at HM Treasury, I worked under Chancellors Lawson, Lamont, Clarke and Brown. It’s not unusual there to move around a lot: I was involved in the macro forecast, on labour market spending, on Germany after we fell out of the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism), and on Europe from 1995 to 1998. In that last role I helped the new Labour government run the EU presidency. This included the UK chairing the meetings that launched the euro; resolving the competition between Trichet and Duisenberg to chair the embryonic European Central Bank; and the European Council that selected the countries eligible to join the euro.

Extraordinary time in the US

Then, for a complete change, I worked in No. 10, recommending two weeks’ paternity leave – something I’m very proud of, because it made a real difference for millions of families. That middle part of my career culminated as counsellor at our embassy in Washington — the only female at that rank or above. I experienced the end of the Clinton presidency, the dead-heat 2000 presidential election, and the start of the George W. Bush presidency. The job ranged widely, from advising on control of teenage pregnancy to regulation of over-the-counter derivatives, and a monthly letter to the Bank of England. Basically, you needed to know who to ring. And, of course, I was there for 9/11, an extraordinary time to be in the United States.

Return to the Treasury

In the final third of my career I moved from jobs where you do the work, into leadership roles, where everyone knows more detail than you about everything, but only you know how it all fits together.

So, I returned to the Treasury in 2002 to lead the ‘five tests’ work on whether to join the euro. The decision not to do so was universally acclaimed as correct. While politics were important, the economics were clear, and several of my European counterparts wished they had at least done the analysis to know what was coming. In that job I also managed the national debt. It was so low at that time that we were able to launch the first index-linked 50-year government bond in 2005.

Portrait image of Dame Sue Owen
Dame Sue Owen

Bad moments and easy wins

After that, I was promoted to a chief operating officer role at the Department for International Development (DFID). I worried about a range of issues, from the way our £10 billion aid budget was spent, to the safety of our staff, most of whom are locally hired.

There were several bad moments. They included the kidnap of five members of staff in the Ethiopian desert; visiting a school in North Pakistan and realising the lookout guard at the back of the jeep we were riding in had a gun inside his tunic; and protecting our gay staff in Uganda.

There were some fascinating easy wins, too, such as how to control teacher absenteeism in remote schools? The solution was to give the kids a camera that records the date on every image. And how to get girls to school? Dig some latrines.

Continuing the large money theme, I moved to DWP – which has 90,000 people and a £200 billion budget – working for three years with Ian Duncan Smith on his reform of the welfare state. (It’s little-known that his Labour predecessors had contemplated something similar.) That role involved overseeing one of the most important government behavioural economics ‘nudges’ – ‘automatic’ enrolment into private pensions, where inertia means most stay in their scheme.

Increasing staff engagement

I was promoted in October 2013 to Permanent Secretary at the then Department for Culture, Media & Sport. My leadership challenge there was existential – how to justify a department of, at that time, around 380 people, with a staff engagement score of 45%, the lowest of all government departments? Happily, we are now at 1,200 staff, and enjoy 70% staff engagement, just behind Treasury and DFID. We did this by consolidating all the digital, technology, data and data protection policy from several departments into DCMS, as well as responsibility for civil society.

Accordingly, we are now the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Just as important for me was establishing a values-based, no-blame culture in which everyone is respected, and that affords all staff total responsibility for their work, knowing that others will help if something goes wrong. We now have the highest rate of inclusion in the annual Civil Service People Survey.

Social policy frontline

Our strapline is “driving growth, enriching lives, and promoting Britain to the world”. The domestic and global economies have changed beyond all recognition during my career. Indeed, creative industries now have a power that heavy industry and manufacturing would have envied, even in their heyday. The sectors we are responsible for account for 15% of the UK economy, including the fastest-growing sectors, and 25% of businesses.

But the “enriching lives” aspect matters just as much, and we are at the social policy frontline.

The work of DCMS has a demonstrably beneficial impact on health, crime levels, education, and employment. High-speed broadband in rural areas increases access to work for marginalised people, and digital progress generally enables more to work from home.

Then there are the personal, more intrinsic or ‘wellbeing’ benefits from participating in our sectors, be it sport, the arts, or World War 1 commemoration. We are also concerned with new areas of social protection such as internet safety and gambling addiction.

DCMS is responsible for great institutions, such as our national museums, galleries and theatres, and for the Premier League
and the BBC, which all enhance our ‘soft’ power and Britain’s reputation abroad, which will be even more important beyond EU Exit.

Change and improvement

So what has changed over the course of my career in government? I would pick out a number of things.

First, flatter departmental structures and devolution of responsibility. There is less checking and double checking, which is good, as it makes jobs more interesting. However, to work better, government requires an inclusive culture – which I shall return to.

Second, much better use of evidence, with analysts and experts integrated in policy teams. Indeed, there is greater professionalism all round. We have true finance experts, not generalists, in charge of the money; commercial experts doing procurement; programmes led by experienced senior responsible owners; and delivery folk involved in policy formulation at an
early stage, rather than as an afterthought.

Third, Permanent Secretaries have far more varied career backgrounds. I’ve personally worked in six departments, and only a couple of my colleagues are departmental ‘lifers’. Most of us now have some outside experience, too.

Fourth, I would say leadership. There is much better appreciation that leaders with emotional intelligence are more likely to get the best from their people, to get along with ministers, and help the Civil Service cope with uncertainty and seismic change.

Diversity shift

And last, not least, and particularly close to my heart, diversity, which I championed throughout my career. Happily, the dial has really shifted, with a realisation that diversity and inclusion is about better policy, good customer service, and the improved performance that staff who feel valued will give.

When I joined the Senior Civil Service in 1995, it was 16% female – now it’s 44%. I had a female line manager for just one year in 30, but the chances of that happening now are remote. In recent times, I have rarely attended a meeting dominated by men; and meetings of the Permanent Secretaries are now generally 30% female. We have far to go on other aspects of diversity, but we appreciate the need for change.

People ask what I did personally to effect some of that change. There are a few things I would point to. First, presenting senior leaders with the data on diversity, and mining the data to destruction. Second, championing a group I wasn’t part of. As straight ally to the LGBTi community, I persistently turned up to their events and spoke on their behalf. And third, focusing on the whole Civil Service career pipeline, not just the section leading to roles at the very senior level. If all ethnic minority staff aspire to roles one grade above the one they currently fill, we can change things for other underrepresented groups, as we have for women.

As you were

And what hasn’t changed? British ambivalence towards Europe. Back in 1998, and where I began this article, we had the tomato-throwing protestors opposed to the Maastricht Treaty and determined to wreck the EU Finance Ministers’ informal meeting in York. Now, 20 years on, my sixth Secretary of State arrived just a few hours after Boris Johnson resigned over the Prime Minister’s proposed approach to EU Exit.

Plus ça change...

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  1. Comment by Paul Summers posted on

    Really interesting Reflections by Dame Sue Owen

  2. Comment by Justine Chamberlain posted on

    Good article, an interesting read about a varied career.