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An interview with Antonia Romeo, Permanent Secretary, Department for International Trade

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Head and shoulders portrait of Antonia Romeo, Permanent Secretary, Department of International Trade
Antonia Romeo, Permanent Secretary, Department for International Trade

How is DIT shaping the UK's role in the world, and what is it doing that wasn't done before?

DIT will be three years old this summer. We were set up in 2016 with a remit covering all trade and investment promotion, trade policy, opening up international markets and championing free trade around the world. As well as meaning we have a Secretary of State who is focusing solely on global trade, it also means for the first time we have a department that brings together both a network across the UK and a network across the world, joining up exporters and investors with opportunities end to end.

It also means that we have, in one department, the ability to talk to business, and to use that feedback directly to influence policy. For example, we can align our trade policy with what business wants and needs. The key thing is, as we are opening up markets overseas, that we only open up markets where British business will benefit from that market access.

We provide a full range of services on trade: we can do government-to-government intervention at the top level, and provide government solutions to help small and medium-size businesses. We essentially act as a joint venture with business, and we open markets for business to trade through. That’s what it’s all about – real exports, creating real jobs and lower prices for consumers.

Do you think there is an awakening going on in the UK? Some businesses are starting to see that there are opportunities out there. How can we encourage people who don’t see themselves as exporters, but do have the potential?

‘Encourage’ is one of the strands of our Export Strategy, which has the ambition to increase the amount of GDP that comes from exports to 35%. We do need both to encourage more companies to export, and also make it easier for them to export through improved market access.

We also need to focus on those companies that just want to grow, no matter where they are selling their products. That’s why we also work with intermediaries, like marketplaces, where a company can sell its products in the marketplace, no matter if it’s to China, Latin America or Bournemouth.

Could you take us through the journey of DIT, from its creation to now?

The department was created following the EU Exit referendum in 2016. Essentially, there were four components of the department: the organisation UK Trade & Investment (UKTI); a small group of about 40 doing trade policy in what was formerly the Business, Innovation and Skills department; the GREAT campaign; and UK Export Finance.

I started in this new job in March 2017. The story of my first 18 months was building up the leadership and capability of the department, working with the brilliant team in place.

I had three priorities on day one: work with the ministers on setting the strategy; developing the leadership capability to deliver it; and re-aligning the department to prepare for the challenge ahead. My particular focus was on building capability, both on
trade policy and leadership. We brought in Crawford Falconer, DIT’s Second Permanent Secretary and Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser; three new Directors-General; and appointed nine ‘Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioners’ [HMTCs] across the world, leading on all trade, investment and trade policy in-market. We also built up our DIT trade policy capability to 500-strong (from 40), and created a Global Strategy Directorate to help align our prosperity work with wider global security and stability activity.

Another crucial element of our approach is ‘One DIT’. Our USP is the ability to join up an exporter in Birmingham with an export opportunity in Canada. To do that, you need a system that functions from end to end. This is partly about how people work together, designing the digital ability for people to communicate better, no matter where they are based. But it is mostly about the culture: we consider collaboration – the spirit of working together – a crucial part of our culture in DIT.

Overall, we’ve gone from about 2,500 to 3,800 people over three years. I’m really proud of what we’ve done as a team.

Antonia Romeo during the interview

Tell us something about how your experience informs what you are doing here, at DIT

I have been involved in quite a few machinery-of-government changes during my 19 years in the Civil Service. I was Principal Private Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs when the Ministry of Justice was created from our merger with part of the Home Office. I had seen a few times what worked and what didn’t in various government departments. And prior to that, in my early career in the private sector, I worked on several best-practice mergers and integration, particularly in financial services.

Getting it right isn’t an enigma. There are known things that make a success in delivering change. In particular, in bringing a new organisation together, setting the culture is the most important thing. There are also a lot of processes to get right. And much of it is about leadership.

The first thing I focused on was building the senior leadership of the department, and working together in our Executive Committee and Directors group. We now have a lot of great leadership and development initiatives, many of which have come from building the right leadership cadre.

I often say DIT is a joint venture with business. We have a large number of colleagues recruited from the private sector, particularly in our sector teams. If you want to talk to business, you need people who really understand business. Nothing we do on trade is going to make a difference to the real economy unless a business decides to invest or export as a result of a change in trade policy. To do that, we need to have a strong relationship with business and understand what businesses really want. Business is enthusiastic to have a department dedicated to helping it invest and trade, and it’s important there is join-up.

Antonia Romeo talking during magazine interview

This is a department that is all about the future. You have created a whole new international trade profession as well. What can you tell us about that?

The International Trade Profession, which is led by Crawford [Falconer], was launched in May 2018 and goes much wider than just DIT. It now includes more than 2,800 people, from across Whitehall.

It is the first time in 40 years that we in the UK are going to be negotiating our own independent trade policy. Creating the International Trade Profession is about building up the muscle that will allow us to open up markets and make a success of these negotiations. This is completely new. We used to rely on the EU to do it. Now, we are going to have to be very effective in negotiating our own agreements. The new profession aims to raise the skills of those working and aspiring to work in international trade, by providing innovative learning and development, and training opportunities including negotiation simulations.

Image from space of the United Kingdom at night, showing light from major conurbations and with shafts of light in red, white and blue emanating from the land mass

What about joint working in Whitehall?

DIT is a department that will succeed only if we collaborate across Whitehall. We work very closely with a range of departments, from HMT, BEIS, DCMS and DExEU, to DfID and FCO overseas, in order to deliver the Government’s trade agenda.

The future economy is increasingly an international economy. We have got to understand what it means to trade in the world, building up a full suite of tools we have across the whole of government, to promote global Britain, and project the UK overseas. This includes using ‘Fusion’ principles and the ‘Strategic Framework’ across the whole of Whitehall in support of government trade objectives.

How is the department approaching issues of diversity and inclusion?

This is an area where I think Whitehall is best in class. The Civil Service’s aspiration and ambition to be the most diverse and inclusive organisation in the country by 2020 is a great ambition, and one I think we will achieve.

I’ve put inclusion at the heart of our mission, and the ‘DIT Spirit’ – ‘Expert, Enterprising, Engaged and Inclusive’. I want DIT to be the most inclusive department in Whitehall. To do this, I have shamelessly stolen diversity and inclusion best practice that I have seen work in other departments. One of the main success factors is for the leadership to talk about inclusion and its importance to the mission. I believe that if you’re the leader and you talk about something, it sends a strong signal that shows how important it is to you and the organisation.

We have 12 diversity networks, which are all staff-run. We focus on celebrating staff successes, but also talk about areas where we need to improve. I am also Gender Champion in the Civil Service, a role I recently took over from Melanie Dawes [Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government].

In DIT’s Women’s Network, we talk a lot about the ‘transition blackhole’, which is the transition between a long period of leave, such as maternity leave, and being back at work after that leave. On disability, we talk about things like workplace adjustments, which are so important, and making sure people know where they need to go. We are running specific targeted actions and networks through the different parts of the organisation, and we actively share best practice between them.

Could you say why HM Trade Commissioners are important?

Before DIT existed, in UKTI, there was already a network of excellent people working overseas and talking to business. But we didn’t have a regional approach. The HMTCs oversee nine regions across the world, and they have deep expertise in their regions. Each HMTC leads an international network focusing on economic and commercial issues, and is responsible for trade promotion, export opportunities and investment in their region.

Having nine HMTCs covering the globe is great, as you can bring them all into one room, around one table, and have a great
and insightful conversation on business issues across the world. The regional approach allows this depth of knowledge at that critical strategic level.

The appointment of HMTCs shows DIT’s commitment to its overseas operations and the importance of Britain’s international trade and economic relationships. British businesses say they love the model.

Is DIT ready for a no-deal Brexit?

We are planning all the time, for multiple scenarios. We will be ready when we leave the EU, no matter when it comes. If you work in trade negotiations, you are used to operating in both certainty and uncertainty, and using those as part of the approach. Working in uncertain times is in our DNA.

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