Sue Owen interview: the DCMS perm sec on her small department with big ideas

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 13 March 2017 in Interview
Interview

With staff numbers and responsibilities growing, DCMS is undergoing something of a renaissance. Permanent secretary Sue Owen tells Suzannah Brecknell about the importance of leadership, the value of culture, and the power of music

In 2009, 84 pupils at Faith Primary School in Liverpool were each given a musical instrument. They and their teachers were also given daily music lessons with the Royal Liverpool Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the start of a project which now provides free music lessons to over 700 children in West Everton, one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool. 

“Over three years maths scores doubled, reading scores have doubled, [and] crime in the area is down,” explains Sue Owen, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. She breaks into a smile as she elaborates. “Previously warring parents have married, social harmony has broken out, and arguments in the playground are not about football but about bowing technique.” 

She’s exaggerating, but only slightly. Annual evaluations of the scheme have found not only improvements in academic achievement and attendance at the school, but shown that pupil wellbeing has risen, as has families’ sense of engagement with the school. 


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The “In Harmony” project was originally funded by the Arts Council – one of DCMS’s  arm’s-length bodies – and the Department for Education. More recently, funding has come from a number of charitable foundations and institutions. Owen is telling this story to illustrate the value of culture and its power to deliver unexpected results. “It’s a great example of where a bit of investment in culture has actually delivered on the objectives of the education department,” she says. 

There are two other ways in which this anecdote reflects Owen’s personality. Firstly, it involves her beloved Liverpool. Owen is a lifelong Everton FC fan, and all of the staff at DCMS (as well as avid CSW readers) know that her father’s ashes are buried under the pitch at the club’s Goodison Park ground. Staff will often start a conversation with her about Everton’s current performance, she says, and this kind of personal connection is an important part of her leadership style. 

Secondly, In Harmony’s success story is backed up by robust evidence: those annual evaluations are part of longitudinal study being carried out by academics at Liverpool University. Owen is a woman who believes in the power of data to build support for policies and objectives and has previously told CSW that her proudest moment as a civil servant was working in the Treasury team which devised the five tests that kept the UK out of the Euro. Apart from helping government to make what has turned out to be the right decision, her pride came from the fact that the evidence garnered support despite the highly-charged topic. “Everybody was really impressed by the quality of the economic argument,” she told CSW in 2014. “Even the people who thought the answer was politically-driven thought the evidence was really good.”

Owen has also seen the power of building consensus through robust evidence thanks to the other roles she holds alongside that of DCMS perm sec. She has been the civil service’s permanent secretary LGBTi champion since 2014 and diversity champion since 2015. Her interest in equality, however, is much longer standing. Before joining the civil service, much of her work as an academic economist focused on women in the labour market, calculating what she calls the “cost of being a woman” through lost earnings and pension contributions. 

“We see quite a lot of opportunities from Brexit, certainly in the digital and tech sector. Our national technology adviser Liam Maxwell, in his dealings with the tech sector, isn’t really noticing any diminution at all in the attractions of Britain as a great place to invest”

In 2008, Owen and a few other senior civil servants began compiling data on the proportion of women in different grades of the civil service. The data, updated each year, has helped to build support and provide evidence – as well as scrutiny – for work to improve the numbers of women holding top posts. The proportion of women in the senior civil service has been slowly rising and now stands at 40%, up from 35% in 2010 and 17% in 1996. 

Owen is not complacent, however, and points to other areas that still require attention. “We’ve still got a long way to go on representation of Black and Minority Ethnic and disabled colleagues in the senior civil service,” she says, adding that disabled staff make up just over 3% of the senior civil service, while BME staff make up just over 4%. “That’s way short of population average – we don’t represent the population we serve at those levels. We’ve got to do something about that.”

While improving support for these groups remains important, those concerned with equality in the civil service have begun to look beyond simply improving representation, she says. “Increasingly we’re thinking not so much about diversity – increasing the representation of some groups – but particularly about inclusion.” (See box). This will involve both reducing rates of bullying and harassment across the service, and ensuring that every civil servant feels included and therefore as engaged as possible with their work. In both areas, the data to show progress can be found in the annual People Survey. Owen suggests that, as with diversity work, success will only come if leaders’ feet are held to the fire. “You need to keep looking at the data,” she says, “but I think you also have to hold people to account, so you should not be rewarding people who continually have poor scores.”


Follow the evidence

Given her understanding of the power of evidence, and the department’s David Mellor era reputation as a somewhat frivolous organisation, it’s not surprising that Owen is keen to develop the evidence base about the value that DCMS brings to the UK. In economic terms it’s increasingly inaccurate to describe the department as the “Ministry of Fun”. Late last year, the Office for National Statistics estimated that the DCMS is responsible for 13.3% of the UK’s GVA – the total value of goods and services produced. Among the sectors it oversees are two (digital and the creative industries) singled out in government’s recent industrial strategy as “world-leading sectors that have high productivity, competitive advantages at a global level, and growth potential”. 

But Owen wants to show the value of culture beyond economic statistics. Early in her tenure as perm sec she commissioned work to explore the deeper value of culture: its impact both on social outcomes and wellbeing.

“There’s a lot of interest from the centre of government in the whole wellbeing agenda,” says Owen. “We’ve been doing a lot of work with Nesta and the Arts and Humanities Research Council; we’ve discussed that work with our own science advisory council and we’re beginning now to be able to actually put some numbers on it, so that’s really helpful.” Though Owen doesn’t discuss the numbers they are now using, a previous DCMS-commissioned study valued the wellbeing boost created by regular library visits at £113 per person per month; sports participation at £94 per month and arts participation at £90 a month. 

Alongside this value for individuals, Owen’s team is keen to measure the impact of investing in culture on broader social objectives. As well as the Faith Primary School example, Owen mentions work that shows the value of culture in improving mental health. Another Liverpool project has been supporting dementia sufferers by taking them to museums to prompt memories and discussions.

“A little bit of investment there is having an effect on health, and that’s increasingly the way forward in government: departments using their influence and not just being in silos, looking downwards,” she says, adding that DCMS is already comfortable with this outward-looking model. “The DCMS business model has always been working through influence and through others,” Owen says, pointing to the fact that most of the department’s delivery work is carried out by its vast range of arm’s-length bodies – 41 in total, employing 32,000 people. The department itself has grown in size in recent years, and Owen says it now has close to 700 members of staff.

Looking across DCMS’s portfolio there are a number of examples where cross-departmental partnership is essential. Responsibility for improving the UK’s cyber skills, for example, requires partnership with the DfE, including its adult education team, as well as GCHQ.

There’s also the work to grow the digital economy in which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will also play a role, or data protection policy, which affects all parts of government (see box). DCMS took on these policies in 2015, as well as responsibility for the National Archives. Last year, the department grew again, absorbing the Office for Civil Society, which was previously based in the Cabinet Office.

The OCS move prompted some controversy. Charity leaders feared that it marked a downgrading of the agenda’s importance for government, and questioned whether the culture department was best placed to continue work on social investment and social enterprises. But in her article for CSW’s 2016 perm secs round up, Owen said the department was discovering “more synergies than we expected” between DCMS and OCS work. 

Some of the connections are quite obvious. Owen notes that responsibility for volunteering through the OCS fits nicely with DCMS’s work to increase participation in sport, for example. The less obvious connections include giving responsibility for libraries – part of the DCMS remit – to civil society minister Rob Wilson. This allows him to develop the role of “libraries as a force for community and social cohesion”, she explains. 

“A lot of museums and galleries are only displaying a fraction of what they own: storage is a huge issue. The Government Art Collection, of all our institutions, probably has the most on display. They’re absolute stars”

And what about those concerns that the department would not be well-placed to develop social financing methods? Owen points to a new “Inclusive Economy Unit” made up of teams from the OCS, which is looking at tools such as social impact bonds that allow commissioners to pay for social outcomes, while the interventions to achieve those outcomes are financed by social investors. “We’re finding that there are lot of these tools that you can use in culture,” she says. “For example we’ve been working on an arts impact bond, and you could easily see that going through to sports finance.” 

A cynic might say this work is about finding ways to fund activities that most people agree are beneficial, but which government no longer has the money or inclination to fund directly. Yet there are signs that the government does recognise the value of the cultural sector and institutions: while DCMS’s administrative budget was cut by 20% in the 2015 spending review, funding to arts and heritage organisations was maintained in cash terms. And just as the creative industries get a mention in the government’s industrial strategy, so too do museums and galleries.  The strategy notes “the importance of cultural and sporting institutions in making different places attractive to people and businesses”. With this in mind, the Cabinet Office is carrying out a review of the location of government bodies and cultural institutions to discover where they could be “better used and exhibited to support local areas – for example, the Government Art Collection.”

But the Government Art Collection – another of DCMS’s arm’s-length bodies – already carries out a number of outreach projects, and lends its collections out as well as supporting government to display artworks in public offices across the world. How much more can we ask of our cultural institutions without giving them more funding, in real terms?

“I think it’s not just what we’re asking [of them], it’s also what they want to do for themselves,” Owen says. “A lot of our museums and galleries are only displaying a fraction of what they own. Storage is a huge issue, so they’re always looking for opportunities for touring, for exhibitions, for lending to other organisations and so on. The Government Art Collection, of all our institutions, probably has the most on display – around 70% – so they’re absolute stars at that.” 

Owen’s role means that she gets to experience the best of British culture as part of the day job – she meets CSW the day after she has attended the opening of the new David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain. Given that being culture perm sec involves so much thinking about “leisure”, does she find it hard to switch off and enjoy leisure activities for their own sake?  “I don’t really switch off,” she says. “I have a job where I could be out every evening, and you have to pace yourself a little bit like that.” But she does make sure that she exercises every day – half an hour of rowing, swimming or cycling.

After three and half years as perm sec, she says the role is “a bit less of a scary job” than it was at the beginning, though her responsibility as accounting officer still seems to cause healthy stress. “That remains incredibly important and probably one of the things that you worry the most about,” she says. But, she adds that it’s just one part of the perm sec’s role. “That’s one of the things that you are the responsible person for, but I think also you are responsible for your staff and for them feeling like they really want to come to work,” she says. “When you can do that, it’s very rewarding.” 


Owen on...
Inclusion
The 2016 People Survey showed 11% of civil servants experienced bullying or harassment in the last year. This figure had actually deteriorated slightly from the 2015 survey (when 10% said they had experienced bullying or harassment), despite cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood’s declared prioritisation of reducing harassment across government.  

More worrying are the figures beneath the overall average: one in four disabled staff experienced bullying or harassment in the year, and they are also likely to be less engaged than their non-disabled colleagues. LGBTi staff feel as engaged with their work as straight colleagues, but tend to report higher rates of bullying and harassment. 

To try and tackle this, a bullying and harassment toolkit has recently been developed which Owen particularly hopes will reduce what she describes as unwitting harassment. “Often people don’t know they’re doing it. It can be due to use of language, it can be unconscious,” she says. 

In other cases, the harassment may be harder to tackle, especially where it is linked to an organisation’s culture or processes. Owen suggests the deepest challenges of this agenda may lie beyond the policy-focused Whitehall departments. 

“It’s important when we’re talking about the inclusion agenda that we are not just focussed on Whitehall,” she says. “Most civil servants are outside of London: the mass of civil servants work in big delivery outfits, very focused on performance. That’s where you can get pockets of homophobia, for example, of people not treating disabled colleagues properly or not thinking properly about mental health issues.” 

All across government, she continues, there is much room for improvement, but leaders must be prepared to keep their focus – but progress will not be fast. “It’s one of those things where you have to keep at it,” she says “You’re just not going to solve this overnight and if the senior leaders, and the leaders at every level, aren’t plugging away at it, it’s not going to be credible.”

Owen on...
Digital and Brexit
As it has expanded from around 400 to nearly 700 staff, DCMS created a new director general post – Whitehall’s first DG for digital. The first digital director general is Matthew Gould, the former British ambassador to Israel and director of cyber security. Gould’s experience in setting up a UK Israel tech hub will come in useful as his remit includes the digital economy as well as overseeing broadband roll-out, digital skills - and cyber security skills, regulation and growth, and the Digital Economy Bill, as well as the department’s media policy encompassing data protection, and the creative industries.

Gould works closely with the government’s national technology adviser Liam Maxwell, who joined the department in 2016 after four years as the government’s chief technology officer, based in the Cabinet Office. Owen says Gould and Maxwell are “spearheading our relationship with [companies like] Google, Amazon, Facebook,” and are bullish about the impact of Brexit on this sector.

“We see quite a lot of opportunities [from Brexit], certainly in the digital and tech sector,” Owen says. “We aren't really noticing any diminution at all in the attractions of Britain as a great place to invest.”

That’s not to say there won’t be challenges as the UK leaves the EU – or, as Owen puts it, “big implications to work through”. 

“We’ve got issues of immigrant labour at the high-skill end and at the less-skilled end, in areas like tourism, so we’re working through all of that,” she says. The department also has responsibility for data protection policy and, as she explains: “Everybody is relying on us to ensure that we are signing up to the new EU General Data Protection Regulation rules, which should then give us some confidence in the future.”

Owen on...
Leadership

Since stepping up to lead DCMS in 2013, Owen says she is more convinced than ever of the importance of good communication and open leadership. She holds regular “town hall” meetings and insists that her senior civil servants also play their part – deputy directors must hold weekly catch-ups with their teams, and twice a year all staff come together at a conference to hear from internal and external speakers. 

Leaders must not only be seen, though. What they are saying matters too: “I’ve learnt that sticking to your values is really, really important,” says Owen. “People need to know who you are, they don’t want to be meeting someone different every time. I’ve also learnt that change is continuing, you just have to adapt to that and you have to help people through it.” 
Owen’s emphasis on leadership and communication seems to have had results: the department’s People Survey engagement scores have risen from 45% in 2012 to 69%. The department has been much lauded for the rise, but surely it’s much easier to build morale in a small, but growing, department where conferences for all staff are possible (imagine trying to get all 30,000 HM Revenue & Customs staff away together). Owen points out that much of what she is doing is based on her time as a senior leader in the Department for Work and Pensions – which currently has more than 50 times more staff than DCMS’s sub-700 figure. 

 “[Permanent secretary] Robert Devereux made a very specific and concerted effort on leadership and that’s had very good results: over a five year period DWP have made huge strides,” she says. “That was based on the same things [as at DCMS] which are regular contact with leaders and recognising that there are leaders at every level. It’s those leaders who need to engage their staff, and you need to ensure people really understand why they’re there, what their job is about. That helps everybody feel more valued.”

 

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is CSW's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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