Winning the 2012 Olympics, being a female leader in government, and working with Tessa Jowell: Lunch with Dame Sue Street

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 30 November 2018 in Culture
Culture

The former permanent secretary of the culture department chews the fat with Suzannah Brecknell

Photography by Simon Tupper

Who? Dame Sue Street served as permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport between 2001 and 2006 – overseeing London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics as well as a BBC Charter renewal and the early stages of building the new Wembley Stadium. She joined the civil service in 1974, working in the Home Office, before taking a career break to work for the British Council in Colombia. She later spent time in the Cabinet Office and on secondment to PwC, before taking on a series of senior roles in the Home Office. Since leaving the civil service she has held non-executive roles at HMRC and the Ministry of Justice and is a trustee of the Royal Opera House, governor of the Royal Ballet, and an associate fellow of the Institute for Government.

The restaurant

The National Portrait Gallery Restaurant: Elegant seasonal food in an airy room commanding views across Trafalgar square

The menu

Starter: White gazpacho, toasted almonds, membrillo

Main: Lancashire cheese and fine herb twice baked soufflé, bobby beans, datterini tomatoes

We drank: Sparkling water

We discussed

Her first day in the civil service

I came in as an administration trainee at the Home Office. I was shown into a vast office in what’s now the FCO. I sat opposite my boss, who asked me to draft a speech for the minister to give to magistrates exhorting them to grant bail more often because prisons were overcrowded with prisoners on remand. I had no idea what to do so overnight in desperation really – I don’t know what got into me – I wrote a limerick about it. The message of the limerick was: ‘I don’t know how to do this’ and it got us off to good start because he was amused and realised it hadn’t been a fair task.

Her proudest moments as a civil servant

There was a very proud moment when I first came to the culture department, although it was not down to me personally. We were introducing free entry to museums and galleries. It’s been the most incredible success, it’s wonderful for tourism, and when in tough times – during the Iraq war, certainly after 9/11 – the footfall in museums and galleries has increased because people look for solace or something about the human endeavour they can be proud of, so that’s a great thing. It demonstrates that good public policy on culture is about access to excellence, not just fun.

Then there was the day that we won the Olympic bid, right here in Trafalgar Square. My staff literally threw me in the air, it was a wonderful day.

The one that I am proudest of personally was when I was the director of fire and emergency planning for the Home Office. In the way of the generalist civil service I knew nothing about the fire service. I began to learn, and with tremendous help from the then chief inspector of fire services, we basically switched resources from response to prevention in a big way. We had to take money away from buying new engines, but a £350,000 fire engine buys a lot of £6 smoke alarms.

Within three years we’d halved the number of deaths in the home from fire: that’s hundreds of lives saved as a result of a rational policy approach and, for me, a big personal leadership role.

How she approached that role

I started by demonstrating a lot of respect for the fire service. I went through the fire training, I visited virtually all local fire services, I talked to lots of people. Before then, I think, they were used to more traditional civil service leaders: we’d been seen as mandarins behind a desk redrafting parliamentary questions. And of course I was a woman in a man’s world so I had to just decide to be quite a public leader: I was in every issue of the fire service magazine. It was all quite new for me, but I decided unless I respected them and they respected me, I would never be able to persuade them in my own style. I certainly couldn’t tell them because it wasn’t an operations role.

Being a female leader when there were even fewer in government

I think it absolutely behoves very senior women to be happy and to look happy. There’s a temptation to say “Oh I’ve made so many sacrifices”, or “I was so exceptional; only I could have done that”. I think that’s completely wrong, and a betrayal of what we need to say to young women which is: give it a go, do your best. As you rise higher the pressures are greater but the quality of the staff working for you is also greater and it’s wonderful privilege: just go for it.

What makes a good secretary of state

All the secretaries of state that I’ve served have been competent and able to do the job. The ones that really distinguish themselves are more statesman or stateswoman like. They look at the needs of the citizen, they master the principles of good government, they take a longer view of what they’re trying to do. They’re more secure in themselves and less affected by the headlines of the day. They are genuinely interested in different ways of looking at things, and concerned to understand why everybody doesn’t share their point of view. It can be invidious to mention names, but I think it’s fair to mention Willie Whitelaw, who was a remarkably wise man in so many ways, and also Jack Straw who is both a lawyer and a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. He had an ability to look at the law and the numbers, to be genuinely intellectually on top of the big brief, and I have huge respect not just for him, but for others who were able to really master both the letters and numbers, if you like.

What makes a good perm sec

There are many different ways of discharging the role but your integrity has to be unquestioned, unquestionable, absolutely the backbone of everything you do. With that goes fairness, courage, a commitment to serve the government of the day, a commitment to get things done, not to be the old fashioned caricature of the mandarin. You can be fiercely intellectual and clever but unless you advance the agenda of the government of the day, and make a difference for citizens, what are you for?

People want to feel that their perm sec cares about them as people, and the only way you create that feeling is by showing care for your staff, paying attention and have ways to find out what’s going on in your department. You can never observe enough. You need to get out and about, and get close to the citizens whose lives are affected by what the department is doing. It’s quite a tall order. You’ve got to believe it’s worthwhile, enjoy it and put all your heart into it as well as your head.

A letter she wrote to The Times about Baroness Jowell

I wrote that letter not because Tessa was ill, though of course I knew she was, but because it was at a time when ministers were being openly critical of civil servants in a way I’d never seen before: accusing them of having a bias, accusing the Treasury of making up figures. I’ve heard people be impatient with the civil service, I’ve been impatient myself – but I think the debate risks becoming more poisonous than it has been, which is not conducive to good government.

Dame Sue’s letter to The Times

Sir,

Given the present poor climate between ministers and civil servants, I would like to pay tribute to Tessa Jowell, who was my secretary of state throughout my five years as the permanent secretary of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. We certainly had differences of opinion and frank discussions on the issues of the time, from the renewal of the BBC charter after the resignation of both its chairman and director-general in the fallout from the Hutton report, to the building of the new Wembley stadium and the bid for the 2012 Olympics.

But Baroness Jowell ensured that I and all civil servants at DCMS could give our best advice based on the evidence without fear or favour.

While expecting the highest standards internally, she explicitly said to the press, public and parliament that she took full responsibility for her decisions and that civil servants who could not defend themselves publicly were not to be blamed publicly. The result was a cohort of dedicated civil servants speaking truth to power – and totally loyal to a stateswoman who earned that loyalty every day.

Dame Sue Street

How Jowell created an atmosphere where officials could give advice without fear or favour

She received difficult advice in the spirit in which it was given. She understood that it was either to protect her or ensure that what she wanted would be done in the right way. You have to be a very big person to do that when you are not being told what you want to hear. Hopefully my approach helped in that process: we understood each other, and we quite often thrashed things out between us thoroughly, so that they ended well.

Tessa was a politician to her fingertips. She loved politics; she loved party politics, but she also loved that I was impartial, that I wasn’t a party political animal. It was a symbiosis.

Reports that she quit DCMS on bad terms with Jowell

That was a complete fallacy. Tessa had been through an investigation about some financial affairs which was an incredibly stressful time for all of us because I was part of conducting the investigation – something which wouldn’t happen now. She was completely exonerated, but it was soon after that that I decided to retire. Somehow the press concocted this story that I was leaving because of her conduct. It was completely and utterly false. The truth was that after we won the Olympic bid in 2005 I thought, ‘“there needs to be continuity now until 2012.” I didn’t want to be driving that single issue and I didn’t have the background in construction. I do think you have to play to your strengths and I had wider interests to pursue. So I decided that the summer of 2006 would be the graceful time to go.

Bidding for the Olympic Games

At the beginning it was a very difficult time: at the early stages of the Iraq war, and it seemed wrong to be asking Cabinet to think about whether we should bid. So it was a long rocky road to get to winning the bid. The best thing we did was to appoint Seb Coe to lead the bid. I don’t know if he would say this but I observed that he seemed to address it like a race: nothing was too big or too small for him to pay attention to, as long as the goal was winning the bid and then later delivering the games. Truly inspirational.

The day we won was 6 July 2005 and the next day the [7/7] bombs went off. It is an abiding symbol to me of being a permanent secretary: you meet with ‘triumph and disaster’ and you do what you need to do on the day.

Her hardest job

Although I learnt the most from being perm sec at the culture department, the hardest role was probably DG of criminal justice policy in the Home Office. I was fine with the policy, I could do that but it sort of bled into operations and it dealt with dangerous offenders, those with mental disorders, or women offenders, young offenders... there was so much human tragedy. They were damaged, they did damage to others: it was a collection of human misery and I found it hard coming to terms with their lives going forward and those of their victims.

How she coped with that emotional challenge

I struggled. Perhaps I would have benefitted from a coach at that time: I had a coach when I was a perm sec and that really helped but it actually wasn’t as hard in some ways. So I just, you know, put my collar up and got on with it. I had a young family and that was very positive. I always found it wonderful to go home and know I could do something constructive and useful. Overall, a happy family life has been my touchstone and the key to enjoying a demanding career.

Civil service capability

I do find it faintly depressing that it’s the same skills and aptitudes that have been lacking since I first started looking at this in 1989 when my own career was accelerated by a three-year secondment to the private sector. We still need more hard-headed commercial and delivery skills. The civil service attracts highly intelligent people, still greatly needed, who love ideas and abstract thinking. But that direct drive to manage big programmes of work within time, quality and cost constraints remains a secondary characteristic, so we need a much better balance and mix. There is certainly a drive to achieve this now so I hope it succeeds

Resilience

I was recently at a seminar with a business leader and we were asked to what we attribute our success. We both chose “resilience”. I can’t overstate its importance, and I think you must build it early in the pipeline of people that you’re hoping will become leaders.

To be resilient you need to believe in what you do, have that sense of perspective – knowing that actually very few things are life and death – to feel that there is support available, and that you have been given training and development to do what is being asked of you. I think we can build it and we ought to: for everybody’s good.

If you don’t build that resilience early, you’ll get very fragile people at the top of organisations. People who are all about status and have lost a sense of purpose. They worry about losing their status, whereas if they focus more on what they are trying to achieve, they will feel more passionate about what they are doing and people will feel inspired to follow them.

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Suzannah Brecknell
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Suzannah Brecknell is the co-editor of Civil Service World

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