As she steps down from the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, perm sec Dame Sue Owen talks to Suzannah Brecknell about abrasive behaviours, existential crises, and why she’s no longer planning a sybaritic retirement. Photography by Louise Heywood-Schiefer
When CSW first met Dame Sue Owen in 2008, she was a director general at the international development department and planning to have a “sybaritic life” when she retired, with a spot of non-executive work now and then. But that was many years ago, and things have changed.
Reminded of her plans for an epicurean future just a few weeks before she is due to retire as permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, she laughs. Owen suggests she is now much more focused on using the non-exec and advisory roles to keep on driving change in an area that she feels deeply passionate about: diversity and inclusion, for which she is also the civil service-wide champion. There will be some breaks, of course, but her hedonistic dreams have shifted. She lists clearing the garage and visiting more museums as two things she hopes to do once she’s freed from the daily commute – the sole thing she says she won’t miss about stepping down from the civil service.
And what will she miss as she leaves Whitehall? The people. It’s not a surprising answer, since Owen has spent much of her career trying to ensure her troops feel valued and wanted in their jobs. Improving representation in the civil service, and making it more of an inclusive employer, has been a large part of this. Looking back on the diversity and inclusion work she has helped to drive for many years, what is Owen proudest of? “I’m very proud of the fact that when I joined the Senior Civil Service in 1995, it was 16% female: it is now 44%. We have shifted the dial there,” she says, adding that what made the difference was the fact that senior leaders understood the business case for diversity. “This isn’t being warm and fluffy, and the right thing to do. I mean, it is the right thing to do, but what has shifted the dial is realising that having a more diverse senior leadership means that you’re going to do better policy, you’re going to do better customer service and you’re going to have happier and more productive staff. We need all those things now.”
But alongside the pride, there is frustration. “We haven’t shifted the dial at all on ethnic minority or disabled representation,” she says, while on sexual orientation and social mobility there isn’t enough data yet to be able to even measure progress.
That’s why the representation side of diversity and inclusion work is now focused on supporting BAME and disabled colleagues, and each area has its own challenges. “If you look at the staff survey, colleagues from ethnic minorities are actually very engaged with their work. Our disabled colleagues are less engaged with their work and they feel more bullied and harassed, which our ethnic minority colleagues don’t particularly.” Owen believes there must be work to support “aspiration and confidence” among BAME staff, similar to the work which has helped to move women into more senior positions, but she also acknowledges the challenge of unconscious bias among those making recruitment and promotion decisions.
Unconscious bias is one thing, but in the week we meet, CSW has just received an article from Department for Education director general Emran Mian challenging the civil service to be braver, and ask whether the problem in some areas is actually just straightforward racism. Does Owen think the civil service is good at these tough conversations?
“The civil service as a whole is doing amazing work preparing for EU exit, but it’s testing lots of people’s resilience so it’s even more important to be looking out for how people are coping”
“We’ve got a long way to go,” she says, “although I don’t think there’s overt racism. We’re definitely talking about unconscious bias but, for example, in pretty much every department, when you look at performance management data, the people in the ‘must improve’ end of the distribution are disproportionately from ethnic minorities, for no apparent reason.”
There are practical things to be done, she says – making batch promotions tends to generate more diverse results, for example, and she talks of “some really powerful stuff” happening through reverse mentoring – but there is clearly a long way to go, as the proportion of BAME senior civil servants is just 7.8%, and there has not been a permanent secretary from a BAME background since 2011.
A further challenge, which has occupied Owen in recent months, is the proportion of staff who report in the annual Civil Service People Survey that they have experienced bullying and harassment in the past year. This has remained at around 11% to 12% for the last four years, after rising slightly since the People Survey began in 2009.
In 2018, then cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood commissioned Owen to lead a review into the issue. Her team carried out a survey of some 19,000 civil servants, of whom nearly three-quarters said they had experienced bullying or harassment over the course of their career. Just 42% of respondents said they felt bullying, harassment and misconduct were taken seriously where they worked, while only 46% said they felt appropriate action was taken when bullying was found to have taken place.
“We didn’t find in the survey some great, unreported pit of egregious sexual harassment that other sectors have found,” Owen says, though she acknowledges that no organisation can be complacent about this kind of harassment, which, when it happens is “very, very disturbing and stressful for people”. What the survey did uncover, however, was that much bullying is apparently unintentional – the report draws a distinction between abusive and abrasive behaviours.
“I think that is quite a useful distinction,” Owen says. “If someone’s really stressed, they’ve got to get something done for a minister, and they need it in 20 minutes, very often they’ll shout at someone more junior: ‘Just get this done.’ Whereas if they had said ‘I’m feeling a bit stressed, can you help me get this ready quickly?’ They would have had a totally different impact.”
She encourages those witnessing or experiencing this kind of behaviour to speak to the perpetrator – or a colleague. Often, she says, “they will be mortified if they knew that they’d upset you.”.
“The civil service as a whole is doing amazing work preparing for EU exit, but it is quite a stressful for a lot of people,” she says. “It’s testing lots of people’s resilience, so it’s even more important at the moment to be looking out for how people are coping.”
The survey also found that most instances of bullying took place between civil servants – which Owen points out when asked whether her research should have been extended to include tackling bullying by ministers and special advisers. “We have got the Ministerial Code, which has some quite explicit bits about that,” she says, adding that perm secs are “very alert” to the role they must play in defusing tensions which might cause ministers to act out of line. “Ministers are humans and they have incredibly stressful jobs, and I think it’s incumbent on the very senior people to help absorb any frustration that ministers or spads may have. I’ve had a lot of new special advisers and I always say to them: ‘If you’re really cross about something, come and tell me or one of the DGs; please don’t shout at my staff.’”
The main challenge Owen’s report raised was that many people feel unable to report bullying and harassment, whether for fear of repercussions or because they don’t think it will be taken seriously. Individuals are more willing to tell the People Survey that they have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination than report it directly. On average, only 36% of respondents who had experienced bullying and harassment said that they had also reported it either through informal or formal procedures.
Owen says creating a culture where people can “report poor behaviour without fear of reprisals for themselves” will be crucial. “We need to know how much is going on,” she says. “If we succeed in helping people to feel they can call this behaviour out then we may see for a couple of years the overall rate [of People Survey respondents saying they have reported bullying] going up, but we’ll have challenged the culture and then, we can really work on it going down.”
Asked how the civil service can get better at creating a wider culture of challenge across government, Owen brings things back to the diversity agenda. “If you’ve got a variety of people who think in different ways it is going to be easier to challenge,” she says. Leaders at all levels – including those who may not think of themselves as leaders, such as those running smaller teams – need to support their staff to bring them information about what is and isn’t working. The perm sec also believes that simply creating more connections across departments, such as social clubs or diversity networks, can help people to feel more at ease about mixing, and speaking openly with colleagues.
At DCMS, she says, there is an explicit no-blame culture which helps people to feel they can flag up things that are going wrong. Despite recent rises in staff numbers, she says the department still has relatively small teams working one any given area. “We have to trust everyone to take responsibility for their own work,” she says. “There’s not going to be loads of checking, and occasionally things go wrong in all organisations. People need to feel that there’s not going to be finger-pointing, that other people will come in and help.”
This no-blame culture is part of a wider inclusive atmosphere Owen has aimed to build at DCMS, and ties into the two “turnarounds” she mentions when asked about her achievements as head of the department. Since she joined there has been a marked turnaround in engagement scores. In 2012, just before her appointment, DCMS engagement was at 45%. Now it’s 70%, the third highest in Whitehall . This change was in part because in 2012 staff were experiencing a post-Olympic lull and cull. They had all be asked to reapply for their jobs, and their recently departed perm sec Jonathan Stephens had faced critical anonymous briefings despite the success of the Olympics.
Since then Owen has helped to grow the department (the other turnaround), no doubt helping staff to feel more optimistic about the future of DCMS. But she has also focused on maintaining a sense of inclusive and collaborative leadership, building a strong set of values that helped to ensure a common purpose even as the department’s remit grew. Taking on lessons from her time as a director general at the Department for Work and Pensions, she ensures that her senior team all communicate regularly with their own teams and they still have an annual all-staff away day (albeit in increasingly bigger venues).
When she joined DCMS it was, she says “a baby department”. There were only three ministers, no directors-general and just over 400 staff – but that included the Government Equalities Office, which tends to move around as the equalities brief moves between ministers. “There was the question of: what is the critical size? How many people do you need to have enough critical mass that you can afford to have finance, HR, run private offices and all that kind of thing,” she recalls.
So, in her first year Owen ran benchmarking work to compare different sizes of departments and concluded that DCMS needed at least 500 staff to be viable. The senior team – both officials and ministers – set about achieving this. “The plan was to build DCMS by taking on complementary things from other departments,” Owen says. This has mainly been through taking on more responsibility for digital and data policy areas – DCMS already had broadband roll-out and the communications sectors, but it took on data protection from the Ministry of Justice, for example, and digital policy from the Government Digital Service. Also, on what Owen calls “the more classic side” of the department, it has acquired civil society policy from the Cabinet Office. This makes sense, says Owen, because DCMS now oversees “all the things that the lottery funds, and the Cabinet Office doesn’t do any policy”.
The strategy has been a resounding success – the department now has 1,200 staff, five ministers, two directors general and 15 directors. “We’re now able to justify having a chief scientist, which we weren’t able to before. So, the department now feels that it’s kind of safe from extinction,” Owen says, adding that there are plenty of overlaps between the “classic” policy areas and the new digital work. “I’m pretty proud actually, that whoever takes over from me hasn’t really got to worry about that – what I call the ‘existential problem’.”
As the department has grown, Owen’s focus on shared values and visible, inclusive leadership has helped staff remain clear on the purpose of their work. She has also tried to ensure her leadership team remains collaborative both within and outside of the department.
“Increasingly, I think over the 30 years I’ve worked in government, I am seeing departments working more closely together,” Owen says, mentioning the focus from new cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill on encouraging joint working through his Fusion Doctrine. “He’s absolutely right – there’s virtually nothing you do where you don’t need another department bought into it.”
What does she think has helped to bring about this more collaborative approach? She points to the people around the perm sec table. There are very few, as Owen puts it, “lifers” – leaders who have spent their whole careers in one department. “Most of us have worked in several departments, and that shows,” she says. “I’m pretty sure, if I look back at when I started in 1989, there’d be far more who had only worked in one department.”
There are also perm secs who have worked in the private sector, in regulatory bodies, in local government and so can see the importance of working across organisational boundaries. It’s also a potential upside to ministerial turnover, she suggests. “In cabinet, for example, at the moment we’ve got five ministers who’ve been in DCMS – the foreign secretary, the home secretary, the health secretary, Northern Ireland and of course digital and culture.” Having those voices who understand the DCMS perspective “counts for something” in cabinet discussions.
“There’s virtually nothing you do where you don’t need another department bought into it”
Increasing diversity of experience and background at the perm sec table brings many advantages, and though Owen has seen the dial shift on women in the SCS, since she became perm sec in 2013 the number of women at the very top has remained stuck. Just five women run departments. Does that top tier still matter, given the progress in the SCS more widely?
“I think it does matter, and you know, for permanent secretary roles it’s still very small numbers overall. When I retire…we don’t know who’s going to replace me yet, but if it were to be a man it’s just one less [woman at the table] and that role modelling is really important.”
There have been just 37 female perm secs since the first one in 1954 – and each knows what number they are, Owen says. “It’s probably the case that people can still name all the women [round the table]. They can’t name all the men. So, I think we’ll have made it when we get to the stage where someone is struggling to name the women.”