With the end of 2015 in sight, we asked Whitehall's top officials to review the year, set out their priorities for 2016 – and shed some light on their festive plans. Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, takes part in our biggest-ever perm secs' round-up series...
How did you tackle the biggest challenges facing your organisation in 2015?
As always in an election year, our biggest challenge in DCLG was to manage the transition to the new parliament. I arrived on 1 March, when everyone was still working at full pace to deliver for the coalition. We then had the short month of April to prepare for the election outcome. Whatever happened, we knew DCLG’s policies would be central for the new government, and that we faced a tough spending review for ourselves and for local government.
Our approach was to focus on the big questions: how can we increase housing supply? What are the opportunities and pressures for local government? What should Whitehall devolve further within England? We worked closely with other departments, and with local government, to get the evidence and ideas ready.
What are your department’s top priorities in the year ahead?
Our new secretary of state Greg Clark is very clear about his priorities for DCLG in this parliament. Both he and I are ambitious for the department and confident that it can play an even stronger role. Since July we have been discussing, across the whole of DCLG, how to do this. We have launched a new Vision that sets out where we want to get to, bearing in mind that we will have fewer resources to do it with. Looking into next year, our big priority is to mobilise this change and start to make it happen – at the same time as we begin to deliver on the government’s policy priorities.
On a personal level, becoming a permanent secretary just before an election hasn’t made for a quiet life! But I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome from my colleagues in DCLG or from local government. It’s great to have so much experience, knowledge and commitment to public service to draw on.
What film do you hope to watch over the festive period – and what’s the best game to play with the family on Christmas Day?
My favourite Christmas film is the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas for me is always in Worcestershire with a large extended family and lots of children. Typically the games we play include “Find the Right Battery”, “Which Great-Aunt Gave that Present to the Children?” and “Can We Break Last Year’s Record for the Number of Roast Potatoes?”
Perm secs round-up 2015: Whitehall's top civil servants review the year – and look ahead to 2016