By Suzannah Brecknell

05 Nov 2019

As she settles in to a new job at her old department, Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, tells Suzannah Brecknell what it was like to return and why she wants to build more connections across the organisation

There is a widely-held misconception about Sarah Healey – the new permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – which CSW is happy to dispel. She is not, she reveals during her first interview in the job, posh. That many people think she is posh is perhaps unsurprising: the top levels of the civil service are still largely made up of people from higher socio-economic backgrounds. But Healey – the first in her family to go to university – is proud to explain that she is one of just a few perm secs who did not attend a private school. “Those roots,” she says, “are really, really important to me.”

Her perceived poshness may also be perpetuated by her hinterland as a veteran of University Challenge. Healey was captain of Oxford’s Magdalen College team when it won in 1998, and later burnished her TV boffin credentials by appearing in two “Champion of Champions” shows.

She thinks it’s a “dreadful shame” that people associate going to Oxford with being posh. Magdalen also won the quiz in the year before her team’s victory, and Healey points out that of the eight students representing the college during those two seasons, seven had been state educated. But CSW is concerned with another, more pressing question. Do the skills which saw her win the show help in her current job? Retention of large amounts of knowledge, for example, or performing under the relentless pressure of Jeremy Paxman’s grilling?

“Well, number one, I’m fairly convinced my ability to retain knowledge is less good than it used to be,” Healey demurs, although she does remember “thinking about how to captain that team, how to bring different people in and balance contributions, how to keep everyone calm beforehand. It was my first experience of thinking about leadership.” Now she’s thinking about leadership on a much wider scale, working out how to get the best from not just the hundreds of staff working for her in DCMS, but the thousands more in arm’s-length bodies, partner organisations and other government departments whose work is affected by DCMS’s policies, and with whom the department must cooperate to achieve its own goals.

In 2015 DCMS took over responsibility for data protection from the Ministry of Justice "sort of by accident", Healey says

Healey became DCMS perm sec in April this year, moving from the Cabinet Office where she was heading up the Economic and Domestic Affairs secretariat. Before this, she spent two years as second permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union. But this is not her first stint in the culture department. She was director general from 2013 to 2016, working closely with her perm-sec predecessor Sue Owen. Did it feel like coming home, when she took over from Owen?

“It was very weird the first morning, to sit at my desk just there, which is where Sue and I sat together when I was last here, and feel almost like the last three years hadn’t happened. People would walk past and wave and say ‘hello’,” she says. “So in a sense, it really did feel like coming home. But in another way it has been [like] exploring something that looks like your very familiar home, but it has been slightly reconfigured, with a massive extension on the back.”

The extension she’s referring to is the large growth in the department’s digital policy remit and teams. Since 2016 that growing responsibility – along with EU exit work and a few other policy additions – has seen DCMS expand from just under 600 to more than 1,350 staff. But it’s not an extension she’s totally unfamiliar with, since she had a hand in designing it.

“Sue and I had a sort of strategy between us to grow the department, and I’m really proud of the fact that a department which was having trouble fulfilling its role and portfolio in 2013 has now become such a proper, grown-up department,” she says.

But the strategy wasn’t just about making DCMS a viable department. It was about creating a more intelligent approach to digital policy across government. The department already had responsibility for communications, digital and telecoms sectors, including the roll out of superfast broadband across the UK. In 2015 it took over responsibility for data protection from the Ministry of Justice “sort of by accident,” as Healey puts it, as well as absorbing the Digital Economy Unit from the business department. Healey reflects that it was “extraordinary for [those two policies] not to have been in the same place all along.”

Having different elements of digital policy spread across government “just didn’t seem to match up with the transformation that digital was causing to both the economy and society,” she says. “That’s why I think it works so brilliantly to have a department that does digital in the round rather than dispersing it or thinking of it as a purely economic or sectoral issue, because it’s not really a sector. It’s something that’s transforming all sectors.”

Digital is also transforming – or trying to transform – all of government. DCMS doesn’t have the lead for the government’s digital reforms, or standards – those sit with the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office. But there is an ongoing debate among Whitehall watchers about the extent of the power that GDS now wields, since DCMS has, as of April 2018, held the reins of a vital digital policy area: data.

Better use of data will be an essential part of achieving government’s digital transformation plans, but a recent National Audit Office report on the subject found that “despite years of effort and many well-documented failures, government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data”. As a result, it added, departments had “under-prioritised” their own efforts to improve data.

While GDS is still responsible for putting in place standards around how data is recorded, it is DCMS that is working on the National Data Strategy – first announced last year and now expected to be published next year – which will set out government’s vision for not just how it uses data but how data will shape the economy and country until 2030.

In part because of its ever-receding publication date, there is a lot of pressure on this strategy and its implementation. As the NAO put it, unless government uses it “to push a sea change in strategy and leadership”, this strategy “will be yet another missed opportunity”.

At her first Public Accounts Committee hearing as perm sec, Healey – sitting alongside the Cabinet Office perm sec John Manzoni – was interrogated by MPs over accountability for driving the strategy. The committee’s subsequent report criticised both DCMS and Cabinet Office for attempting to create change by “relying on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of other departments”, given this approach had failed in the past.

Ensuring the strategy was not squeezed out by departments’ other priorities would instead require “continued and sustained pressure from Cabinet Office and DCMS”, MPs said.

After so many years of struggling to improve government data, does Healey see the value of mandates, rather than persuasion, to effect change? Her answer is yes. And no. “On things like interoperability and standards, we should be really mandatory,” she says. “In the future, it’s going to be important to do that and actually have some leverage to ensure systems are designed in a way which is going to follow the standards.”

“But in terms of innovative use of data: you can’t enforce that sort of thing. You have to instead create a permissive environment,” she says. That means, for example, encouraging people to see that they can balance the risks around data protection while still sharing data to improve services. So DCMS is putting a lot of effort into raising awareness of the opportunities for data sharing created by the Digital Economy Act, and Healey also sees the strategy as an opportunity “to create a culture in which data sharing can be done safely but should be done as far as possible in order to improve services and outcomes.”

The delays to the data strategy have in part been due to Brexit – with DCMS data specialists moved off the project to lead on a cross-government Data Negotiating Hub and for no-deal planning. Given that the strategy is still some way from completion, CSW wonders if Healey thinks it was a good thing the Spending Review had its own Brexit-related delay and has also been postponed to next year. Having the strategy in place before the next Spending Review would give DCMS and Cabinet Office teams more time to consider what central funding might be needed to implement it, and would also allow other departments to develop joint bids where data projects span departmental boundaries.

“Joint bids are always a good idea,” Healey says. “I love joint bids, but this isn’t just about money. This is about about people understanding the framework in which they can do things that they were going to do anyway.

“That PAC hearing got very focused on the idea that this was about building systems,” says Healey. “And it’s really not about building systems. It’s actually much more about how we work.”

“I still think it’s really important what your leaders at the top look like, it sends a really important signal to the organisation as a whole about what is valued”

Healey worked closely with her predecessor Owen on the drive to promote gender equality at the top levels of the civil service. In 2013, as the trend towards increasing gender diversity stalled in the SCS, Healey was involved in research commissioned by the Civil Service Board’s Senior Leadership Committee to identify the issues that were stopping women from reaching the very top posts.

She’s encouraged that the conversation about diversity has been embedded so firmly in the civil service since then. “There was anxiety around [that time] about whether we’d abandoned [diversity]. I just can’t see that ever happening now,” she says.

“I still think it’s really important what your leaders at the top look like, it sends a really important signal to the organisation as a whole about what is valued,” she says, adding that there is still a lot of work to be done. Her own background gives her a particular commitment to social diversity – to ensuring, as she puts it, that “the civil service doesn’t have a skewed perspective on the world because it’s made up of people who come from more privileged backgrounds”. She also worries that although progress on gender has been slow it still outpaces progress in other areas, and that there is still not enough understanding of the intersectionality between different minority groups. “These problems do not fix themselves. You actually have to do something about it.”

In 2013, “doing something about it” meant keeping diversity on the agenda at a time of austerity and headcount reductions. In 2019, the situation is very different – but rising headcounts can also present challenges.

The 2018 DCMS gender pay gap report said the gap between average earnings for male and female staff had grown since 2017 on both the median and mean measurements. One reason for the rise, it said, was due to a large pay gap at director level, where there had been a number of high-earning men recruited from the private sector to lead new – mostly digital – work.

Does Healey think that the rapid growth of many departments and specialisms presents new hurdles for those concerned with diversity?

Healey responds that there is a challenge around ensuring recruitment is done correctly, but that is not just about external hires. She points to the other driver of the rising pay gap in DCMS – the fact that the men in the department tend to be at higher grades, and there is a large gap between Pay Band A (where DCMS’s middle-earning man is found) and Pay Band B (home to the middle-earning woman).

“Actually we can tackle that,” Healey says. “That’s not about external hires from digital sectors, it’s about how we promote, how we recruit, and what is happening in very individual decisions. It’s about getting people to really think about [diversity] when they make those judgments”.

There has already been a focus across government on improving recruitment at the top level through things like unconscious bias training, diverse panels and blind recruitment, but Healey thinks this kind of work needs to be extended to all grades – and needs to go further.

“We do a lot at the top level, but actually at more junior levels, we still have a situation where we use a very traditional interview,” she says. “I’m just not sure that actually shows everybody off to their best,” she says, suggesting that departments could be more innovative in their approach “rather than defaulting to: ‘Let’s get somebody to sit in front of us for half an hour to talk about why they want the job, and then answer some competency based questions’.”

Having returned to the extended house that she helped design, Healey wants to make sure DCMS’s newest wing is fully integrated with the rest of the organisation. “There’s a risk that with the growth on the digital side, if we don’t celebrate enough the connections between the different things that DCMS does, we will miss the huge value that is gained from having these things done in the same organisation,” she says.

As an illustration, she discusses the links between the department’s responsibility for youth policy and its work on online harms – to which young people are particularly vulnerable – as well as the remit for digital skills and AI, including “the future of qualifications and industry on the artificial intelligence and the tech business [which are the] future for young people.

“We need to think about how those responsibilities work together, and make them have greater impact together than they would separately,” she says. She wants DCMS staff to always think about who else in the department might be able to contribute when they are developing policy – which means “thinking about the techniques that [we use] to work across government and doing it internally in the organisation.”

Thankfully, the department is well used to partnership working, with a large majority of its policies delivered through arm’s-length bodies. This, says Healey, has “forced people, in a really positive way, to be out and about and working with others; to always think about how to influence other people [so that they help to] deliver your outcomes.”

Her time at DExEU added another perspective on cross-government working, she adds: “I learned the power of giving people a sense of common purpose. If you can find something inspiring that brings people together it can overcome individual concerns.”

As well as the risk of a dis-jointed policy approach, there are other risks with rapid growth. “One of the issues with building a big organisation on a small base is that you don’t necessarily expand your core corporate functions as rapidly as you expand some of the policy, and we’ve fallen behind to some degree,” Healey says, pointing in particular to the department’s economic function.

DCMS is responsible for sectors that account for around 14% of the UK’s annual growth, and is involved with three of the 10 sector deals agreed between government and industry under the most recent Industrial Strategy.

Yet, “the proportion of our department who are economists in comparison to other equally significant economic departments is woefully small and that limits our ability to have impact. That’s something we need to tackle, and we are starting to tackle it very quickly,” she says, adding with a smile that she has the following message to economists around government: “If you want to work on exciting and transformative things, come to DCMS, there is a place for you!”

Given her day job includes responsibility for sports and culture, CSW wonders if Healey finds it hard to switch off – does leisure time feel like a busman’s holiday? She assures us that she does not (citing time at the gym and planning her next holiday as ways to wind down), and adds: “The great thing about DCMS is that you work on the things that give your life meaning and value – we’re fortunate to do this as an actual job.”

But she re-iterates that it is not just the C, M and S that bring meaning to officials work. “Somebody referred to DCMS as the Ministry of Fun on the phone the other day, and I almost lost it,” she says, “because it’s such a reductive way of thinking about us. We are on a road to change those perceptions of us as a small, boutique department to one which is responsible for the transformative thing in our society and economy.

There is a huge benefit, crucially, to combining that with responsibility for creativity, for culture, for the way we express who we are and create things that the UK is famous for.”

Healey on... her proudest achievement

“Setting up DExEU from scratch was quite a big achievement in a very short space of time, in a very challenging set of circumstances, with a great team. I always tell the story about how we had this incredibly intensive month of work: we recruited the senior team and developed a structure and figured out what we needed, and a process for getting people in. And then went I on holiday for three weeks. I came back and thought I would walk into the room, say hello to everyone and, you know, catch up on their holidays and so on. I walked in, but I didn’t recognise anyone. In the time I had been away we had recruited so many people – all those people we planned to bring in had arrived. “We drew on loads of support from around the civil service. Without the functions in their current form, it would have been really difficult to have done that job.”

This article was published online before the pre-election period began.

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