By Jess Bowie

10 Jul 2023

The chief executive of Ofcom breaks bread with Jess Bowie

Who? Melanie Dawes joined the civil service in the late 1980s and rose to become permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now the levelling up department). Her tenure there coincided with the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, which had a profound effect on her outlook. After five years at MHCLG, she left the civil service to become chief executive of the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom.

The Civil Service Club is in Great Scotland Yard, between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue. It provides a restaurant for members and their guests in comfortable, friendly surroundings.
We discussed:
Her first job

I joined the civil service when I was 23, straight out of my master’s degree in economics. I joined because I wanted to apply what I’d learned as an economist to real-life problems that were actually about people’s lives.

My first job was in the Department of Transport in 1989. I was put to work on appraising the costs and benefits of freight schemes, and also analysing the environmental impact of various modes of transport. There was the occasional computer around, but we would all have to share them, so I had loads of bits of paper on my desk – physical spreadsheets – and little stickers everywhere, showing me how to transfer kilowatt hours into CO2 for different modes of transport. It feels unbelievable, looking back, but I got on with it and it was actually really interesting. But it was also incredibly inefficient. Communication was so difficult. Everything was done over the phone, or by letter. 

How many junior officials it takes to change a lightbulb 
In that first job, there were just two lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling in our room and one day one of them broke. This was on the 16th floor of the old Marsham Street Towers. And I remember getting a lightbulb, standing on the desk and starting to change it when my boss walked in. He was absolutely horrified to find a young economic assistant changing a lightbulb, breaching every health and safety rule known to man. He was quite nice about it, but also quite clear that I should come down off the desk.

Of course, I was “Miss Dawes” and he was “Dr Rickard”. “Ms” came along maybe five or six years later. You would never have used someone’s first name for a colleague more senior than you, unless you worked very closely with them. I think that all began to change throughout the 1990s. By the time I was a perm sec in MHCLG, if someone – even a junior official – had called me “Miss Dawes” or “Ms Dawes” rather than “Melanie” to my face I would have found that a bit odd.

Role models
A hugely important figure for me was Lesley Strathie, who sadly died in 2012. 
She’d been a teenage mum, and she joined the civil service aged 16. She went to night school, and then just worked her way up. She was extraordinary – a real inspiration. Still to this day, she is the only woman that I’ve ever had as a boss. I was a director general in my early 40s at HMRC and she was HMRC’s perm sec. 

When I’d joined in the late ‘80s it was vanishingly unusual to be a senior woman in the civil service – or anywhere else. So those who were there, like Lesley, I have so much respect for. Yes, I had to push through some barriers along the way. But my generation of female civil servants benefited massively from the support of those women. We were also hugely helped by people like [cabinet secretary] Gus O’Donnell and [Treasury perm sec] Terry Burns. They recognised that things needed to change, and they made sure that you were actually valued – even if you didn’t wear a suit, trousers and a tie – and that you didn’t find that your career just disappeared when you had a baby. 

Juggling the personal with the professional
In my 30s, I faced some really tough times when my husband and I were trying to have a baby. It took us eight years of fertility treatment before we succeeded with our wonderful daughter Nancy, who is now 19 and at university. I was at the Treasury during that period and received tremendous support from my colleagues, including from Nick Macpherson, my then-director. It was a reminder of what the civil service is truly about: getting the job done for ministers, supporting the government of the day, but in a way that also leads to fantastic teamwork and some amazing friendships.

When I turned 40, and Nancy was two, I realised I needed to get out of my comfort zone. We decided to try for another baby, but I also knew that if it didn’t happen, I had to challenge myself in my career in a new way. Unfortunately, the IVF didn’t work out so I made a bold move and joined HMRC in a completely different job from the kinds of roles I’d been doing at the Treasury. I led operational teams across the country, overseeing big company accounts. That was a brilliant job. But it was a huge change.

My husband has always been an incredible support in my career, and we have always faced things together. Although those were the days before shared parental leave, we very much shared our days of caring for Nancy, and I also had great childcare. I was very lucky. But it’s hard doing a big job with a young child and it’s important for people in that situation to cut themselves some slack, because those years don’t last forever, and things do get easier. It’s impossible to do everything when your children are very young.

Her toughest period at work
Professionally, there’s no question that leading my department in the days and weeks following the Grenfell fire was the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do. Above all, because it was a human tragedy on an appalling scale. And it was amazing the way the civil service from multiple departments stepped forward to try to support that community. We didn’t get everything right. But the effort and the commitment from ministers and civil servants was remarkable. What was also really hard was that within a day or two, it became clear that this wasn’t the only building that had defective cladding. I remember some of those meetings with Sajid Javid, who was my secretary of state, and Alok Sharma, who was a junior minister, as we looked at each other and realised quite what an enormous scale of system failure we were going to have to deal with. And that was incredibly hard, particularly because the size of the issue was so unforeseen.

The importance of regulation
I have a very deep belief in the importance of good, effective, proportionate regulation. And that was one of the reasons why, when the Ofcom job came along, I felt I could make a difference.

I don’t think that most Whitehall civil servants are terribly aware of regulation, or really consider careers in regulators. And I was no different: I hadn’t thought as deeply about these issues as perhaps I should have done throughout my career before.

But events like Grenfell have shed light on the failures of regulatory oversight that occurred over several decades. There was a flawed approach where rules were formulated at the government level and enforcement was left to local authorities without adequate systems, data, monitoring or industry engagement. This gap meant corners were cut in the industry, resulting in tragic consequences for Grenfell victims, and also a terrible time for numerous leaseholders who have endured years of hardship, having to retrofit safety measures that should have been in place from the start.
The idea of regulation may appear dull and technical, but ultimately, these are rules that are designed to save lives, improve outcomes and safeguard consumers, citizens, businesses up and down the country.

Overseeing such a diverse remit
Managing a diverse organisation starts with assembling a team of exceptional individuals who not only have the necessary expertise and skills but who can also work together seamlessly across the organisation. At Ofcom, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the concept of “One Ofcom”, which recognises that we are a unified regulator for the communications industries. It’s crucial for me as a leader to help everyone see the bigger picture. Companies like Amazon, for example, now offer postal services; make TV shows; run video-sharing platforms; and provide cloud services. The evolving commercial landscape demonstrates the increasing synergy across different sectors and by understanding this interconnectedness, we can effectively regulate and adapt to the changing industry dynamics.

Reconciling different cultures within Ofcom
Throughout Ofcom’s 20-year journey, we have always had a diverse range of functions and staff. Our workforce includes engineers who are out and about checking for interference in our wireless spectrum; experts handling TV complaints, who really understand the media and broadcasting; through to economists specialising in economic regulation. I’ve always approached the diversity question with the belief that, fundamentally, what you’re doing this for is to create a healthy organisation, that as many people as possible feel they can be part of. 

Whether Ofcom is too big 
I really don’t think so. When I joined, Ofcom had around 950 employees, and now we stand at approximately 1,350. While we have expanded, we’re still smaller than most government departments. Yes, we do have a broad remit. But I think it’s very coherent and has allowed us to build a robust infrastructure and draw on the wealth of talent available. This has been particularly clear from the way we’ve been able to mobilise so swiftly to address online safety. We have a dedicated team of lawyers, economists, a strong corporate support network, and individuals with extensive regulatory experience. We’ve been really successful at drawing people from outside into the mission, too. We’ve had directors joining us from Meta and Google, for example.
The benefits of being a public corporation
Our recruitment success is influenced by several factors, including our status as a public corporation. People know that if they come to Ofcom, they’ll have agency and be able to get things done – in the way that we deliver on the duties that parliament has set us. It is less bureaucratic. There’s no escaping the fact that when you’re in Whitehall, the systems of controls and approvals are quite onerous. And very few things can happen without going through quite a lot of processes to get approval from the Treasury or the Cabinet Office. But I do personally believe that our independence in how we run ourselves makes us more efficient. We feel accountable for the decisions we make in a way that’s quite different to the civil service.

How Ofcom distinguishes between bias and actual lies
We’re all about embracing a healthy exchange of views and opinions, which is what our democracy and society thrive on. It just doesn’t sit right with us to squash certain perspectives, even if, perhaps, people are saying something that’s incorrect. We want TV and radio to be the platforms where people can freely express what they’re thinking and engage in proper debates. But we are also all about due impartiality and due accuracy. It’s not about always giving equal airtime to every viewpoint, but rather ensuring that views are properly challenged and presented with the necessary context. We don’t just judge based on snippets of a programme you might catch on social media and which often only contain a small part of a larger programme that did actually contain the overall impartiality and due accuracy that we’re looking for. If something is contentious or hotly debated, we also make sure to publish a thorough explanation of how we reached our decision. 

What she’s most proud of
I am actually incredibly proud of what Ofcom is doing right now to get ready to regulate for online safety. Just the way that people are coming together, the commitment that they’re showing, we’re having to do an enormous amount of work while the teams are still growing. Everybody’s working flat out. But the sense of mission, excitement and purpose is fantastic. And I’m hoping and expecting that we’ll look back on it and feel that we achieved some real change for people.

Whether “activist civil servants” are thwarting the will of ministers
I really don’t recognise that picture. The vast majority of civil servants have an incredibly strong sense of their responsibility to serve the government of the day and get things done for their ministers. My own experience is of very constructive working relationships with ministers. As a permanent secretary, I saw it as my job to help them be as successful as they possibly could be in delivering on the government’s agenda. But but it’s been a really tough few years – particularly with Covid – and the system of government that we have is complicated: civil service, ministers, parliament, media, special advisers, arm’s-length bodies. And what civil servants need is for their senior leaders, and ministers, to be constantly building and investing in trusting relationships at the top, so that they can set really clear direction for those who work for them. 

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