Interview: Sue Owen

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 27 January 2014 in Interview
Interview

Sue Owen might be enjoying more evenings out as the new permanent secretary at DCMS, but her days are spent demonstrating and improving the value of culture, media and sport to the UK. Suzannah Brecknell meets her

Over the course of more than two decades in the civil service, Sue Owen’s evenings have become considerably more glamorous. She joined the service as an economic adviser in the Treasury, and describes “long EU meetings that would stretch into the night” as one of the particular lowlights of those years. Her new job as permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport still brings lots of evening and weekend work, but it’s more likely to be a trip to the theatre, a gallery, or a rugby match – all in the interests of building relationships and keeping on top of her brief, of course.

We meet in an airy office on the top floor of the building DCMS shares with the Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs. It has plush sofas, and a view of Parliament’s Elizabeth Tower – more commonly known as Big Ben – from the large windows: Owen’s career appears to have brought her a desirable workspace, as well as those enviable evening engagements.

The office, though, isn’t hers: we’re borrowing it from the culture secretary Maria Miller, who is back in her constituency. Owen herself doesn’t actually have an office: like the rest of her department, she hot-desks. Fridays aren’t so bad, she confides, but on Tuesdays it can be hard to find a seat at a desk near her team members.

Morale matters

Owen isn’t the only one who finds hot desking a struggle – staff dissatisfaction with the low ratio of desks to people, she suggests, is one cause of the low morale in the department. DCMS’s staff engagement score dropped from 54% in 2011 to 45% in 2012. Part of the reason for this was “post-Olympic blues”, says Owen – the survey is carried out in September or October each year – “but also part of it was that that was the beginning of the next phase of the change programme and more staff reductions.” In short, the survey took place at the same time as all DCMS staff below the senior civil service were being asked to re-apply for their jobs – not something calculated to create a happy workforce. That drop, then, is “not surprising”, says Owen, adding that the department was also in the middle of adjusting to machinery of government changes as new secretary of state Maria Miller brought the Government Equalities Office into DCMS’s remit.

There has been further change since, including an office move and the departure of previous permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens. Despite having led the department through the Olympic planning and delivery years, Stephens was the subject of critical anonymous press briefings shortly before he left: to outsiders it appeared that he was being hurried, if not actively pushed, out of his job. Owen is reluctant to comment on this. Asked whether Stephens’ departure affected morale,she replies that “morale was low before Jonathan left”. The results of the 2013 survey haven’t been published yet, but Owen gives no indication that there will be a big improvement from 2012.

She is undaunted by the challenge of low morale in the department she joined last September. Her most recent posts were in the Department for Work and Pensions, which has seen staff engagement scores rise recently. “We did a lot of work on leadership,” she says, “and for people survey scores in an organisation of that size to have gone up by 10 percentage points over the last couple of years is remarkable. So I’m confident I know what to do [to improve engagement], and will enjoy doing that.” Her aim will be “for people to feel valued,” she says. “There’s absolutely no doubt that people here like their work and are interested in it, but they need to feel valued, and the leadership of the organisation needs to drive that forwards.”

On the to-do list

Owen mentions two other main priorities for the department as an organisation. One is to “bind the Government Equalities Office (GEO) into what we do” across the whole department. This is both for the benefit of the GEO team themselves – “they’ve moved around a lot over the last years, and I think they need a bit more stability” – but also because she believes there are many areas where equalities work complements and enhances other parts of the DCMS brief.

Equality – especially gender equality – has been a recurring motif in Owen’s career. Among the highlights of her civil service career, she says, was when she was working in the Number 10 Policy Unit and floated the idea of giving employees a statutory right to two weeks’ paternity leave. More recently, she helped to reform the state pension to get “more equal access for women” and remove means testing. This interest goes right back to her time as an academic economist, when much of her research focused on women in the labour market – particularly on putting a value on inequality by calculating the “cost of being a woman” through lost earnings and pension contributions.

Her second priority for DCMS builds on this experience of putting quantitative value on topics that seem soft and qualitative: she wants to establish “a good, forward-looking programme” to measure the department’s overall contribution to the UK. “I’m very interested in thinking about the value of culture,” she says. “Obviously, there is a direct value of culture through its economic contribution,” and culture can contribute to soft power, “but everybody in the sector knows that their contribution is more than [this]”.

For example there’s the social contribution made through the culture sector’s education and outreach work, and, “more intrinsic or personal, the wellbeing value of culture; the feel-good factor. When you think of somewhere like Hull, which recently became the City of Culture for 2017, the feel-good factor that those people had was palpable.”

The department is in the process of commissioning work through the Contestable Policy Fund to “see if we can get a better handle on measuring social and intrinsic values,” says Owen; hopefully, this will develop a “framework that we can use in everything the department does, not just culture”.

Small size, big ambition

The Olympics gave the department a clear and broadly popular goal. But with the Games over, their legacy work being overseen by the Cabinet Office, and massive head count reductions at DCMS, has the department’s influence and importance diminished across government? Not at all, says Owen. The department deals with issues very much in the public eye – “most days, when you switch the radio on, there’ll be a DCMS-related item” – and many of the “protection issues” it handles, such as gambling regulations and child safety on the internet, are things which “the public care quite a lot about.”

The department may be small – with 340 staff, she describes it as a “micro department” – but its remit is wide. “We cover everything that people do out of work: it’s about quality of life,” she says. “But we also cover some really big bits of the economy: the creative industries [contribute] 12% [of the economy’s] value and 15% of employment. They grew by 10% last year, the fastest growing sector of all. And then we’re also responsible for digging holes in the ground for broadband roll-outs, so we’re in there on the infrastructure side as well.”

The challenge, she suggests, is “how we manage with so few people and covering such a huge footprint.” The answer lies in the DCMS’s 43-strong family of arm’s-length bodies, which employ around 34,000 people and spend the vast majority of DCMS’s overall budget. “They are our experts,” she says, and “that’s what we need to draw on. We can’t possibly have the deep expertise on every area [we cover], but we are a phone call away from the people who have expertise in these areas.”

Digging holes in the ground

Though it doesn’t aim to have deep expertise on all of its policy areas, the department still needs to retain enough capability to manage that family of ALBs. “There is a bit of a balancing act to be done there,” says Owen. “We can do things like involve others directly through open policymaking, but we also have an active programme of secondments”. This is both secondments out of the department – in which case, she says, it’s vital to make sure the DCMS is “keeping hold of our expertise, wherever it’s gone” – and also secondments into the department.

DCMS recently made a new appointment to strengthen its commercial capability, hiring Locog’s former commercial director Chris Townsend to lead Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK): the team responsible for managing work to extend superfast broadband to rural areas. His appointment is, she says, “in line with [Treasury minister] Lord Deighton’s review of big government infrastructure projects”, which recommended bringing in commercial expertise to fill capability gaps and ensure that key projects are delivered successfully.

The extension of superfast broadband is being delivered through local authorities, using a framework agreement set up by DCMS. The work was strongly criticised by the Public Accounts Committee last year: it found that the project had been “mismanaged”, while chair Margaret Hodge said the taxpayer had been “ripped off” because all the local contracts to roll out rural broadband will go to BT.

The report highlighted inaccurate modelling of the roll-out costs – which will mean that the public sector will end up paying far more than originally planned, while BT will pay less; a procurement process which appeared to favour large players; and poor transparency, which may make it hard to monitor value for money as the delivery rolls on.

DCMS has not yet responded in full to the report, but in a statement last year it said it “disagreed” with the committee’s conclusions. Even if it doesn’t accept the criticisms, what lessons has the department learnt from the roll-out so far? Owen responds with a summary of the overall project, saying it is “really gathering steam”. Pressed on some of the specific concerns, she notes that the cost modelling, though it “didn’t have the information that we have now, was still pretty accurate in terms of the total cost of deployment”. Regarding the fact that BT hold all the contracts, she says: “There was a competitive framework. It was the case that BT won all those projects, but they are the best value for the taxpayer and that’s what the department has to be accountable for.”

In order to ensure the contracts let so far deliver value for money, the National Audit Office noted in its review of the project, the department should put in place “in-life contract controls” to monitor BT’s charges and profits. Here Owen agrees – and she’s confident that the department can do so, particularly since the appointment of Townsend. He is, she says, “extremely experienced at running big projects and ensuring that we get best value for money at every stage”; she adds that his experience in the telecoms sector will be helpful in “keeping BT’s feet to the fire”.

Evidence is queen

It’s not just the evening engagements at DCMS which stand in contrast to Owen’s years at the Treasury. At DCMS, she notes, “it’s fantastic, because we’ve got a woman minister, a woman junior minister, over half the staff are women… and we’ve got two fantastic women non-execs.” At the Treasury in the 1990s, by contrast, there were few women – and “certainly none in senior positions”.

So the subject matter and gender balance excite Owen about her new job. But there’s something else: she’s clearly inspired by the leadership challenge of re-energising the department, and the policy challenge of building a framework to measure the total contribution her department can make to the UK.

When asked about the proudest moments of her career so far, there’s one other project that she names: working on the “five tests” set out by Gordon Brown to judge whether the UK should join the euro. And she isn’t only proud because the tests kept the UK out of the euro (clearly the right decision, she says); but also because the tests themselves were founded on a strong evidence base. When Treasury presented the tests, she says, “everybody was really impressed by the quality of the economic argument: even the people who thought the answer was politically-driven thought the evidence was really good.” Despite her journey from Treasury to what was originally dubbed the‘Ministry of Fun’, Owen still seems to be a numbers woman at heart.

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