Dominic Cummings was right about greater role for scientists, says ex-DCMS perm sec

Sue Owen also tells IfG event government's Covid and Brexit experience should boost profile of civil service's operational delivery specialists
Dame Sue Owen at the IfG's Whitehall Monitor launch

By Jim Dunton

03 Feb 2021

Former Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport perm sec Dame Sue Owen has publicly supported the greater role of science graduates within the civil service sought by ex-chief spad Dominic Cummings.

Speaking at an Institute for Government event to mark the launch of the Whitehall Monitor 2021 report, Owen said she hoped that better use of scientists and a greater weight given to operational-delivery professionals would be two lasting impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

“One of the things that has come out beneficially out of the whole Covid thing is an appreciation of the role of scientists,” she said.

“So we have people like JVT [deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam] becoming household names. 

“This is one of the Cummings things that I really feel strongly about that I totally agree on – which is that we don’t make good enough use of the scientists that  we’ve got.”

Owen, who was perm sec at DCMS from 2013 to 2019, said that not only did the civil service need to employ more scientists, it also needed to adress inbuilt deterrents to their recruitment.

“I think that there is something dodgy in the civil service exam that filters scientists out,” she said. “This plays to the whole digital agenda, everything. That’s something which we mustn’t lose beyond the pandemic.”

Heightened understanding of operational delivery 

Elsewhere in yesterday’s session, Owen said that the need to respond to the pressures of managing the UK’s departure from the European Union and protect the public during the pandemic had raised the profile of operational delivery experts in the civil service.

“One of the good things that has come out of both of Brexit and out of Covid and is that I think that ministers do realise more now that understanding delivery and baking that in very early in the policy process is very important,” she said.

“You can’t come along with some fancy policy idea and expect it to happen unless you really understand how it’s going to be delivered, so I hope that that kind of understanding will now continue and that we will bring delivery people in much, much  earlier in the formulation of new policy.”

Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier told the event she believed turnover among perm secs and the resulting loss of institutional memory were “quite an issue” for the government in dealing with its current challenges.

“A lot of the new permanent secretaries are in some ways old-style mandarins and have come from a policy background,” she said. “They haven’t run major projects, and that does show a bit in some of the things that are going wrong with the government.”

Hillier added: “We still see perm secs being appointed, frankly, because they’re clever in policy and not because they’ve got a track record in delivery. We still think that’s an issue and we don’t know why it is.”

Owen agreed that perm secs should have operational delivery experience but suggested that a lack of senior political interest in the issue was the reason it was not seen as a key atribute. 

“At the end of the day, delivery people do apply for these roles but they don’t get them because ministers don’t choose them,” she said. “It’s not a skill that’s valued in the heat of having to go to cabinet.” 

DCMS’ new Manchester base

Owen also used Tuesday’s event to salute her former department’s plans to set up a base in Manchester as part of the government’s wider proposals to locate more departmental staff in the regions.

She said one of the issues thrown up by Covid-19 was a heightened awareness of the need to diversify the civil service further to better reflect citizens the government is serving.

“We have done by things like gender and so on, but we still need people from a wider range of backgrounds who bring a wider range of experience,” she said.

“Of course we do have members of parliament in every constituency all around the country. But somehow that richness of the nature of the population, and how it differs in places doesn’t really come through into policy.

“So one of the things we were trying to do in DCMS when I left, and happily it is going to happen now, is to open up an office in Manchester. There were lots of reasons for that but one of them is to have  a wider range of people that we could draw on. But also so that we felt that there were the right kind of skills there with the tech hub.”

DCMS has yet to formally announce the location of its proposed Manchester base, but the proposals are a recurring element of briefings on plans to move civil servants out of the capital.

Praise for Covid heroes in Whitehall

Owen applauded HM Treasury for behaving “amazingly well” in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and also the Department for Work and Pensions for dealing with a huge spike in Universal Credit claims “fairly seamlessly” last year.

“An area that people never congratulate but that I’d like to call out is the debt-management office who have financed all this debt, just shovelling it out week after week,” she said. “That’s the operational bit of the Treasury doing really, really well.”

IfG director Bronwen Maddox asked Owen about areas of the government’s coronavirus response that had gone less well. The former DCMS chief said she believed “muddled” delivery mechanisms appeared to have been the issue – as with last summer’s exam results fiasco – or central government’s “delivery interface” with councils, regional mayors or devolved administrations.

“That’s where there’s been more difficulty,” she said. 

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