Digital expansion has made DCMS ‘safe from extinction’, says departing perm sec

Written by Suzannah Brecknell and Sam Trendall on 21 March 2019 in News
News

Dame Sue Owen claims the department’s growth into technology and data policy areas has been a success

The tech-focused expansion of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has helped ensure it is “safe from extinction”, according to its departing leader.

Since being appointed as DCMS permanent secretary almost six years ago, Dame Sue Owen has seen the organisation treble in size from the 400-strong “baby department” she joined. When she retires in a few weeks’ time, Owen will bequeath to her successor Sarah Healey a team of 1,200 people and a vastly expanded policy remit – something that was reflected in the addition of the word ‘digital’ to the department’s name in July 2017.

During her first year in charge, Owen ran benchmarking work to compare different sizes of departments and concluded that DCMS needed at least 500 staff to be viable. The senior team – both officials and ministers – then set about achieving this. 

“The plan was to build DCMS by taking on complementary things from other departments,” Owen told PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World


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This was mainly achieved through taking on more responsibility for digital and data policy areas – DCMS already had broadband implementation and the communications sectors, but it took on data protection from the Ministry of Justice, for example, and digital policy from the Government Digital Service. Also, on what Owen called “the more classic side” of the department, it acquired civil society policy from the Cabinet Office. This made sense, she said, because DCMS now oversees “all the things that the lottery funds, and the Cabinet Office doesn’t do any policy”.

The strategy has been a resounding success, according to Owen. As well as the increase in overall headcount, DCMS now has two directors general, 15 directors, and five ministers.

“We’re now able to justify having a chief scientist, which we weren’t able to before. So, the department now feels that it’s kind of safe from extinction,” she said, adding that there are plenty of overlaps between the “classic” policy areas and the new digital work. 

“I’m pretty proud actually, that whoever takes over from me hasn’t really got to worry about that – what I call the ‘existential problem’,” Owen added.

In the traditional sectors of culture, media, and sport, the department has typically worked through arm’s-length bodies, the perm sec said, while in the digital area it often deals directly with the sector itself. By the time DCMS was rebranded, about half of its staff were already “working on digital media”, according to Owen.

“Those colleagues were finding that when they went to talk to Amazon or Google the name ‘culture’ would confuse [them],” she said. “We decided that we needed to get the word digital in there.”
 

Click here to read the full interview, including Owen’s insights into bullying, diversity, and what she will miss about government. 

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is editor of Civil Service World
 

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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