FD interview – Culture shocks

18 Apr 11

Swingeing cuts mean it’s not a barrel of laughs at the ‘Ministry of Fun’ any more. But the show will go on at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, finance director Simon Judge tells PF. And there’s still the Olympics to look forward to

My visit to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport coincides with an ­important announcement. More than 200 organisations have just been told that they will lose government funding as Arts Council England passes on the 15% cut in its own budget for theatres, festivals, dance companies, galleries and orchestras.

It’s a significant day for the arts, but also one to remember for DCMS staff. Thirty people are about to leave as part of a redundancy programme that will eventually halve the staffing level. The smallest department in Whitehall is taking one of the biggest percentage hits in terms of its administrative costs (down 50% in real terms over four years) and its budget (down 24%).

Once known as the ‘Ministry of Fun’, the DCMS is facing up to an unfunny future. Much of the pressure will inevitably fall on Simon Judge, the finance director. Fortunately, he has extensive experience in Whitehall, reaching back to 1985, and can remember a previous downturn or two.
Judge joined the DCMS as FD in March 2009 shortly after qualifying with CIPFA under the Warwick fast-track diploma in public finance and leadership. He had previously been director of financial strategy at the ­Ministry of Justice and had also worked at the Department for Work & Pensions and the Treasury.

So how well is the DCMS faring in such an unsettling environment? ‘The department has carried on delivering and morale is surprisingly high,’ Judge says. ‘I can count on the fingers of one hand the people who have switched off and disengaged.’

There are good reasons for this, he suggests. ‘I think it’s a combination of two things: a lot of people are really interested in the subject matter and care passionately about what they do, whether it’s culture, media or sport, or the ­Olympics; and, being a very small department, there’s not much scope for hiding.’

The Olympics, of course, provide a reason to be cheerful.

The DCMS is the lead department for the Games, and the chance to help stage a successful event is something that most civil servants would want on their CVs.

But, unfortunately, press attention has been distracted by cuts to arts organisations, including the demise of the UK Film Council, and embarrassing spoonerisms involving Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Hunt’s determination to be first with the spending axe has made him popular with certain elements in the ­Conservative Party and the Tory-supporting press. In the department, however, he did not get off to a good start when he addressed DCMS civil servants at an all-staff meeting last July and told them that one in two would be losing their jobs.

‘We had been passing this message around internally and giving pretty large hints that this was the way the Spending Review settlement was going and people needed to start thinking about it,’ says Judge. ‘As with lots of internal communications, however much you try to tell people that something is coming there’s often a trigger event that causes them to say “Oh, crikey”.’

The ‘Oh, crikey’ moment was the ­meeting with Hunt.

There was initially some confusion over the timing of the departures. In fact, over the four years, 250 posts will go, 100 of which are involved with the Olympics. Meanwhile, responsibility for media policy and competition has transferred to the DCMS from the Department for Business, ­Innovation and Skills – along with more than 70 officials – following Business ­Secretary Vince Cable’s comments on the ­Murdoch empire.

But the concern of DCMS civil ­servants then and now is understandable. All the senior management team have received ‘at risk’ letters, including Judge, and half have already left.

Hunt has made officials well aware of his guiding philosophy. He wants to be able ‘to look people in the eye’ and show that the department will take the same level of pain, if not more, as its arm’s-length bodies, which include the British Library, British Museum, Arts Council ­England, the Royal Parks, Sport England and English Heritage.

‘He [Hunt] made it very clear to us and the arm’s-length bodies that the DCMS needed to play its part in contributing to the overall deficit reduction. Even though the budget was small, he was not going to say we should get the same treatment as education or health and be exempt from spending cuts,’ says Judge.
Hunt was also determined to act quickly. He insisted that the DCMS’s 55 arm’s-length bodies should be informed of their budgets for the next four years immediately after the chancellor made his Comprehensive Spending Review statement on October 20, 2010. Such a swift turnaround shocked some of the old hands at the department.

Although technically Judge was at risk of redundancy, there was little prospect of him receiving his P45. As the only director with a finance qualification it would have broken Whitehall requirements if he had been asked to leave.

‘I was very glad I did those exams,’ he tells me.

His team of 24 in the finance department also appear relatively secure. Asked whether they face a 50% cut, Judge replies: ‘I don’t think so. That’s not just a self-serving comment – one of the DCMS’s key objectives is to deliver the Spending Review settlement and make sure that all of our arm’s-length bodies deliver the savings they need to. That puts a big premium on financial ­management in the department.’

And there is still a lot of work to do in this area. In March, a National Audit Office report said financial management in the department had improved, but there was ‘still a way to go’ before it could be sure that value for money had been achieved. It also criticised the financial analysis underlying decisions to close or merge some of the arm’s-length bodies last year.

Judge is clearly unhappy about the NAO’s conclusions, but will only say on the record that the report was ‘a bit of a missed opportunity’. He might get a chance to be more combative when and if the Public Accounts Committee holds a session into the report’s findings.

There might be fewer objections, ­however, to the NAO’s assertion that the reduction in staffing and administration costs will pose a ‘significant challenge’ to the way the DCMS carries out its ­functions. As with other parts of the ­government’s deficit reduction plans, we are in uncharted territory.

Curriculum Vitae

March 2009-present
Finance Director, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

January 2009
Qualified with CIPFA

Director of financial strategy, Ministry of Justice

Divisional manager, work welfare and poverty, Strategy Directorate, Department for Work & Pensions

Head of planning and finance, Department of Social Security

Variety of posts, Treasury

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