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Melanie Dawes


Dame Melanie Dawes is a British economist and civil servant. She started her career as an economist and has worked on public spending, tax and tax credit policy, macroeconomics, monetary policy and the Euro. Between 2018 and 2020, Melanie worked as the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Melanie joined Ofcom as an Executive Board Member and Chief Executive in March 2020. 


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Dame Melanie Dawes to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Dame Melanie Dawes is the most prominent female civil servant in the UK as well as being a distinguished economist, with particular interests in public spending, tax, macroeconomics, monetary policy, and the Euro.

Dawes joined the civil service in 1989 as an economic assistant and worked her way up quickly, starting at the Department of Transport, the HM Treasury (where she became the Europe Director), and HM Revenue and Customs, where she became Director General for Business Tax, which involved being responsible for all business taxes and duties as well as leadership of the department’s relationship with big business. She was then appointed Director General of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, where she was responsible for overseeing the system of Cabinet decision-making. This was followed by becoming Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government. In 2013, she received the honour of Commander of the Order of the Bath for ‘services to the Civil Service in the field of Economic Policy’. In 2020, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath for public service.

It has been a dazzling career, topped off by becoming Chief Executive of Ofcom, the broadcasting, telecoms and postal services regulator in 2020. As such, she is responsible for a daunting range of jobs, from regulating the BBC to monitoring the prices of mobiles (including 5G mobile phone networks), landlines, and broadband. This is a challenging post for anyone, due to the volatility of the market as well as rapidly changing customer demand, particularly among young adults, two-thirds of whom watch TV through streamed services. It is a sector plagued by inequalities: people working in television, for example, are twice as likely to have been to a private school and come from a professional home. Creating a more inclusive workplace is one of Dawes’ aims.

Of course, the pandemic generated additional pressures. Dawes took over the role just as lockdown commenced. Overnight, the entire economy became dependent on broadband and phone services (allowing family and friends to remain in touch), broadcasters (providing accurate news as well as entertaining homebound people), and postal operators (life became impossible without home deliveries). I am confident that everyone in this room today owe their personal resilience during the time of pestilence to Dawes’ labour, thought, and leadership.

Being Chief Executive of Ofcom also involves safeguarding people from online harm and proving other forms of consumer protection. A study shows that two-thirds of teenagers have experienced poisonous comments online. Social media messaging services are important sites for online grooming and other harms. Yet, the sector is plagued by lack of transparency. Ofcom set out to persuade the big online platforms to identify risks and take safety more seriously. In short, Dawes is expected to bring the ‘on-line Wild West’ to heel. As she admits, Ofcom must be the ‘Red Adair’ of big tech regulation, a reference to Paul ‘Red’ Adair, the famous firefighter who used high explosives to snuff massive oil well fires.

Throughout her career, Dawes has laboured tirelessly for the good of other people. Her concerns about the devastating impact of alcohol dependency on the personal and social lives of ex-service personnel led her to serve as Chair of the Alcohol Recovery Project. This is an important initiative, given that half of ex-service personnel sleeping rough have alcohol dependency difficulties. She is a Trustee of the youth charity Patchwork Foundation, which encourages young people from disadvantaged and minority communities to engage with politics and civil society.

Dawes has eloquently reflected on the changes that she has seen in the decades that she has spent in the Civil Service. When she started, colleagues referred to each other using full titles and surnames. Women were a minuscule proportion of the senior management team. As she once complained, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it ‘was obvious to me in every meeting I attended, and for many years,… [that] I was noticed as a woman first, and for my skills and expertise second’. Questions of inclusion and diversity consume much of her energies. She is renowned for championing these basic values in the Civil Service. Although the civil service and businesses still have a very long way to go, there have been improvements, to which Dawes must be given some credit. She extols her colleagues to confront and work on their unconscious biases. In her words, 

I strongly believe that diversity is not just a nice-to-have – if we want to work effectively on behalf of the communities we serve, we must be representative of them. And there is no doubt that mono-cultures can develop if everyone comes from the same background. That’s not healthy for any organisation.

This has led her to engage with ‘reverse mentoring’, for example, with members of disabled, LGBTQ, and BME networks in the civil service, learning about the ‘hidden [and not so hidden] discrimination’ they face. As a working mother, she understands the challenges of juggling professional and caring lives. 

What is her philosophy of change? Despite her reputation as ‘formidable’, with a ‘lifetime of experience’ managing senior ministers and secretaries of state, Dawes is a believer in ‘soft power’ and influence. She is known for her skills in facilitating conversations and collaborations that support local communities at grassroots level. Those who know her speak of her ‘people skills’. She has been known to argue that ‘kindness is an underrated leadership quality’.

Who is ‘the person’? Dawes was educated at the single-sex, independent Malvery Girls’ College in Worcestershire. From there, she went to New College, Oxford, graduating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics in 1987, followed by a MSc in Economics at Birkbeck. In 1992, she married to political editor Benedict (Ben) Brogan, now group director of public affairs at Lloyds Banking Group. They have an 18-year-old daughter. She is a fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

Fundamentally, though, Dawes is an enemy of complacency. She is not afraid of going out of her comfort zone, and she encourages others to ‘take risks’. She acknowledges that change will take hard work, energy, and intelligence. But it will also require a belief that it is possible. Her optimism is legendary: ‘It won’t be easy’, she admits, ‘But it can be done’.

By accepting this College Fellowship, Melanie Dawes signals her support of our mission: to make a difference in people’s lives. We are thrilled that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.