Owen was previously a British civil servant in a career spanning a quarter of a century. He worked in H M Treasury, the office of the Prime Minister, and the UK Department for International Development. He has been the private secretary to the Prime Minister and to two Chancellors of the Exchequer. He also took breaks from the civil service to work in the South African Treasury, the Center for Global Development, Development Initiatives, and to be a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been on the board of several NGOs and an Associate at the Institute for Government.