Why are NHS managers so unpopular?

Health Service Journal (HSJ) was on its high horse last week.  Its front cover says “The Big Lie exposed: the truth about NHS management”.  The proximate cause is a report by the King’s Fund called The Future of Leadership and Management in the NHS.  This report suggests that the NHS doesn’t have too many managers, and that, if anything the service is under-managed.  The HSJ is directed at NHS managers, and it is easy to see why they are so fed up.  But the HSJ coverage has a blind spot.  It doesn’t ask how the NHS got itself into this situation, and why NHS managers have become politically toxic.  It’s no use waving around King’s Fund reports; if NHS managers don’t understand of this, they will struggle to reverse it.

But let’s clear the decks first.  The idea that the NHS has too many managers as opposed to those “front line” staff is silly, and the political target to reduce their number is at best unhelpful and at worst positively damaging.  In order to deploy those front-line resources most effectively, they need to be properly managed.  Huge strides have been made by the NHS through more and better management over the last couple of decades.  Furthermore, my impression of the quality of NHS management is that it is easily up to the same quality as the private sector.  That, of course, is not as much comfort as it might be, given that crass management is pretty rampant in the private sector.  So a lot of the political comments made about NHS management are unjust, unfair and often just plain untrue.

So what’s gone wrong?  Well a clue comes in the frequent use of the word “bureaucrat” by politicians.  This is a word thick with negative connotations, of insensitivity to people’s real needs and of the arbitrary exercise of power.  Many of the public’s interactions with NHS management have left just this sort of impression.

The NHS is a hierarchical organisation, with pretty much all accountability through a single man at the top, the Secretary of State.  To most people this is no accountability at all.  One man can’t possibly grasp the intricacies of any particular local situation.  So local NHS officials have huge amounts of effectively arbitrary power.  And they rub our noses in it.

When the local NHS where I live executed a 180 degree turn and decided to close a local hospital rather than develop it, they rode roughshod over local feeling.  A local official just told us the area was too posh to have a hospital.  After a kerfuffle involving the local Labour (at the time) MP, more facilities were promised nearby in an appropriately less posh place – but of course these were soon cut, even before last year’s election.

The problem for most NHS managers is, I think, that they don’t remotely get what the problem here is.  Tough decisions have to be made.  If we followed local opinion all the time the NHS would go bust in days; if we kept consulting nothing would get done.  We have clear mission and we execute it.  NHS managers seem to bristle at the idea of genuine local accountability.  HSJ itself opposed the Lib Dem proposal of directly elected health boards.  Chaos.  Postcode lotteries.  Working for people that don’t understand.  And so on.  NHS managers are all too happy with their hierarchies, allowing them to pass the blame upwards the whole time.

But the local NHS is taking political decisions all the time.  For example, reducing health inequalities, a key local NHS objective, is loaded with political judgements.  A key political objective is to maintain middle class consent for the service; without middle class users the NHS would collapse (and we already have the example of NHS dentistry to show that).  So treating them like muck because they are on the wrong side of the equality equation should be a no-no.  Politicians can see that easily; bureaucrats can’t – it’s just not their problem.

And once you are perceived as an insensitive bureaucrat, the rest follows pretty quickly.  An organisation as large as the NHS will always throw up examples of crass management, which will be gleefully reported by patients and clinical staff alike.  And if managers are overstretched, they are bound to drop some balls too.  Episodes such as the Mid-Staffs fiasco add grist to the mill (and incidentally I did not sense much outrage from other NHS managers in the HSJ coverage of that sorry affair).  Throw in the management consultant blather dropped on the NHS (World Class Commissioning and such), and you have a massive stock of ammunition.

So NHS managers need a lot more political sensitivity, and should welcome more genuine political accountability instead of resisting it.  The NHS reforms are meant to help this, though whether do, of course, is another matter.