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Identity Crisis (DC Comics)

Rescue is on the way; thank goodness for the superhero to save us. (DC Comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, there is the proposed NHS Reinstatement Bill, a lobby document which lays out a way to reverse many NHS reforms.

This lobby document, which is what is it, is familiar reading, and brings back various structures that in the past have failed. You can find information on it at this link.

What is interesting about this approach is the aura of respectability that it wraps itself in, by proposing the changes as a legislative draft, almost as though it were ready to go to committee.  This is, obviously, an influencing tactic designed to force debate onto the topics covered in the proposed bill, and disarm critics who don’t agree that the points in the lobby document are the right starting points. In that respect, the lobby document polarises positions, particularly against current policy direction.

The whole lobby document’s comments and notes identifies proposed changes to a variety of existing legilsation. What we don’t find, though is any evidence that the authors were in any way persuasive  or influential during public consultations at the time. We call that ‘sour grapes’.

Approaches such as this suffer from the following:

  1.  a belief that the fundamental values underpinning the health service can only be protected in a particular way and these are the ways things used to be.
  2. a belief that the changes that have been made have violated these values; moreover, that the solutions have made things ‘worse’ as they see it.
  3. selective use of academic research to support the positions that one wishes to avoid changing.

New PublicManagement as reform of government itself must sit uncomfortably with this regressive thinking.

For the authors, they would no doubt point to market failure logic to prove that the NHS should not be ‘marketised’ as they put it, forgetting that a greater fear is ‘government failure’, for which there is ample evidence, not just with the NHS but a whole host of other public initiatives and legislation that has wasted public money.

Healthcare systems are complex and by trying to overlay what they see as simple solutions to the problems they claim arise from the reform agenda of past years, they misrepresent what the actual problems are. As messy, or complex/wicked, challenges, the authors believe that by taking away that messiness, they’ll also take away the problems. But they know just as well as anyone, that their solutions will only create, perhaps even recreate, the very problems that led to reform in the first place, except now they will be today’s problems, not yesterday’s.

One might argue that the authors are committing a type 3 error, of unintentionally solving the wrong problem well, but that would assume that they have are not clear in their minds what they are proposing. Therefore, it appears they are do know better and are committing a type 4 error, of intentially solving the wrong problem well because that fits with their policy preferences, or prejudices.

That’s why this is a lobby document, designed to intensionally convince, (is mislead too strong?) others of their definition of what the NHS problem is.

Regardless, the lobby document and the authors are caught by a fundament policy trap: of solving the wrong problem.

Want to know more?

Government failure in the UK is examined in Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, 2013 (@Amazon) and in Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it, 2013. (@Amazon)

New Public Management was originally conceptualised by Christopher Hood, in 1991, A Public Management for All Seasons. Public Administration, 69 (Spring), 3-19. Some (Dunlevey et al) argue that New Public Management is dead and that governance in the digital era requires greater, not less, government. That may be the case for some, but if you actually look at the tools that are available to government in a digital world, you’d find that there is little reason for government to own or run very much. See Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts, The Tools of Government in the Digital Age, 2007. (@Amazon)

I have found Leslie David Simon’s book, NetPolicy.com (Woodrow Willson Centre, 2000) an early, and compelling way of laying out the digital agenda in a policy context really well. (@Amazon)

I would also recommend Vito Tanzi, Government versus Markets: the changing economic role of the state, 2011. (@Amazon)

 

Ann Glover, as reported on Euractiv (here):

But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. …

To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’. However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda. “If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.

Disturbing stuff. In my role as an advisor and having taught policy development to civil servants, I have emphasised their responsibility to “speak truth to power”. If, as Glover says, this isn’t happening within the European policy-making machinery, then that may explain much policy creep at the Commission level.

Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour

The policy process: Not what Ann Glover has in mind? Source: Giant Squid, Glover's Harbour (Photo credit: Product of Newfoundland)

Her characterisation of European civil servants wind-up toys, that just run off and do what they are told suggests there could be some danger to good governance from hyperactive civil servants who unthinkingly do what they’re told with dossiers that should be binned. This suggest two things problems: the first is the quality of guidance on developing policy options itself, how to work with external advisors (carefully by the way) and the second is that the interface between the most senior level and Commissioners lacks candour and the failure of the most senior to truth to power. This is evidence of cowardice. at least, and incompetence at most.

Her remarks suggest that perhaps Glover hasn’t also been particularly effective elevating the evidence base of policy-making itself.  Her solution, though, is seriously flawed. She seems to believe that it is possible to create a definitive evidence base around which all can agree and that it is indeed possible in policy processes to factor out the political dimension. The ‘symmetry of ignorance’ [see NOTES below] explains why a room full of experts don’t usually agree and why it is relatively easy for ‘my’ experts to challenge ‘your’ experts. Policy problems are complex, sometimes called wicked, problems, and that means that one single course of action is unlikely, that interventions may create new problems, and unlike (scientific) problems, you may not know when you’ve solved the problem (called ‘the stopping’ problem).

What science dislikes is absence of agreement (e.g. science is about proof, not consensus), whereas policy is about consensus and disagreement: the result is one of the following: do nothing, act from the precautionary principle (i.e. do something just in case, but knowing there isn’t really any good evidence), guess, compromise or satisficing [see NOTES below].  Scientists often believe that evidence leads unequivocally to specific policy actions, but this is just one view of the world. While Glover has claimed to provide independent advice, she has actualy provided ‘her’ advice, reflecting how she weighs the balance of evidence against her understanding and framing of the problems and choices on offer from what she has read, and the people she has spoken to. One could legitimately ask whether her academic roots and scientific preferences as a biologist have preconditioned her towards thinking about policy problems and evidence in a particular way.That does not detract from her alarm at the policy machinery, but does inform our assessment of her proposed solution.

Hasn’t anyone read Feyerabend?

Therefore, purely technocratic policy governance, as I think Glover is advocating, is flawed and likely dangerous as it replaces the messiness of the real world of policy problems and choice-making with tidy authoritarianism.

Equally worrying is her comment on the quality of advice from paid consultants. I once put a dossier to a DG to be be an advisor, but haven’t been called (we’re up to almost 3 years, so I guess I shouldn’t expect the phone to ring!)  It is the job of advisors to advise, and that means also saying when something is not a good idea. That the European Commission has constructed a giant out-sourced advisory industry is not surprising as it is actually a tactic to cement the European project by creating an advisory system that works in harmony with the Commission’s objectives. That so many consultancies have fallen for this trick and taken the bait is disappointing but not surprising.

Many of the Commission-funded consultancy reports I have read have started and ended with the merits of the proposed Commission actions. I can’t recall a report that said something shouldn’t be done. It is also a tactic in assessing policy options (what Glover refers to as risk assessment) to write the most about the favoured option and less about the least favoured option.I blogged here on a Commission consultancy meeting, the cost of which was no doubt staggering; the Commissioner spoke on what she wanted, everyone agreed, the presentations showed how Europe would be a better place if this were done and everyone agreed with everyone, had a nice lunch and the many unpaid interns took notes for their CVs to PR firms or consultancies so they could get more work. And so the system feeds itself by indoctrinating people into the world of uncritical agreement.

Now, for disclosure, I have been ticked off by Commission civil servants for things I’ve said that were not European Commission

doctrine. Perhaps that explains why my dossier is in a box on the bottom shelf.

NOTE:

Symmetry of Ignorance: The expertise and ignorance is distributed over all participants in a wicked problem. There is a symmetry of ignorance among those who participate because nobody knows better by virtue of his degrees or his status. There are no experts (which is irritating for experts), and if experts there are, they are only experts in guiding the process of dealing with a wicked problem, but not for the subject matter of the problem. Source: Horst Rittel, 1972 “On the planning crisis”.

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution.

In Canada, healthcare in British Columbia is slowly coming apart because of the existence of a private health clinic.

Canada

Afraid, very afraid.

This link is to a legal foundation that takes on legal cases such as this and provides a reasonable overview of the situation: LINK

In Canada there is continuing debate whether the Canada Health Act‘s language that healthcare be publicly administered, means that it must be government-run. A Senate report (LINK here to the final report) of some years ago drew the view that this one of the great myths of Canadian healthcare, but the more publicly acceptable Romanov report caved in to political correctness and said that people preferred a government monopoly.

There is, however, an interesting problem that state monopolies can cause: namely that they may be manifestly unable to provide the services that they monopolise. That is to say, the government controls the whole healthcare system in some form (what in Canada is referred to in part as a single payer system, but in the case of providers, excludes providers that are emantions of the state — i.e. publicly mandated in some form) and in so doing does not provide the range of services or access provisions to meet those obligations. Now, at a simple level, would a rational person accept to buy a service from an organisation acting as a monopoly that could not meet their needs? Unlikely and we’d most likely find somewhere else to get what we needed; but what if you have no choice? This is the essence of the problem in Canada.

The European Court of Justice rulings have caused so much change in access to healthcare across Europe but the really important, in my view, relevant to healthcare actually aren’t about healthcare.  In some work I did a few years ago, some ECJ cases are instructive and may serve to help Canadian authorities identify key factors for their own decision making; the last one of the list is the one that is most interesting:

  • CBEM v CLT and IBP Case C 311/84 [1985] ECR 3261: statutory monopolies have a dominant position in the market
  • Bobson v Pompes Funebres des regions liberyees Case 30/87 [1988] ECR 2479: states may not use a dominant economic position to fix prices and restrict market entry of competitors
  • RTT v GB-INNO Case C 18/88: public undertakings operating public infrastructures abuse their dominant position by excluding third-party service and content competitors
  • Merci Convenzionali Porto di Genova SpA v Siderurgica Gabrielle Case C 179/90: dominant positions are not in illegal, but undertakings may not be created which cannot help but abuse that dominant position in what they are tasked to do by the state
  • Hofner and Elser v Macrotron GmbH Case C 41/90 [1993] 4 CMLR 306: states may not create economic entities with dominant positions that are unable to meet the demand for services, or distort the competitive structure of economic markets.

Now, the ECJ rulings may or may not interest folks in Canada as this would not necessarily present a ‘made in Canada’ solution. It is a sine qua non of Canadian healthcare that the state edifice, constructed by the Canada Health Act, protects Canadians from healthcare costs and trades off greater choice and service access (i.e. waiting times) for that benefit.

Of course, one might argue that healthcare isn’t an economic market, but in fact it is hard not to think of it as such for a number of reasons. It accounts for about 10% of most economies, perhaps 5% of the workforce is employed in healthcare, it comprises provider and payer bodies that interact with each other through contractual arrangements of one sort or another, and there are user fees/copayments, or reimbursements to patients which clearly suggest some sort of economic transaction. Keeping things simple helps, and avoiding the usual arguments that patients are unable to make informed choices or generally do not as such ‘choose’ healthcare as a consumable good, but are forced into a transaction by their liver or heart or an accident. How we get their seems irrelevant: it would be like arguing that the housing market wasn’t a market because people are ‘forced’ into needing housing, or even food….

In my view it is time for the Canada Health Act to be interpreted in the form that Kirby and others in their Senate report urged and enable greater contestability of the provision of healthcare, as long as the basic underlying principles of community risk sharing on the payment side isn’t compromised. It is this latter point that was the essence of the ruling of the US Supreme Court (the bit about mandates and whether payment was a tax or a penalty).

No country today sensibly tries to restrict provision so long as they have control of the payment levers. However, and here austerity raises an ugly presence, healthcare is the biggest item in the provincial budgets and unless the provincial governments figurer out how to bend the cost curve down, this cost area will continue to consume a larger and larger chunk of provincial expenditure. Solutions lie, in part, in creating conditions for consumer (patient) driven reforms; there are no incentives for health professionals to do things differently (i.e. less expensively) when the state decides the structure and capacity of the healthcare system, which might actually under specify what is needed, but overpay for that capacity. Across Europe, healthcare costs are included in the national debt restructuring but we don’t see enough reform efforts as the bulk of the research has focused on state-mandated health reform so little is know about how to take apart a health system. The same holds true in countries like Canada. Sclerotic administrative practices and controls that manifestly restrict freedom of consumers to choose and those choices to lead to system reform need rooting out.

Regretfully, it appears, like in all things that really matter, the courts will force the health reform debate.

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Capturing race

Is HTA like GO? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Increasingly widespread amongst the world’s healthcare systems is the assessment of medicines and devices using various types of cost-benefit or cost-utility analysis; this is called health technology assessment or HTA. HTA seeks to determine, using evidence of one sort or another, whether something is broadly speaking affordable, taking account of the cost of the medicine/device taken against the benefit to a particular constellation of diagnostic attributes in patients. This is usually quantified in a measure called a QALY: a quality-adjusted life year, which is a way to assess the value for money of a particular health technology. In short, it is a way of valuing lives.

HTA is a utilitarian approach to assessment. To some extent, this is not surprising as HTA is in the main a method developed by health economists, who, like economists in general, hypothesise that we make daily decisions based on the utilty of this or that, in terms of trade-offs (Pareto optimisation, for instance) and rational decision making (that people seek to maximise value, or utility in what they do). This approach is increasingly in dispute in light of the findings from neurosciences and behaviour economics: by posting that people do not always make decisions that are in their own best interests, a key assumption of traditional economics, that of the rational actor, always calculating trade-offs and maximising benefits, and so on, is questioned.

The problem with utilitarianism, though, is it doesn’t pay attention to the freedom of the individual; it positions the justification of its results on the net benefit to society, regardless of the impact on rights of individuals. Obviously, health economists don’t watch Star Trek or they would know that the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. But then, that, too, is a moral position.

Indeed, it is perhaps the sense that utilitarian conclusions don’t seem to correlate with many people’s moral sentiments that may explain why decisions of HTA agencies, for instance NICE in the UK (England) lead to moral outrage and a sense of, if not injustice, at least unfairness. While the results of an HTA process may lead to a quantitatively defensible conclusion, people sense that this conclusion is not morally defensible.

How are we to judge? Few would use utilitarian arguments in this way in other spheres: would we calculate who needs welfare in terms of the net benefit to society in terms of quality of life years, though perhaps we do allocate welfare on moral assumptions that some people deserve welfare while others don’t.

Do we allocate support to communities ravaged by floods based on their overall contribution, or utility, to society.  If you could donate £10 million to a university, would you pick Oxford University or Thames Valley University; which one is more worthy? But would you want to treat people this way?

HTA doesn’t even let us value lives in quite this way, since it neatly avoids deciding about the worth of any particular type of person, who just happens through misfortune to find themselves needing some medicine that fails the HTA tests. HTA keeps us from confronting the fact that HTA is a way of drawing a conclusion, without actually having to decide any allocations for any one person in particular. Bentham would approve.

There is, though, a technical problem with HTA and it has to do with whether at one level of assessment outcome, a utilitarian models can be used when the decision to be made does not have life threatening consequences for some people.

If the QALY threshold is, say £35,000, as it apparently is in the case of NICE, are the decisions below that threshold, which tend toward ‘yes’ or ‘approval’ morally different from decisions above that threshold?  I suggest that different moral criteria come into play above the threshold and this is where I think out moral outrage should be directed and where HTA fails.  Regretfully, HTA models see the results as broadly continuous, that is, decisions above and below this threshold are seen as essentially of the same type.  But I have argued elsewhere that above the threshold, HTA models fail but for reasons other their analytical soundness, because above this threshold, the conclusions may lead to a lessened quality of life, in other words, they actually crystallise the health outcome rather than avoid it.

Therefore, in valuing lives, those above the threshold experience greater injustice than those below; they are treated differently, unfairly, unjustly, perhaps less worthy, but certainly differently.  Indeed, above the threshold, we feel we are more in the realm of our moral sentiments about the value of human life, and less our moral sentiments about the allocation of scarce resources.

If this were not so, then we would be living in a society that believes that the determinant of all important moral and political decisions is affordability, and if that were so, they we could not even afford the costs of inefficiency brought on by democracy, the inconvenience of not being able to exploit people, the costs of equal rights.

Perhaps, though, on our financially contaminated world, all we can think about today is money and that is further contaminating our perception of what sort of society we are actually trying to foster.  Certainly, protests on Wall Street and elsewhere point to the view that there seems to be some unjust allocation of the benefits of government bail-outs that just doesn’t benefit those ‘at the bottom’.

John Rawls wrote that the we should distribute opportunity in a society in such a way as to ensure that the least well off benefit the most. In the context of HTA, medicines and technologies that benefit only a few, but at great cost, represent a cost worth having as the least well off, namely those who would need it most ( have the condition it treats, and in some societies can afford it least), would benefit, even if a little, as that is the price we pay for justice.

This, I suggest, is the root of our moral outrage at HTA, that is unjustly fails to serve those who need it most.

I am left with wondering about the underlying morality of HTA as a government scheme. Governments, as we know, are the last resort, when things are tough and one would hope, ensure that the least well-off in society are not penalised simply in virtue of being least well-off.  In healthcare, someone has to be the carer of last resort; using HTA as a way of avoiding this responsibility is not morally defensible.

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Urinal

Industry accountability for public contracts. (Photo credit: Ron Knox 2001)

I was watching the Public Accounts Committee on 23 May 2011 take evidence from IT suppliers and NHS executives on the NHS IT contracts. This monstrous contract was doomed from the start, yet few seemed to be in a position of influence to alter the ‘group think’ that prevailed in government. Civil servants and ministers seemed to breath each other’s air as they pursued this pig in a poke. Worringly, the PAC exchanges shed a bit of light but more revealing was the lack of common language amongst those concerned. Frequently, answers were not relevant to the question, used jargon or introduced further obfuscation.

In the end, whether supplier or NHS exec, the PAC was faced with a sea of denial, avoidance, or sheer hubris. I say hubris as NHS executives in particular were at pains to avoid rocking their own boat by being completely candid about things, preferring warm phrases that all was well, despite the CEO of the NHS being unable to answer many questions clearly, and seemed painfully ill-informed of his brief.

Evidence of obfuscation abounded as the MPs had to ask suppliers many times to answer with yes/no to what were straightforward questions. I was impressed with the efforts of some MPs (Bacon in particular) to get clear answers to important questions.  As a rule, complex answers betray a lack of understanding of the underlying logic — there are simple answers to these questions, not ‘it depends’ or ‘you’re comparing apples and oranges, pears’; indeed, at one point, the sessions seemed more about the comparative merits of different fruits than IT procurement. As well, the lack of clarity of underlying logic also evidences people were unable to agree on what the core problems were.  Now, granted for some this is likely to be a complex problem (in the technical sense of the word, a wicked problem), but I doubt that — the NHS’s needs and responsibilities are complex, but an electronic health record is a thing, with a defined functionality.

I remember sitting in a room just as this NHS IT for heatlhwas being firmed up (2002), and hearing the Director (Granger) at the time speak glowingly of the benefits. Upon hearing this, others in the international teleconference asked, “surely you’re not serious about doing this”, to be told, “absolutely”. As is said, act in haste, repent at leisure.

An important question was, knowing what we know today, was the original decision to proceed with this central and top-down approach sensible? The answers were evasive and broadly technically wrong. In 2002, it was perfectly possible to develop distributed systems, with broadly distributed functionality using various systems integration options to enable diverse technical architectures to co-exist to deliver uniform service. No one wanted to think that way for a couple of reasons. The first is ego: grand plans appeal to people’s ego needs, to be in charge of something big. The Director at the time exhibited serious Machiavellian behaviours, and failed miserably to engage users.  The second is conceptual: at the time, Department of Health and NHS executives were still thinking the NHS was a single lumpen thing that needed single solutions to its complex problems. In the early 2000s and late 1990s, that the NHS should be seen as a complex adaptive system was understood, but not acknowledged as it flew in the face of prevailing ideology about central control, driven by the mistaken (technical) belief that a distributed system, while diverse and pluralistic, would be unable to deliver a common standard of performance.

In the end, you end up with a system that is rigid, technically obsolete as soon as it starts operating and because it fails to evolve with changing clinical needs, which will change as clinicians become familiar with the technology and comfortable with its use, and start to specify more sophisticated applications. That some PAC evidence said that clinician need had evolved is nonsense — we know then that these were the core needs. Anyway, we’re moving on to smartphone apps, and there is little evidence that the system can accommodate the wireless world of healthcare. The best selling clinical app is ePocrates, for drug information. How many clinicians have that app? How many clinicians are using smartphones? Distributed and simple systems can deliver often quite complex solutions; for instance, the Danish electronic prescribing system was built on simple secure emails.

The approach that was ignored at the time was this:

  1. specify common standards of interconnectivity and functionality, that is results;
  2. allow providers to use whatever system they wished as long as it met these requirements;
  3. allow the system to evolve over time as needs become better understood;
  4. start with the patients who are heavy users (high risk/high utilisation) and roll out from there.

That’s it.

Where the English NHS and Department also lost the plot was failing to exploit the NHS IT project to drive innovation into the IT sector to encourage the formation of a potentially world-class health IT industry in the UK. Is it any coincidence that the main solutions are from outside the UK and the critical supplier expertise betrayed North American origins?

This is a real shame, as once again the Department has shown antipathy toward enabling a commercially successful and innovative health supplier industry, in favour of mean-spirited control. This was perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, as instead, the Department came up with false logic of needing suppliers of scale (who are now quasi-monopolists).  Indeed, one member of the PAC did question whether CSC’s corporate logic was to make itself a monopoly supplier to the NHS.

The tragedy, too, is that virtually all the functionality that the NHS needs can be downloaded for free in the form of open source software.

Finally, the best thing the NHS and the Department could do is make sure all that intellectual property that has accumulated is given away, to try again to jump-start a health IT industry. If there is a value-for-money lesson the PAC could draw it is to determine whether there is sufficient residual value in the NHS IT procurement to be translated into investment in the economy, to build new suppliers to the NHS and perhaps the world. An opportunity awaits.

UPDATE

I thought I’d add reference to this diagram on distributed clinical systems. The copyright dates from 2002, a time when the PAC was told such capability didn’t exist. The diagram is taken from the OpenEHR website, which adds “Much of the current openEHR thinking on distributed computing environments in health is based on the excellent previous works of the (then) OMG Corbamed taskforce, and the Distributed Healthcare Environment (DHE) work done in Europe in EU-funded projects such as RICHE and EDITH, and the HANSA and PICNIC implementation projects.”  In those days, the UK’s NHS was still charting a proprietary, and non-standard, approach to EHRs and clinical systems; an example of one failed programme is the ‘common basic specification’ — there is an interesting commentary here on some reasons why it failed.

 

Diagram of a distributed clinical system, ca 2002

 

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A valid rack for several poolbillardtypes like...

As in pool, health policy is full of uncertainty -- get used to it.

I disagree with Chris Ham (CEO of the King’s Fund) that the ‘arm wrestling’ within the coalition is bad for the NHS (see here) Chris seems to believe it is better to have public agreement, and private disagreement, than the debate being played out in public for all to see.

The Coalition is made up of parties with different ideologies, though both should be broadly libertarian and their default political posture should favour citizen empowerment.  What Chris, and others apparently are missing is the comfortable fit of public policy and top-down policy-making, something neither Conservatives nor Liberals should favour, if, and I emphasise IF, they are true to their ideologies. But NHS thinking has generally been authoritarian, top-down and favouring a default logic of state mandated reform, rather than bottom-up reform. That this comfort zone is being sought causes me great discomfort. Perhaps, too, they miss being paid attention to, as Coalition politics does derive more sustenance from the public sphere, than majoritarian politics.

If, as Chris asserts, it is causing health professionals to be anxious or that it is stopping people from doing their jobs, then the problem lies with the NHS not the political debate. Having spent time in hospital management, while we may have had our anxieties with public policy, it never stopped us from getting on with the business of running a hospital.  If this is in fact true, though, then the public should be far more concerned with the ability of the NHS to deliver a service than it might already be, and far more concerned with that than a lack of political consensus within a Coalition government — where differences of opinion should be expected, not supressed.

The real public policy challenge of the current debate is less about the elements of reform than the mode of its presentation — regretfully, the Coalition appears to be buying off the vested interest groups and forgotten about the long-suffering patient and health consumer for whom the system exists in the first place.

These reforms are minor compared to the really urgent priority of ensuring that financial discipline exists within the system, that it is responsive and innovative, and can in fact reform itself from within — what is called emergent reform, quite natural in complex adaptive systems, but not familiar to people who when push comes to shove prefer the comfort of authoritarian policy.

Unsurprisingly, as you move closer to government, one finds increasing policy authoritarianism. I should blog a bit about how policy options are suppresed within government, how policy consultation processes selectively filter options out that are probably the best solutions, and how the upward accountability of civil servants to ministers often fails to pass the test of ‘speaking truth to power’.  And this is not to ignore the behaviour of ministers to ignore the advice of civil servants, and to prefer to take their options from the public space, something that can upset overly academic policy groups and think tanks, who live and die by the press they get.

I doubt there will ever be a time when there will be a consensus on health policy. Differences actually matter in policy and are evidence of opportunities for reform itself.

The pluralism that the NHS so badly needs, to replace the one-size-fits-all mentality, should be the direction of travel.

300 The Movie

Health Politics (Photo credit: Quang Minh (YILKA))

The NHS Confederation wants it all to stop, according to journalist reporting in the press (for example, here).

Over the years, there has always been this fear of the words NHS and political football being in the same sentence. Perhaps the better approach for both the government and the NHS would be for the NHS to more explicitly engage in the political debate.

Mike Farrar, the new head of the NHS Confederation (which seems to have its own problems), says that the system is a democracy. Yes, but what does that mean? It should mean empowered to participate in the machinery of democracy and political debate, and not just take orders.

By explictly engaging in the political debate, NHS actors would widen the marketplace in ideas that the political space needs to chart the future direction for the NHS. This would create greater political space between the NHS (whatever that actually means these days), the civil servants in the Department of Health, and the political machinery of government. At least at a public level, NHS actors have avoided the political dimension, thinking it a better strategy not to become ensnared in the politics. But of course, their political debates are more likely to be argued through responses to government consultation documents, presentations to the Health Commmittee, exchanges at professional conferences (but this is frequently a one-way dialogue), and closed door meetings. They are all generally well-behaved, articulate and ineffective, but importantly not engaging citizen preferences.

This stance may be past it usefulness, especially if the providers of care are supposed to really engage with their local communities.

The purchasing side of the equation is equally fraught with avoidance of too much public engagement and as a consequence, purchasers (I do like that word), seem destined for provider capture, and the protection of legacy provision (mainly to avoid any hint of private sector participation). Hardly a reform agenda. The new Agences Regionales de Sante in France may actually show how this should be done, but again that is another story. Major reform is not just a UK thing.

Providers have weak public affairs capabilities, little political nous, and less ability to galvanise public understanding of the options facing providers. They, too, may be subject to capture by their own professional staff, so disruptive changes are avoided to keep the peace.  Foundation Trusts may not exercise their autonomy well, perhaps discomfited with the notion of too much autonomy generating an unfavourable press.

Anyway, one benefit of greater engagement in the political arena would be to shift the logic internally from the NHS being a policy-taker, waiting for the politicians to decide what to do, to becoming a more active participant in the marketplace of ideas for the healthcare, in effect a policy-giver. As such, the NHS, taken together, has virtually no political capacity, no capacity to develop structural options, no formal relationship with the public to seek their views on this or that.

All this has been handled by the Department of Health which sets the tone for the political debate and defines what is and isn’t in the frame from a reform perspective. This serves the Department just fine, as it furthers the role of the Department of Health as being responsible for the publicly funded health system, which is not a bad thing given how much public money it consumes. But it also means that the Department is the only one framing the political debate, and that is not particularly good for democracy. And not all political positions need to be played out in the Commons, but can be debated vigourously in the real world as NHS organisations drive forward changes. Keeping NHS organisations on a short lead only means more work for the Department of Health, but less value being derived from all the people running hospitals and clinics.  It is time to replace notions of the NHS as a single ‘thing’, like supertanker which takes forever to change, with the concept of a school of fish, which can change direction really easily and quickly.  See my blog post on distributed systems in health care here.

But arguments are what they get because the object of their affections has weak autonomous and collective decision-making structures, and a cognitive capacity to engage in the arena of ideas except through special interest groups such as the health professions or Royal Colleges, or the Confed. These do not represent the interests of the provider side of the NHS, but only their interpretation of these interests through their own lens on the NHS.

The Confed is not sufficiently robust to act in a political capacity in this arena despite publishing various position papers and having a lobby office in Brussels (funded I believe in part by the soon to depart Strategic Health Authorities), and attracting high-profile people, all of which are worthy.  But the Confed is shot through with conflict of interest problems and may not be certain what its role is — time will tell.

Mr Farrar speaks in this article of a ‘public interest test’, for example. Well, the challenge for NHS structures is simply to introduce it as a matter of managerial autonomy and good practice. If it is such a good idea, why wait for the government to make up its mind. With all the smart people supposedly thinking grand thoughts about the future of the NHS, would it be too much to expect someone to be courageous enough simply to get on with putting these ideas into practice, to test them out.

It would also nicely balance the political realm, as the NHS actors would be demonstrating their ability to get on their job of managing the healthcare system with innovative approaches, without legislative intervention.

The problem as always is courage.

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