Politicians’ role in the running of the NHS needs to be better defined to counter interventionist and centralising tendencies that have hampered effective reform to date, says a report.
The report, Reforming the NHS from within: beyond hierarchy, inspection and markets, argues that a new political settlement is needed that clarifies the strategic role of ministers in determining funding, establishing priorities and providing accountability to Parliament, and leaves local NHS leaders with the space to innovate and lead service change.
This settlement should reflect lessons learnt from the experience of the present government’s health reforms, which have failed to distance ministers from the operational management of the NHS as originally intended.
The King’s Fund report challenges the dominant approaches to NHS reform over the past 20 years – targets and performance management; inspection and regulation; and competition and choice.
It argues for a fundamental shift in how the NHS is reformed. The NHS needs to move on from prescriptive, top-down approaches to change by progressing from:
– large-scale structural reforms towards locally derived solutions
– ‘heroic’ pace-setting leadership approaches towards supporting staff to lead change and improvement
– a focus on external pressures such as targets and inspection towards supporting improvement ‘from within’.
The report argues for a stronger emphasis on devolution within the NHS and a more proportionate approach to regulation, learning from the experience of foundation trusts.
Foundation trusts are an example of where ministers have previously attempted to devolve accountability and decision-making, but promised freedoms have failed to materialise, with the result that foundation trusts are now as likely to look up to regulators, as out to the communities they serve.
The report draws on examples of high-performing healthcare organisations here and abroad to show how appealing to the intrinsic motivation of staff to provide the best possible care and strengthening leadership can drive reform from within. These examples demonstrate that a shared culture and patient-centred vision are more important than structural changes in bringing about improvements in care.
Chris Ham, chief executive of The King’s Fund and the report’s author, said: “Increasingly secretaries of state have felt the personal pressure to be seen as the visible and activist leader of the NHS. Yet, transforming the NHS depends much less on bold strokes and big gestures by politicians than on engaging doctors, nurses and other staff in improving care.
“Our report finds that by learning from high-performing health organisations here and abroad, we can move away from top-down change to locally derived solutions. Above all, change must be underpinned by a commitment to put patients first – this commitment has to come from within organisations and cannot be mandated from outside.’
The report suggests that future NHS reforms should focus on:
– embracing complementary approaches to reform
– demarcating the role of politicians
– promoting transparency
– enabling devolution
– being realistic about inspection and regulation
– seeing competition as one means to improve care rather than a guiding principle
– supporting integration of care
NHS Confederation chief executive Rob Webster added: “This new report adds further weight to the clear and growing consensus that if health and care services are to continue to meet people’s changing needs, we need to deliver care in new ways at a local level. Local heath and care leaders must be given the freedom and flexibility to work in partnership with each other, and the public, to deliver the most appropriate solutions for the local population.
“A new style of leadership is needed, one which is values-based and rooted in local settings, which considers the interests of the population as paramount, and which empowers to work across existing organisational and professional boundaries to make change happen, all supported by a culture of compassion and quality improvement.
“It is crucial that politicians listen and respond to the increasing range of voices calling on them to acknowledge the need to change, give the NHS the space to make that change, and remove political barriers to transforming our health and care system.”