A client of mine attended a conference last week of key figures from the UK’s National Health Service. He spent a total of eight hours in an auditorium with two hundred delegates listening to some big name (if not big talent) speakers and being amazed at the comments and questions from the floor. Never before, he tells me, had he witnessed such universal negativity and self-interest at an event like this. The whole sad moan-fest left him wanting to stand up and shout something like “Get a grip you sad, lazy idiots!”.

The demise of the UK’s once proud health service is the stuff of legend and there are many reasons why the jewel in the British crown has become so lacklustre. Fundamentally though, its about lousy management and a factor that, for our purposes right here, I’ll call “negative opportunism”, which was there in buckets-full at this conference.

I have witnessed this phenomenon many times in different places over the years and it has always annoyed me. Its when well-intentioned rules or procedures are laid down and those who are supposed to follow them immediately manipulate them to bring-about a situation where they feel they are excused from doing exactly what the rule is designed to achieve. Still with me? Good!

I am sure that it isn’t always entirely the fault of the people at the pointed end. After all, good rules are those that are most readily accepted and to achieve that much its a good idea to collaborate on their formulation with everyone that they affect. There’s a lack of this sometimes at UK government level – especially with our current government. Its also true that the UK health service has completely lost the plot. An organisation that was set up to ensure that basic healthcare was available to everyone is now unable to fund life-saving treatment for those with critical illnesses because its coffers have been drained by the cost of helping childless middle-class couples have quintuplets and women with large breasts have them reduced because it makes them self-conscious! Aneurin Bevan would turn in his grave!

At the conference in question my client reports that without exception the comments and questions from the floor were negative, destructive and un-cooperative. Everyone, it seemed was more concerned with proving that the system doesn’t work, or that expectations of them were unreasonably high than to get their arses into gear and make something happen. An accusation that might also be levelled at that other bastion of the lazy and self-interested, the UK teaching profession. I am not saying that this is a mind-set adopted by everyone employed in these public services. Of course it isn’t.  They may even be a minority, but sadly for us all, those with most influence are usually those with the biggest mouths and often the smallest intellect and it seems they were out in force last week.

I realise that these things aren’t as simple as they seem, but I et mad when there are fundamental mistakes or omissions.  What happens in the private sector that clearly doesn’t in the public is that businesses start with, or at least periodically identify, a fundamental objective or two and align their business structures and practices to realise them. In its simplest for, that’s what my Brand Discovery Programme does. If only we had a Brand Model for the National Health Service we could start on the internal marketing that every organisation needs to get its people behind the promise – and that I think is the key here. A Brand Model, correctly marketed internally gives good employees something reassuring  to focus on and provides floaters with a sense of purpose.  Once you start with this strategy it also becomes much easier to winkle out employees who, for their own reasons, are never going to comply with the spirit of the plan, which in this case it seems would have meant an empty auditorium!

Having admitted that it may not be so simple I have to say that this isn’t an excuse for not trying. I’m a UK tax-payer and I’m sick of wasting my tax money paying pubic servants to either do nothing to support, or actually work against the initiatives that could make our country a decent place to live. The good work that Margaret Thatcher did in starting to get us to think of running the country in the same fashion as we should run a business has almost entirely been undone in recent years.

I’m fascinated by the idea of applying commercial thinking, tools and practices to the public-sector, but sadly the successful businessmen who could make this kind of thing happen are usually too busy running their own enterprises to help out. There are exceptions, of course, and Tony Blair and to some extent Gordon Brown have done their best to harness this knowledge and experience by bringing in “government advisers” but it clearly hasn’t been enough.

Hopefully we will soon have a change of management and there will be a chance to start putting things right. I only hope that the patient hasn’t died before the treatment arrives!

Michael Weaver
May 29, 2008

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