Public Health England lauded by international appraisal team

Written by Jim Dunton on 27 November 2017 in News
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But peer review finds HR qualms and suggests the organisation needs louder voice on air quality

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England. Credit: Photoshot

An international peer review team has praised Public Health England as a global exemplar for effective change-management and core health protection functions – but it has also pointed out areas in which the Department of Health executive agency could improve.

The report from the International Association of National Public Health Institutes said that in the five years since it was created PHE had transformed a “geographically and functionally siloed group of 129 bodies” into a “a strong, capable, coordinated, united and efficient public health agency that rivals any in the world”.

PHE’s immunisation programmes, intelligence services and its work on obesity, alcohol harm, and smoking-cessation were saluted by the IANPHI team, as was its work on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.


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Chief executive Duncan Selbie was also applauded for his “open, respectful and participatory leadership style” and for presiding over a “listening organisation” with a highly qualified leadership team. 

However the report also noted areas for improvement and recognised HR concerns within the organisation.

The IANPHI panel, led by Prof Dr Andre André van der Zande, who is director general of Holland’s National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, said groundwork underpinning the report had uncovered scope for an increased role for PHE in researching issues related to air pollution and developing resulting policy.

“While the Department of Health is responsible for the oversight and commissioning of public health research, a dedicated research fund at PHE, or the provision of additional government funds to address urgent implementation knowledge questions – including environmental-related conditions such as those linked to air pollution – could be considered,” it said.

“Numerous stakeholders suggested that PHE should have more of a leadership role in research to inform policy, particularly for air pollution.”

Other areas for improvement were a need to make better economic cases for prevention projects at an earlier stage – against a backdrop of changes to public health budgets, and a need to encourage an improved focus on prevention activity among NHS colleagues.

Despite acknowledging an “upward trend” in feedback from staff surveys, the panel identified “concerns about human resource-related issues such as organizational purpose, effective change-management and taking actions on results”.

It noted that while PHE’s advancing plans to centralise operations at a new headquarters in Harlow would support existing work to unify the agency, they also represented an “upsetting” time for staff, some of whom would have to “choose between long commutes, moving to the new location or finding employment elsewhere”. 

Responding to the review, Selbie thanked the eight-member panel for their time and commitment.

“Inviting an external body to give a frank assessment has provided us with both food for thought and reason to celebrate,” he said. “As ever, there is more to do but so much to be proud of too.”

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