Health dept work placement plans 'absurd', says Jenkin

Plans requiring senior civil servants at the Department of Health (DH) to spend 20 working days a year on the frontline are “absurd”, Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, said on Monday.

By Suzannah.Brecknell

23 May 2013

The plans were reported in The Times last weekend, before a formal announcement by the health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Asked by CSW to comment on the reports, Jenkin said it would be positive for senior civil servants to spend time on the frontline if the aim was to engage with and understand staff “as part of an act of leadership”.

However, he said that the plans as presented look like “an act of wanton self-ingratiation: ministers pandering to the prejudices of people on the frontline, instead of addressing the fundamental problems” in systems of leadership and policy-making.

He added that “it is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted if, in a panic, you’re educating people who should have had that experience long before they reach these senior positions.”

CSW first reported plans for DH officials to carry out frontline work placements in March. A letter from permanent secretary Una O’Brien said then that all staff should undertake five days of placements every year.

DH employees were given more details of the plans – which respond to the Francis report into patient care, and were developed with input from unions, employees and departmental NEDs – at staff events in early May. Senior staff were further briefed on the placements last week.

As the plans now stand, senior civil servants are expected to spend a month each year on work placements in GPs’ surgeries, hospitals, charities, care homes, and other delivery bodies.

The Times reported that senior officials “will have to empty bedpans, push trolleys and clean hospital floors,” quoting a Whitehall source who said that officials who fail to carry out the required amount of placements would lose out on promotions. A DH spokesman told CSW that this is an exaggeration, pointing out that the press release says that officials’ frontline experiences will be “reflected” in performance assessments.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: “If this initiative is about civil servants who are developing policy having a greater understanding of the NHS frontline – rather than being a publicity stunt on the back of the Francis Inquiry – it is to be welcomed; but to be taken seriously, it has to be backed up by resources.”

A spokesperson for the department told CSW that cover will not be provided for staff who are away from their offices, so no extra resources are required.

Permanent secretary Una O’Brien has already carried out placements in a hospital and a residential centre. She said: “I firmly believe our policies will improve further if we collectively have a broader grasp of how things work in practice and how people feel about their health and care.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the NHS revealed that chief exec Sir David Nicholson is to retire in March 2014.

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