Editorial: Reputation risk lurks in the forum

Seven sector leaders have a chance to influence government policy by joining the 'listening exercise' on the NHS, but should take care to guard their independence, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The government finds itself in a very deep hole over the proposed reforms to the NHS and has now set up what it calls a "listening exercise" that will last 10 weeks and is designed to find a politically viable way forward. A smarter idea might have been to do the listening before railroading an ill-conceived policy to its current stalemate, but it's better late than never.

Last week, seven voluntary sector leaders announced they were to join the exercise, which has been christened the NHS Future Forum. Sir Stephen Bubb has even agreed to take two months away from his job running the chief executives body Acevo to "take the lead" in the strand of the forum's work that relates to choice and competition.

The Department of Health is going to reimburse Acevo for his salary for this period, following that organisation's well-established 'full cost recovery' principles.

It will be argued that it is better for the sector to be inside rather than outside the tent when such a vital policy area is under review, and that there is a rare opportunity here for health charities to exert significant influence on ministers and policymakers. It is indeed their chance to press for their specialist, patient-centred services to gain better access to the NHS on a more level playing field.

But there are reputational risks here as well. The government's overriding imperative is to get its flagship reforms back on track, and there is a danger that it will try to use the sector as window-dressing in this essentially political enterprise. The sector leaders involved would do well to guard their independence and sup with a long spoon at this particular gathering.

In this connection, Bubb confides on his blog that he was persuaded by the Department of Health press office not to take up a BBC interview slot about his appointment. This is hardly a good omen, and he would do well to fulfil quickly his accompanying pledge that this unusual silence on his part won't last. In an arrangement like this, it needs to be absolutely clear who's calling the shots.

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