Whitehall takes to the NHS front line

First hand experience of the NHS will help Whitehall communicators better understand their audience.

Sam Lister: Director of comms at the Department of Health
Sam Lister: Director of comms at the Department of Health

Most journalists will say there's one core tenet to the job: the most impactful, enlightening reporting comes from witnessing events, and if you aren't interested in enquiring, don't turn up for work.

But as Fleet Street has wrestled with financial pressures and ambitions for multi-channel expansion, the primacy of frontline experience has come under threat. It has spawned the term "churnalism" - the hack at his or her desk, churning out recast press releases, wire agency reports and prepackaged odds and sods.

The bottom line has been that the medium, its message and the audience are much the poorer for it.

It is a risk worth reflecting on for government comms, where the size of some portfolios - the volume of policies to PR, crises to calm and channels to manage - can leave communicators consumed by campaign strategies, mandarins and ministerial masters. Losing sight of the public when communicating public service reform might be inexcusable, but it's easily done.

When I arrived at the Department of Health a few years ago, the DH was enduring intense criticism over a perceived failure to articulate a reform programme to its core audience of patients and health staff.

The communication was seen as too much about solutions to policy puzzles and complex system change; a Whitehall conceit on a whiteboard, miles from the public's day-to-day experience of the NHS.

The Francis Inquiry report on excess death rates and negligent care at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, published in February, further underlined the importance of the front line for effective communication. It prompted a wave of soul-searching in the NHS, and a major drive for a more patient-centred, transparent culture.

The inquiry challenged the department over Whitehall isolationism and how the work the DH directs, the policies it develops and how it engages with people should be more grounded in reality.

A programme was developed in response; a first for both a Whitehall department and a government comms workforce. Starting this summer, DH civil servants will spend up to a month a year shadowing on the front line, from hospitals and GPs' surgeries to care homes and charities.

I have witnessed varied and powerful stories in my two weeks so far, from the A&E patient coming in for the 217th time to the transformative impact of a general ward for patients who also have dementia.

The shadowing programme is in its early days, but it feels like an advancement in how a department communicates. It is enhancing relationships, reducing Whitehall remoteness and improving our understanding of audiences.

It has helped flag issues in the health comms community and it is providing an opportunity to discuss positive stories. And you can see at first hand the pressured parts of the service, and the problems that need to be confronted and communicated head-on.

Whitehall comms may at times feel like a far cry from the world of shoe-leather reporting, but as the basis for compelling comms, the lessons of the front line still apply.

Sam Lister is director of comms at the Department of Health

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