The NHS has long been criticised for perceptions of spiralling management costs and bureaucracy, with NHS ‘spin doctors’ often finding themselves in the line of fire. For seasoned observers of this sport, the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s latest report into spending on NHS communications will be depressing and unsurprising in equal measure.
Let’s start with the facts. My organisation commissioned independent analysis from two academics to answer the question of whether the NHS is ‘over-managed’. Spoiler alert: the answer is no. NHS managers make up around two per cent of the workforce compared with managers in general making up 9.5 cent of the UK workforce.
By international standards, the NHS as a whole is under- not over-managed. Despite this, persistent and misleading headlines continue to claim the contrary.
That the TaxPayers’ Alliance has chosen to focus on management costs, and NHS communicators in particular, should come as no surprise. For those who want to denigrate the profession, it’s easy to construct an argument that NHS communicators contribute little to helping the NHS reduce lengthy waiting lists or ensuring quicker access to GPs. But that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the vital role that NHS communicators play.
Firstly, it deliberately misrepresents the breadth of work they deliver, especially when they are accused of being spin doctors. Managing a press office and working with the media is a small but nonetheless important part of what a communication department in a local NHS organisation will do on a daily basis.
Instead, NHS communicators are often focused on providing information to their communities about how they can best access local services – very important work given we know there is a hidden waiting list of patients who have yet to come forward since the Covid pandemic.
NHS communications professionals also support public health campaigns that aim to reduce pressure on A&E and other frontline services – another vital role as the NHS continues to experience unprecedented demand.
They’ve also played a huge role in the national response to Covid, including when it comes to helping deliver the largest vaccination programme in NHS history. Communicators have played their part alongside others in helping to save hundreds of thousands of people from serious illness and death.
And given the NHS is the fifth biggest employer in the world and by far the largest in the UK, communicators play a pivotal role in managing internal communications for its 1.4 million staff.
Then there are all the statutory functions that they oversee, including leading engagement and consultation exercises when there are changes to the way local services are delivered. Or when it comes to managing public information in emergencies. But even all of this doesn’t offer a comprehensive view of what communicators deliver.
Far from pulling resources away from ‘frontline’ services as the TaxPayers’ Alliance claims, the NHS communications profession continues to offer vital strategic and operational support to NHS organisations up and down the country. And in areas that make a real and lasting difference to patients and local communities. As a profession, we must never tire of saying so.
Daniel Reynolds is director of communications at the NHS Confederation