Journal Column – Officialdom

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Happy New Year. Well, it was for the first three days anyway. Alas, we’re back to enduring another punitive lockdown.

The corona crisis is clearly the biggest threat we’ve faced in decades and while the government must ultimately shoulder the responsibility of the pandemic strategy, much of the inability to deliver it has been down to senior public sector management that places too much emphasis on adhering to officialdom than effectively delivering results.  Now, while a lot of officialdom has its place and purpose, in a crisis sometimes the red tape needs to be cut.

This is generally not something that can be taught or dictated; it’s largely an attitude and characteristic of the individual.

A few years ago I wrote about an Army officer I worked with whose attitude to his role as officer in command was simple.  To the Major, delivering efficiently and effectively his primary remits was all that mattered.  That meant making decisions on the best use of the time and resources available. His mantra was “improvise, overcome, adapt and deliver”.

I believe the Major’s attitude and mantra is sadly missing from many of those tasked with overseeing, managing and executing the strategy in our war with Covid-19.  There are many examples. Here are a few of the more notable:

First up, Test and Trace. This was initially hailed as the route to easing restrictions, tiers and lockdowns. The scheme has so far cost around £22bn and been beset with problems and dire management and oversight since its launch in May.

Next up, the recruitment of retired NHS personnel to help ease the shortfall of clinical staff. Red tape has been blamed for hindering the recruitment of those volunteering

It seems those in charge of recruiting are requesting volunteers provide around 21 documents to support their application. Including things like evidence of diversity and prevention of radicalisation training. This overbearing focus on largely irrelevant criteria has led to only 5,000 of the 40,000 who volunteered being recruited.

One of the saddest examples is that surrounding Leona Harris, a frontline nurse who worked long shifts. Eventually, despite the PPE, she became infected.  However, after recovering she went straight back to work looking after her patients’ clinical needs. She also raised £100,000 to buy iPads so the sick and lonely in care could communicate with their families.

She was a finalist for the prestigious Florence Nightingale Nurse of the Year award.

While working in an A&E, she accompanied a critically ill patient in an ambulance who was bleeding heavily to a more specialised hospital for an emergency operation. Nurse Harris was chosen as she was a highly respected and qualified to give blood transfusions.

During the journey the patient was about to run out of blood. There were two bags of matched blood inside the ambulance which she was able to administer. The patient arrived and survived the emergency operation. However, in the rush to get the patient to safety, the prescription for the blood had been left behind in the other hospital.  Officially that meant the blood could not be given. Nurse Harris felt the patents life would be endangered if the blood wasn’t administered.

Rather than thank this nurse for saving the patient, management at East Lancashire NHS Trust, chose to refer her for investigation by NMC claiming she is ‘not fit to practise.’

In contrast, a few years ago East Lancashire NHS Trust was investigated for unusually high mortality rates. Needless to say, as far as I’m aware, not a single trust manager was disciplined, let alone sacked. Seems, once again, we have one rule for the highly paid managers and one for the poorly paid front line workers.

Things are no different at local council levels either, where cuts to essential services and the misery and hardship that entails are often endured because of slavish adherence to bureaucracy.

Newcastle council is no different. Only recently the council announced further cuts to social care due to austerity. However, while austerity is unwelcome, it is not the only reason the council is short of money.  Poor management and expenditure on unwise projects has also caused the council to run out of funding. I’ve queried before, when money was scarce, why the council chose to waste £80 million on loans to a failed hotel and a lavish refurbishment of council offices instead of reducing cuts to vital services. In its defence, the council waffled on about revenue and capital expenditure budgets and how one cannot be used for funding the other.  This is a classic example of adherence to bureaucracy preventing delivery of the right course of action.  Surely, if there is a shortfall to something as important and life changing as social care then the council should have forgone the loan to a failing hotel and put up with the décor in the Civic Centre for a while longer and used that £80m to fund social care instead?  It’s what the Major would have done. In the real world when businesses, organisations or households are unable to fund their primary remits they divert funds from other less pressing areas to ensure key services and operations are able to continue.

Frankly, allowing cuts to vital public services because of bureaucracy is not leadership, it’s nothing more than subservient administration. True leaders, who care about the welfare of the people they serve would challenge such officialdom.

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This column was first published in the Newcastle Journal on the 7th January 2021