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The post-Francis NHS: ‘floggings will continue until morale improves’

As Robert Francis is a lawyer, he understands British legal culture, in which rules are deliberately kept as explicit as possible. Nuance cannot be the basis on which legal judgments are made, and so all the factors needed to reach a verdict have to be transparent and ‘hard’. 

His final report on the mid-Staffordshire hospital crisis acknowledged the need for complex cultural change, and the challenge of making such ‘soft’ changes happen.

However, the actions that have emerged following the publication of his report seem to reflect his views less than the need of politicians’ to be seen to be doing something. The report may refer to the ‘softer’ less quantifiable aspects of healthcare such as ‘caring’ and ‘culture’, but the remedial steps announced so far seem to be based mainly on regulatory systems predicated on punishment and duty, not on motivation or positive intent.

Thus, the Secretary of State for Health announced ‘a new regulatory model under a strong, independent Chief Inspector of Hospitals’ and introduced ‘a new statutory duty of candour for providers, to ensure that honesty and transparency are the norm in every organisation’.

I may overuse the aphorism that ‘the floggings will continue until morale improves’, but if ever there was an illustration of its paradoxical ridiculousness, then this must be it. Concepts such as honesty, candour and openness patently cannot be forced onto staff, and so even at face value, such statements will only increase the cynicism that besets so much of the NHS.

The announcements are in themselves an important indicator of the deeper malaise in NHS leadership, where there seems to be no insight either into the manner in which the workforce functions, or into the importance of coherence between rhetoric and behaviour.

Let’s start with the workforce. Vocational occupations, such as medicine, nursing, teaching, policing, and even parenting, all depend for success on their practitioners’ professionalism. My personal definition of what professionals do, is to fill the gaps left by reductive methodologies. Once the rules have been applied, the spreadsheets completed, and the safety checks carried out, it is professional judgment that assesses the nuances and shades that highlight the impending disaster, the malingering patient, the struggling pupil.

The detective’s hunch and the doctor’s gut feeling are key skills, and without such professional behaviours, all the activities described above (even parenting - or NHS management for that matter) tend to lead to worse, and more expensive, outcomes.

Professionalism is the mortar between the bricks of the formal tools, holding them together, yet by definition it cannot be pinned down (or it would have been turned into formal tools long ago). The systems depend on their professionals applying their nebulous skills effectively, but enforcement is nigh on impossible as the ephemeral nature of these skills means that we can’t easily identify deficiency in the way we can check the accuracy of a temperature or the frequency of a bowel movement.

The motivated detective, keen for approval and promotion, will use his inspired hunches to brilliant effect, whereas his demotivated, burnt-out partner will stick to the rules and hide from disapproval and discipline behind an impenetrable ‘jobsworth’ shell. The more we reinforce these respective behaviours, the more each detective will stick to them.

The key to successful change is to understand the factors that actually drive professional behaviour. Approval and promotion work better than disapproval and discipline. For professionals of any kind, the way to motivate them is to tempt them with increases in status, peer approval, patient benefit, pet projects, better income, and more fun in their work.

Of course, carrots need their obverse sticks, and the implicit threat of reduction in status, peer disapproval, patient disbenefit, lower income, and boring difficult work probably all have a place in the successful management of professionals.

However, carrots work better than sticks - once a culture is perceived as punitive rather than encouraging, then motivation becomes logarithmically harder to achieve.

Jeremy Hunt’s edicts about firmer regulation and harder floggings are likely to be counterproductive, in the same way that thirty years of bullying clinicians to behave more corporately has had such little impact. Until they can understand and feel the benefit of a new behaviour personally, doctors, nurses, teachers and policemen will at best ignore or at worst sabotage each new exhortation, and feel less and less inclined to change.

The NHS is supposed to be a single state-controlled system, so there probably are elements of corporacy that would be helpful such as more consistent treatments, communications, and outcomes. Thus if corporate behaviour is important, then the way to implement these targets is by relating desired behaviours to professionals’ own agendas. Include the clinicians in problems, involve them in their solution, ensure that the personal benefits and dis-benefits are clear, and so on - there’s a lot more to be said about this on another occasion.

However, the final point to be made is the most important. The incongruity of trying to bully professionals into less bullying behaviour will not be lost on any of them, and the mixed messages it gives about the system mean that behaviours are unlikely to change.

Dr Jonathan Shapiro is an a former GP with wide experience in clinical, managerial, and academic roles. He works with policy makers, organisations and individuals to develop effective, sustainable systems with integrated clinical and managerial functions You can email Dr Shapiro on

You can also read the archive of Dr Shapiro’s posts on here.