Civil servants will be swapping the corridors of Whitehall for the NHS front line, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced.To understand the needs of patients and the pressures NHS staff face, every Department of Health civil servant will be expected to gain first-hand experience of life in health or social care, he said.
A key recommendation of the Francis report is changing the culture of the Department to ensure the needs of patients and are always first priority. As an important step, Mr Hunt says he wants his staff to lead the way across government by gaining a personal understanding of life on the front line and using that experience to shape policies that serve patients and their families.
"Putting patients at the heart of everything we do isn't just the responsibility of the NHS - we need to make sure it is at the root of our policies," said Mr Hunt.
"To understand more about what patients and service users need, and the issues which are important to them, civil servants need to walk a mile in their shoes. For the Department's leaders to hammer home the importance of putting patients first, they need to see for themselves what that actually means," he added.
Starting immediately, the initiative calls for Una O'Brien, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, and its directors to spend at least a month a year learning about patient experiences and understanding the impact of their policies on the frontline.
Senior civil servants will also be expected to spend at least a month learning about the experiences of patients every year, increasing their experience levels over time. Policy staff and others will follow suit, learning about how their policy areas work out in practice and broadening their knowledge of patient experience.
"The experience of staff will be reflected in their performance assessments and it will become a normal part of how the Department works and a basic expectation of the people who work in it," says the Department.
Its civil servants will also "get exposure to a range of environments" to help them get a broader grasp of how things work in practice and how people feel about their health and care, it adds. They could be accompanying hospital porters, listening to receptionists answer queries or learning how nurses or health care assistants go about their business. Department staff may be finding out about NHS basics, or learning about how charities support people in society, it notes, adding that there will be “a range of opportunities to support senior staff to change the way they work for the better."
"Too often, civil servants are accused of making policies from within the ivory towers of Whitehall. It's time for this perception of aloofness to end. No member of staff should be able to get on without a personal understanding of our most basic aim - providing excellent care for the public," said Mr Hunt.
Una O'Brien commented that, even with her seven years of front-line experience, this type of work is important because there is so much more to learn about current realities on the front line.
'Thousands of life-altering events happen to patients in our hospitals and care settings every single day and NHS and social care staff face the pressures they bring. A lot of our staff have front-line experience, but it's time for all to see what life is like on the coalface to focus their minds on what we are all working towards," she said.