In my career in the NHS, I have been faced with many challenges, but being asked to give oral evidence to the Health Select Committee on issues relating to NHS workforce planning has to be the greatest of them all.
I have had little experience of the parliamentary process, visiting the House of Commons only twice in my life – and one of those occasions was on a school tour – so I had no idea what to expect. My brief was simple: that this committee of about 11 MPs from all parties would ask me a number of questions about NHS workforce planning. These would include: my views on the progress the NHS is making in planning its workforce effectively; whether it will be able to deliver the reforms needed; whether the NHS has enough or too many of the professionals it needs for the present and in 10 years’ time; what impact technology will have on the workforce; and whether productivity in the NHS is improving.
I was asked to represent the views of employing organisations in the NHS, and to describe how my organisation, NHS Employers, is responding to the challenges. I was advised that my evidence would be recorded in transcript and televised as well. No pressure then.
As we all know, being in a new situation at the peak of your competence level can be exciting. It can also lead to long periods of deep thought. My preparation included three weeks of reading, talking to colleagues, support from our fantastic policy and communications teams, and practice at answering possible questions with clear and quick answers. MPs want very brief answers and no jargon. I practised this on trains, when I went running, and in bed at night.
When the day arrived, it was the most nerve-racking experience I have ever had at work. Being prepared for the unexpected questions, explaining the complex world of healthcare clearly, and giving balanced, reasoned arguments required being on top of my game. It was like being in a difficult exam where I couldn’t read from my notes and had to answer the questions from memory.
So, what was my message to the committee? Broadly, it was that the NHS is changing for the better, more quickly than ever before. We have grown the workforce and are changing the way care is delivered, probably faster than anywhere in the world. We have implemented reforms in the pay structure of one of the largest workforces in the world and have done so with leading-edge HR practice in partnership with union colleagues. Staff turnover, vacancies and sickness levels are the lowest across the public sector and better than many private industries. University graduates now place the NHS in the top five most attractive employers. All this is now directly benefiting patients with faster, better quality and safer care.
The lessons I learned from this experience are not rocket science and are very transferable:
- Have a great team around you who support and challenge you. In my case I was very grateful for the support of a colleague, David Amos from University College Hospitals London, who gave evidence with me and coached me on the day of the session. He said: “We’ve probably done more difficult things in our career,” although neither of us could think of anything.
- Prepare well and attend to detail.
- Know your audience.
- Be passionate about your topic – easy for me in the case of the NHS.
- Tell great stories that describe improved outcomes for customers – in our case, patients and staff.