Public Health England came into existence on 1 April 2013. The creation of a new and diverse agency which inherited functions from a range of previous bodies alongside new responsibilities presented an organisational challenge - particularly given how little precedent there was in how similar bodies were organised elsewhere. Here, we’ll explore what the challenges have been in Public Health England and whether organisational development makes a difference.
A year ago the then-shadow National Executive received an initial organisational development plan with the theme 'great expectations'. Based on a series of interviews with leaders inside and outside Public Health England, it suggested four areas we might wish to focus on:
- Developing an identity that makes practical sense to our people and partners.
- Linking this narrative to the explicit development of our behaviours as leaders, managers, partners and as Public Health England itself.
- Establishing who our stakeholders are with a clear rationale and means of engagement with each group.
- How our structure will best be developed to enable us to deliver its promises.
It concluded with three questions indicating some loose measures for assessing whether we were moving on the right direction.
First, does Public Health England have a way of working which is positively recognised and distinctive in the eyes of its customers, partners, sponsors and stakeholders?
Second, is Public Health England able to manage change effectively, looking to the future while recognising and building on the positive legacy it inherits?
Finally, is Public Health England more than the sum of its parts with a distinct reputation and progressive identity for an outstanding national public health agency for the 21st century?
This February, the areas where we need to focus are pretty similar.
So, why bother doing anything? Does organisational development really matter in an organisation like Public Health England, where we have over 5000 staff in over 100 locations? With so many people performing many different functions and having a multitude of relationships with the public, local authorities, the NHS government, research and other companies in the private and voluntary sector up and down the country, not to mention our links abroad, what does it contribute?
PHE – like every other organisation in any sector – is constantly and increasingly affected by change. The world is moving faster and faster. Rapid technological change and the interrelationship between competing priorities in different public and private sector bodies both confuses us as well as opens new doors; competitive pressure for reducing resources is becoming more and more demanding. In the middle of all this, our staff seek more satisfaction and more meaning from their working lives and more balance in their lives inside and outside work, with an emphasis on their own physical and mental health and wellbeing.
There are countless definitions of organisational development. Wikipedia puts it succinctly as a “deliberately planned effort to increase an organisation’s relevance and viability.” If we can attempt to answer the three questions above, then we will go a long way to address the organisational development need within PHE.
So, what have we been doing? To start, Duncan Selbie set out a clear statement of the behaviours by which the organisation and everyone we work with would know our values and what we want to be known for.
We recognise the “mourning” of previous organisations and relationships – the importance of doing the right things in the face of continuous organisational change, particularly where things worked well. We established a cadre of “Engagement Agents” which built on a critical legacy from the Health Protection Agency (our largest predecessor organisation) which continues to involve staff in commenting and shaping corporate policies alongside promoting and ensuring staff survey results have been considered by staff and managers alike.
To help our own managers and staff, we have developed a website – available to all – which is a working tool to support the development of leadership and high performing teams.
In the early days of PHE’s existence, a sequence of internal events set the scene for the “what” and the “how” we work with partners. This has continued and we have focused on working with leaders across 39 communities covering around 50 local authorities. Many of these places are focusing on a Public Health challenge such as Coventry with their Get Coventry Moving campaign or Hackney who are seeking to eradicate FGM in the borough. Several are also working on integrating health and care provision. On the wider public health system front, we have also led the establishment of the aspirant Director of Public Health Programme.
We know that to really succeed, we also have to work most effectively with our key partners, so it’s fantastic that NHS England has accepted our offer to design and run a development programme for public health commissioning teams, which we’re working on with the Leadership Centre hosted by the Local Government Association. In our work with the wider public health system, the development of a structured talent management programme is an essential component for the next generation of leaders.
Of course, we know from our staff survey and from our external partners just how much more needs to be done. At a local and regional level, we are asking managers and leaders to pull together the actions they think will have the biggest impact and are related to the survey findings specific to their area of the business.
We shouldn't forget just how large the changes have been in creating an agency for which there are few obvious international benchmarks, and one with a massive ambition: to transform the health debate from one of sickness and treatment to one of health and well-being; from passive recipients of care to active creators of our own health potential.