Public relations: bad for our health

I’ve been making a number of FOI requests as part of the research for my book. One of the responses from the Department of Health was picked up by Tony Collins at Computer Weekly who writes an excellent blog and has probably saved the taxpayer many tens of millions of pounds by his inquisitive digging into government IT projects.

The FOI shows that the Department of Health has increased the number of its press officers (telling us what they department wants us to know) from 26 in 2006/7 to 31 in 2008/9. During the same period the number of FOI officers (what we actually want to know) was just 8. There is also a stark divide between resources with around £3 million spent on press relations and marking but just £300,000 on freedom of information.

A breakdown of the total publicity and advertising budget reveals:

    Financial Year Actual Spend £ million)

  • 2008-09 = 62.6
  • 2007-08 = 50.3
  • 2006-07 = 40.7

But as Tony Collins says, that’s only part of the story. That doesn’t include money spent by NHS Connecting for Health on PR firms such as Porter Novelli, Fishburn Hedges, Good Relations and its parent Bell Pottinger.

We’re not an informed electorate if we can’t access the raw information. Too much public money is being spent selling policies as if they’re products and not enough goes into giving us the information we need to make informed decisions about important (and costly) public services.

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8 Responses to “Public relations: bad for our health”

  1. dutch says:

    What is the record of the NHS on FOI, and how many more people do you think they need?

  2. amanda says:

    The FOI shows that the Department of Health has increased the number of its press officers (telling us what they department wants us to know) from 26 in 2006/7 to 31 in 2008/9.

  3. Surely this budget includes things like the publicity for the swine flu advice?

  4. Linda says:

    I only have experience in dealing with the United Lincolnshire Hospital Trust. Grantham Hospital A&E has had critical care level 3 taken away and most patients now have to travel at least one hour to the nearest fully equipped A&E at Lincoln. East Lincolnshire Ambulance was written to three times and only when a letter was taken by hand did we get to know the ambulance cover for Grantham and surrounding villages. It is one ambulance and a back up one at peek times. The Mayor of Grantham has now joined the fight to save the midwife led maternity unit at Grantham. ULHT would rather Mothers have there babies in the back of ambulances than give birth at Grantham Hospital. Also very sick people have no chance of surviving the hour long journey. In three years either by letter or in public meetings this trust acts like a secret society. I wonder if anyone is keeping track of the number of patients who do not even reach hospital and how many babies are born on the way? Is it a grey area that no one takes responsibility for? ULHT says it is hard for them to reach targets as Lincolnshire is very rural. Grantham is a large expanding market town maybe if they had left services in place they would have had a better chance of reaching targets. There big mistake was to cut services rather than waste. No amount of FOI will help now as the NHS is ready to crack this Winter. It’s hardly surprising ULHT last Chairman David Bowles ran off to Wales. No money for services but always plenty to employ more Trust Managers! My experience of ULHT is bullies from the top down. David Bowles complains about being bullied by SHA but hospital staff say they were being bullied three years ago. He did precious little to help them!

  5. dutch says:

    Presumably this press officer number does include a fair number of people who focus on public health issues, responding to scare stories in the media etc. On the FOI — are they bad at it? and if so, how bad – how many more people should they have devoted to FOI?

  6. tim garbutt says:

    As an advertising and PR professional I agree with the main post.

    The Dept of Health has it own PR and marketing peoople and contracts – and nothing wrong with that necessarily. But the COI handles main campaigns such as Swine Flu.

    Individual hopsitals and health trusts also have their specific local marketing programmes.

    The danger is that the DofH PR activity becomes empty puff-pieces on how wonderful the – monopoly – service is. Which is of noio use to anyone except the CV’s of the DofH people. And possibly deeply misleading as with the outbreaks of disease in hospitals due to failures of cleaning.

    Providing raw information is key – and I’d go further in actually reducing FOI and PR staff by simply posting all reports etc online. I’d also urge requests to be made under EIR not FOI: no credible exemptions. Massive time and cost savings all round. And certainly better scrutiny and a better health service.

    Our local NHS in East Kent for example has been sat on data that shows the highest lung cancer rates in Kent.

    Tim Garbutt
    http://www.sincerityagency.com

  7. Sam says:

    There big mistake was to cut services rather than waste. No amount of FOI will help now as the NHS is ready to crack this Winter. It’s hardly surprising ULHT last Chairman David Bowles ran off to Wales. No money for services but always plenty to employ more Trust Managers! My experience of ULHT is bullies from the top down

    from http://www.herpestreat.com

  8. Jonathan says:

    One of the huge problems of public sector press officers is that they are working for what some call a DRIP organisation. Data Rich Information Poor. Whoever thought up the star rating for NHS trusts should be shot. As long as the chief executive jobs rely on at least maintaining a star rating they will be falsified. As well as being far too broad a brush there is nothing to check their accuracy. I would like to see a 2 part rating. One for accuracy of data and the second for achievement. The CEO jobs should then be tied to the accuracy figure. Any trust claiming their figures were accurate would be subject to a random audit. Any trust not showing they were improving their accuracy should be subject to special measures.

    The government is so intent on micro management that budgets never have flexibility. There is no ability to “invest to save”. The NHS never makes anyone redundant as the package would have to come from the local budget – which cannot afford it.

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