The power of the political placebo. Or meaningless gestures and warm words that fool no one yet strangely seem to work.

‘You know there will be job losses; the consultation processes might win a few concession but it won’t change the outcome’

Maybe it’s because people just want their concerns acknowledged, their fears legitimised and their suffering recognised. But the cost of any placebo is the erosion of trust, whether that is towards a GP, MP or senior manager.

So it is no great surprise to learn that in a recent survey nine out of 10 GP’s admitted giving patients placebos and saw no ethical problem in doing so. And why not if the individual left the surgery happy and placebos do work more often than you would imagine?

Of course no one likes being lied to, but people do want to feel they have been listened to, that their concerns have been taken seriously and some reassurance has been given.

Placebos and platitudes

If you’re a politician or a senior manager announcing redundancies, closures or the withdrawal of services you are likely to acknowledge the anxieties of those to be affected and to reassure them that before any decision is finalised, there will be a proper consultation process where they will be able to have their say. You will offer reassurances about alternative services and even a commitment to look at individual cases.

But this is to make them feel better because, as a senior manager, you know that there will be job losses; the consultation processes might win a few concession but it won’t change the outcome. Individual circumstances will be taken into account but nevertheless some people will have their service reduced or withdrawn.

Is this any more dishonest or unethical than those GPs? After all, not everyone will lose their job; some will be redeployed others may get a promotion out of the new structure, a few lucky individuals will get the early retirement deal they wanted.

The alternative service will suit some people better than the old one and a reduced service is better than none. And some of those concessions might include the suggestions you made in the consultation process. Isn’t this preferable to simply stating there’s nothing to be done and just get on with it?