comment: Health minister's vision is safely built on public service values

Ministers' thoughts are turning to the prospects of a government reshuffle. So it is difficult to read health minister Alan Milburn's speech on the 'third way' in health as anything other than an extended job application - a bid to shine on a wider political stage (see News, page 4).

Speaking at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, Mr Milburn strayed beyond his ministerial remit to speak on education, social services and public services generally, speculating on how they might fit into the Blair project. In so doing, he was able to give the 'third way' a more solid form than it has enjoyed - something that will stand him in good stead at Number 10, which has had more success in making clear what the concept is not about than in explaining what it is.

So what is it? Mr Milburn sets out six key features of the 'third way' for public services, dealing almost exclusively with the delivery of quality services and the means by which they might be ensured. Openness, effective performance management, incentives for success and penalties for failure figure large.

This might be familiar territory for the NHS. But that is hardly cause for criticism. Bearing in mind the eyebrow-raising ideas put forward elsewhere as suitable components of a 'third way', Mr Milburn's speech is as much a relief as an inspiration.

It is a vision of the way forward that the NHS can embrace wholeheartedly, safe in the knowledge that it builds on public service values. Let us hope they endure, no matter who occupies the squishy leather sofa in the minister of state's office.