Never has the imperative to strive for excellence been so crucial in the NHS. Quality, the government is at pains to point out, is now as important as cost in delivering services. All must emulate the best.

Fortunately, the NHS is blessed with a wealth of excellence.

There may be many areas where the service needs to improve to meet the expectations of patients in the 21st century, but in virtually all cases it need look no further than elsewhere within its own ranks for examples of outstanding practice.

The challenge is to ensure the service at large is aware of where it can find leading-edge organisations, departments, projects and individuals who have cracked hitherto insoluble problems, developed new, more efficient ways of treating patients or simply come up with a superb idea that would be eagerly seized upon throughout the country given a little judicious publicity.

Answering that challenge is the role of HSJ's annual Health Management Awards. Established in 1982, they are dedicated to identifying and rewarding excellence in NHS management.

This year we extended the search for outstanding practice wider than ever before to encompass nine categories: we were looking for first-class initiatives in information technology, mental health and clinical risk management; we hunted out exemplary finance, human resources and communications departments; and we sought the primary care group, health authority and trust of the year.

Entrants were measured against stringent criteria compiled for us by Birmingham University's health services management centre. The judges wanted evidence of how well they understood their users and customers, of collaboration and partnership, of leadership and high-quality management. They looked at how entrants had gone about improving their performance, and at how they had measured the results. And finally the judges examined the candidates' vision for the future.

Only nine could secure the supreme accolade of winner. But all 24 who made the shortlist are worthy finalists. We commend every one of them to you.