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Senior managers, trying to cope with the plethora of recent government initiatives, were not overjoyed to hear of more at last week's human resources conference. Laura Donnelly was there

Human resources is at the heart of our agenda,' NHS chief executive Sir Alan Langlands told managers at last week's HR conference.

So too were quality, effectiveness, partnership, leadership and tackling racism, among other things.

Sir Alan told senior managers that they would provide the 'skills and the glue' to keep together a 'coherent HR strategy'.

But some managers at the conference suggested it would take more than a bit of sticky-back plastic to hold together 'an increasing multiplicity of ministerial activity'.

Chris Stevens, chief executive of Norwich Community Health Partnership trust, told health minister John Denham that managers 'do genuinely support the government's desire to create a modern and dependable health service'.

But he asked: 'How do we square that concept with an increasing multiplicity of ministerial initiatives, impossible timescales for bidding processes and an increasing number of targets - which often conflict with each other?'

And Mr Stevens hadn't finished. He warned Mr Denham that senior managers were left 'thinking what is urgent - rather than doing what is important, much of which is often the HR issues which take time and consistency to achieve'.

Mr Denham - who had minutes earlier announced a brand new ministerial initiative, with£1m for HR 'beacons' - replied: 'What I am keen to do is stress how a number of different things link together.'

Take the beacons to reward excellence in HR. Mr Denham conceded that senior managers might think: 'Oh, it's another one-off initiative.' And by the look of them, they did.

But Mr Denham told the conference, organised by the NHS Executive, that the beacons formed 'a particular part of a process which I am very keen to encourage... on how the NHS can learn from itself'.

He added: 'It is not something that is separate from the processes of making the NHS a good organisation, but something that is a focus for that activity.'

Whether or not the 1,000-plus senior managers attending the conference now saw the light was questionable.

The previous day, NHS Executive HR director Hugh Taylor admitted that he was aware of 'real concerns regarding initiative-itis'.

He said a government 'bursting with energy' and 'fertile with new thoughts' was 'bound to create a lot of policies - not always as well stitched together as they could have been'.

Mr Taylor insisted Sir Alan and his colleagues had done 'a brilliant job in bringing that coherence together'. But he admitted: 'Along the way, we will have real frustrations approaching impossible timescales.'

And as Mike Pyrah, chief executive of Wolverhampton Healthcare trust, put it: 'If everything is a priority, we have no priorities. I think we have to look at what can drop off the agenda.'

He said: 'Our middle managers do too much. We have to recognise managers can't do everything ourselves.'

Throughout the conference, there were repeated calls for increased emphasis on the sharing of good practice.

Mr Denham's announcement of the development of a Strategic HR Intelligence Network - SHRINE - to enable the exchange of best-practice information, alongside the beacons, went some way to addressing the issue.

But delegates didn't just want to learn from the good practice of others - they also wanted a bit of praise and the chance to show off when they were getting it right.

Andrew Foster, chair of the NHS Confederation's HR committee and of Wigan and Leigh Health Services trust, complained: 'We don't very often see chief executives sticking their heads over the parapet to say this is a good NHS.

'We do a damn good job.'

He added: 'Part of the solution must be at national level. The government must be prepared to say positive things about the NHS.'

Bill Coudrey, chair of North Staffordshire Combined Healthcare trust, gave Mr Denham the chance to do just that.

'Do you value managers? Can we be assured the government will stop bashing managers?' he pleaded.

'We do value managers. What I have been saying today has that message at the heart of it,' replied Mr Denham, who clearly felt there was no need to elaborate for those who missed it first time round.

Assurances on manager-bashing were not forthcoming.

But he warned that he 'certainly wouldn't rule out' continuing to issue guidance on the pay framework for senior executives.