this week

The Cabinet Office will take direct power of veto over major NHS policy initiatives as part of a shake-up of government and public service, a senior Whitehall source has revealed.

Last week Cabinet Office minister Jack Cunningham launched the white paper Modernising Government, which aims to make public services more accessible, accountable and dynamic.

But a Whitehall insider told HSJ that the Cabinet Office will be taking a firmer grip of 'big-picture' initiatives in a bid to avoid disasters like the Read computer codes fiasco.

'For the first time they [the Cabinet] are saying that they will be telling departments what to do,' the source said. 'In the past it has been guidance and best practice but now any major initiative, like for instance the Read codes, although it's too late to have a say in that, would have to be cleared by the Cabinet Office.'

The document sets out a commitment to make 24-hour, one-stop and electronic services, such as NHS Direct and NHSnet, available across the UK 'by the end of 2000'.

It also aims to cut bureaucracy and paperwork by a greater emphasis on doing business via the Internet and to communicate with other departments using the Government Secure Intranet (GSI). Later this year the National Electronic Library for Health will go on-line.

In a foreword to the white paper, Mr Cunningham calls for an end to the 'denigration' of public services and for public servants to be valued. Civil servants will be encouraged to emulate the best of the private sector, to take more risks and be innovative. Communication between departments will be improved by the establishment of a unified information technology strategy to promote 'joined-up and strategic' planning. Plans to modernise public sector pay and non-pay incentives, to tackle recruitment and retention, and to encourage ethnic minority representation are also seen as key factors.

The First Division Association, which includes 600 senior NHS managers among its members, welcomed much of the package.

'It's about 25 years too late but they have finally agreed a common IT strategy throughout government,' a spokesman said. 'That is vital because some departments are not as good as others.

'However, there is no new money for this, except the£237m for the GSI, so all of these intiatives will have to be financed by savings, efficiencies and existing funds.'

Modernising government paper