No-nonsense, straight-talking action man Mike Deegan has two months to solve the problem of how to improve the NHS. Lynn Eaton gets her stopwatch out

Mike Deegan is a jacket-off type of guy. Not that he is angling for a fight, but you get the feeling he would roll up his sleeves and get wired in, rather than stand on ceremony. And with his short, postpunk, spikey haircut and untamed Scouser accent, you can't help feeling there might just be a bit of a radical hidden underneath the collar and tie.

If you haven't already heard of Mr Deegan, then make a note of the name:

the word on the grapevine is that this man is going places. Those who know him have nothing but praise for his management skills. These will certainly be tested to the limit in his latest job - a poisoned chalice if ever there was one.

Chief executive at Warrington Hospital trust, Mr Deegan has been seconded to the Department of Health to lead the NHS modernisation project.

Although it can take months, or even years, to consult the public about a hospital closure, prime minister Tony Blair has given Mr Deegan and his team just a couple of months to consult staff and the public on what they think of the entire NHS.

Mr Deegan, undaunted by the challenge of his new job, oozes optimism: 'When I travel around the NHS there are some wonderful examples of good practice. One of the biggest challenges is how we get that to spread.'

The deadline for feedback is midJune, with the national modernisation plan due to be published just a month later. Some see this as a rather belated pre - election gesture. After all, good management technique would be to consult before throwing money at a problem and, with such a tight deadline, there have already been mumbles that the whole exercise is flawed from the start.

Mr Deegan, with his impeccable human relations background, doesn't need telling that. But he is not one to spend sleepless nights worrying over it. He insists the consultation will be genuine.

'For the first time in all my time in the NHS, we know what the resources are for the next four years. We have the service framework in place. What this is about is how we manage this change. It is focusing on the how.'

He was reluctant to be drawn on what areas he would likely focus on, arguing that this was something the project groups should be considering.

But when pressed, he thought one of the big issues was likely to be hospital food.

Another idea he threw out was that nurses might want access to capital funds so they could arrange for their wards to be decorated.

Mr Deegan's sudden elevation, at the age of 37, from 'a mere hospital manager' (his words) to top DoH adviser may come as a surprise to the outside world.

But apparently he caught health secretary Alan Milburn's eye two years ago while working at the NHS Executive.

Mr Deegan was deputy head of human resources when Mr Milburn was minister responsible for them. Mr Milburn recognised someone with intellectual ability and the capacity to follow projects through.

Older NHS management hands may be surprised at the relative youth of this newcomer to high position.

Apparently, there were also a few raised eyebrows at the NHS Executive back when Ken Jarrold, then head of HR, appointed Mr Deegan as his deputy - just two points below a civil service permanent secretary - at the tender age of 33.

But the civil servants soon realised Mr Deegan had a brain - and used it. He graduated in law in 1983 from Warwick University, took a year out, then returned for a masters degree in industrial relations.

He has carved out a career in human resources, first in local government, then for the Post Office and in education, before moving to the NHS. He held HR posts in the North West and North Staffordshire before spending two years as deputy director of HR with the NHS Executive in Leeds. The move to Warrington in June 1998 marked a deliberate attempt to get some operational management experience under his belt - something he is going to need to develop before flying much higher.

First impressions are of someone who, perhaps deliberately, adopts a naive, self-effacing innocence - the body language is open. Perhaps, though, with an open management style like this, he might make the mistake of wanting to be liked, too? No chance, say those who work with him. As a typical Scouser, they say, he really wouldn't give two hoots whether or not people liked him.

Morale at Warrington is said to have improved since he joined. Staff describe him as 'communicative and warm'; they like the fact that they see him 'doing the rounds'; also that he has always tried to keep them abreast of developments, like a proposed merger with Halton trust in Runcorn and buying a private hospital in Warrington Hospital grounds.

'He is practical, pragmatic and looks you in the eye when he tells you something, ' says one observer. Another talks of Mr Deegan 'bubbling over with enthusiasm' but also being a 'straight-talking, no-nonsense action man'.

Of course, time isn't on his side, even though he is well versed in the vagaries of the civil service. To expect him to crack the problem of how to improve the NHS in two months when others have struggled with it for decades is, to say the least, a little ambitious. But, then, he is an ambitious man.