The air has been thick for the past week with politicians firing accusations at each other about 'fiddling' the waiting list statistics. Whatever the truth in this particular instance, the episode holds salutary lessons for NHS managers. Experience in the early 1990s suggests that the disciplines of tight performance management can have a corrupting influence on corporate culture to the point where providing the right answer becomes more important than the truth. Managers are currently subject to tighter performance management than most of them ever remember. The temptation to massage statistics must, therefore, be a powerful one.
It should be resisted, not only for obvious and sound ethical reasons, but because it is ultimately self-defeating. It locks politicians and managers into a deadly embrace, the rhetoric of the former becoming reliant on manipulated data just as do the jobs of the latter. Meanwhile, the public's experience is increasingly at odds with what they are told, and they come to hold both ministers and managers in cynical regard. That would be a backlash the NHS cannot afford.