The newly appointed director of the NHS Modernisation Agency takes up her job with a reputation as a thoroughly 'modern'woman at one with the ethos of New Labour. Laura Donnelly reports

She's so modern! sang the Boomtown Rats back in 1978, when 'modern' came with edgy overtones and 'dependable' was nowhere to be seen.

The modern credentials of Barbara Stocking, director of the NHS Modernisation Agency, from next month, and a regional director since 1994 (first at Anglia and Oxford region, then at its successor, South East region), go back almost as far.

Her language is peppered with new Labour-speak of facilitation and good practice. But to give Ms Stocking credit - and an awful lot of people do - she was heading the King's Fund centre for services development back in 1986. Her enthusiastic, developmental approach seems to have won fans ever since.

Janice Robinson, head of health and social care at the Kings Fund, worked with Ms Stocking in those days. She reckons those who come into contact with her former boss are 'captured by her enthusiasm and the way she brings people along with her'.

'She has a large interest in how to bring about change, in how to improve services from the point of people using them. She has an understanding of the broader picture, the whole spectrum of the NHS and social care.'

Ms Robinson flags up Ms Stocking's style of working as an antidote to a macho culture that exists elsewhere in the NHS.

'She knows how to develop and support people. . . She doesn't work in a hierarchical way, she isn't into command cultures, she is very developmental and facilitative.

Barbara is not into bashing people, not into naming and blaming.'

Certain phrases and words repeat themselves as others describe Ms Stocking.

Paul Kemp, director of finance at Eastern region, who worked with her during the short life of Anglia and Oxford regional office, pins her character down to two qualities. 'It is a question of energy and enthusiasm. It's more a style of helping people than beating them up.'

John Oldham, head of the National Primary Care Development Team, one of the organisations that will fall under the auspices of the new agency, welcomes the appointment, describing Ms Stocking as 'someone I have admired from afar'.

The National Patients Access Team takes a similar line, welcoming her - yes - development style, for which she is 'well-known' in the service. The Modernisation Agency - promised in the NHS plan - will also oversee the clinical governance support team, the collaborative programmes, and take responsibility for the beacon programme and the NHS annual awards programmes.

Ms Stocking herself admits that before she got the job - initially a six-month placement - she was contacted by a lot of people saying 'why don't you give it a go?'

'It feels like a very good fit - there are a lot of areas where I feel I can make a contribution.' She describes her working style in words that echo those of her former colleagues.

'I think - well I hope - that I am good at leading people, motivating and helping them to do things themselves rather than doing things for them or ticking them off when things go wrong.'

But neither is she a walkover: 'I would hope I am also seen as someone who gets things done, who is pragmatic. I hope I am seen as someone with integrity.'

And Ms Stocking sounds passionate on the topic of patients - and the need to empower them with more information and building services to suit. As one of the few women in the senior ranks of the NHS, Ms Stocking hopes the situation is improving, with a cultural reaction against macho rules.

'I hope that even if there aren't more women, that some of their styles of working are coming through - I am not saying that men never take these approaches, but it is a style that is associated with women.'

She is optimistic that the growth of family-friendly policies and more creches will help women juggle family life and career demands, but admits: 'I cannot pretend it is easy.'

Ms Stocking says that, for herself, the balance of bringing up two children, now 11 and 14, against the demands of her job, has relied heavily on 'a husband who is prepared to do a lot of backing up'.

And she does her bit to tackle the long-hours culture: 'I don't work at weekends, apart from the odd bit of paperwork. I don't do events at weekends.

'It's difficult - the system says everything is important, everything is a priority, you have to keep up with everything. But you have to learn to say no.'

Her former colleague, Ms Robinson, backs her up on that: 'She is hard when she needs to be.

Barbara is not a walkover by any stretch of the imagination.'