Does the NHS need the New Health Network? (see news focus, page 8). The health service already has a flotilla of think tanks, academic departments, professional organisations and policy advisers bobbing in its wake. What is the unique selling point of this latest addition?
The network proclaims it will be the very broadest of coalitions, that its members will include the public as well as professionals, industry as well as unions, media as well as government, while not seeking to promote the interests of any of them in particular. Such inclusiveness seems laudable and perfectly in keeping with these collaborative times. But it does prompt suspicions that the network's remit is woolly and confused.
Can such disparate interests be meaningfully united in any way? The network's stated aims are to enlist enthusiasts, engender debate and 'create openness'. But it will need to subsist on more than vague feelings of goodwill towards the NHS if it is to achieve anything of value. It promises conferences and publications, but the service is already richly provided with these. How will the network's be different?
By targeting not academe or those heading institutions, but 'people who will be responsible for delivering change on the ground', it says. Yet precious few of these were evident at its launch, an event most remarkable for marshalling large numbers of people at the top. Few organisations with pretensions to articulate grassroots views are launched with a video from the prime minister and an address from the secretary of state.
If the network's role was to provide rigorous and critical independent thinking that challenged commonly held assumptions about health policy, its rationale would be clearer - for that is a commodity of which the NHS cannot have too much. If it sought to express managers' views and concerns to ministers, that too would serve an obvious purpose with the decline of the Institute of Health Services Management and the perceived ineffectualness of the NHS Confederation. But by flaunting so many New Labour beautiful people among its well-wishers - the innermost circle of the government's inside track - it can scarcely claim any credibility for doing either.
All of which is a great shame for a reason unwittingly alluded to by the network's acting chair, Claire Perry, who noted that there was 'little dissent anywhere about the policy direction'. That may feel like a luxury after the divisions of the early 1990s, but in the long term it is an unhealthy state of affairs.