HSJ Partners logo This is paid-for content from our commercial partners

Find out more

The dispute between NHS managers and the hospital doctors brought out their long standing differences and showed a lack of transparency about the real issues, writes Paul Ridout

As we begin 2017 we reflect on the end of 2016 where we experienced yet another public service staff strike; this time on the train service relied upon by commuters from South East London, Sussex and Kent.

For those of us working in and around health services, 2016 will probably be best remembered for the largely damaging dispute between NHS managers and the hospital doctors. Both disputes have much in common.

  • Longstanding differences;
  • A lack of transparency about the real issues separating the parties;
  • A strong element of digging in to win at all costs, reminiscent of costly warfare 100 years ago;
  • A surfeit of “machismo” posturing on all sides.

Whether it be transport services or healthcare provision, the people placed at real risk were and are the general public, uninvolved in the detail of the dispute whose abilities to pursue their livelihoods or even to sustain life itself are placed in a variety of levels of jeopardy.

In the doctors’ dispute, we were treated to an apparent drive to humiliate and even destroy the opponent, where mutual respect would have served better

Such disputes will arise. Management must not be subdivided into accepting lavish demands which will bring their own day of reckoning. Organised trade unions balance power in the workplace and are an important check on the superior power (against the individual) of major employers. These realities must be recognised.

However, with that recognition comes the absolute need to temper enthusiasm to win with responsibility to the wider need – ie to ensure that the public services upon which we are all dependent, are ultimately greater than the short term goals of tired and embittered negotiations.

Particularly in the doctors’ dispute, we were treated to crossfire barrages of overstatement and an apparent drive to humiliate and even destroy the opponent, where mutual respect for different positions, tolerance and the quest for solutions rather than confrontation would have served better.

So how might the process, and, in all probability, the outcomes have been improved? If all sides of the dispute took heed of the following they may not find themselves in such a precarious situation:

1. Do not engage in high profile public posturing at the outset. Indeed do not attempt to negotiate through the media;

2. Identify your particular aims prioritising those which might said to be roadblocks;

3. After initial negotiations, take great care objectively to assess the real differences. Early concessions, which may not be significant, will help to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust;

4. At this stage identify what are the real issues and gauge what might be an acceptable solution;

5. If a bridge cannot be found, ensure that interested observers and the public understand the gap between the parties. Will you be able to justify the disruption and damage to partnering relationships as being worth the dispute;

6. Always respect and be seen to accept the other side’s position. Rhetoric impresses no one. It is well known that bluster and insult can be used to mask a weak case.

Always remember that the greater goal is what matters. Transport will still run. Health services will continue. Confidence in the services by those who use the services must be maintained. Ultimately the negotiating parties and those who they represent will have to work together. A better result will be achieved if there is goodwill, trust and confidence, built at times of disagreement.

It can be win-win, not lose-lose.

Individual reputations may be enhanced not destroyed.

In the doctors’ dispute we saw an unedifying exchange of escalating insults which ultimately impressed no one.

The use of litigation is to be avoided. It only benefits lawyers and advocates. The law cannot impose a solution. The parties must find a solution.

Convincing sectional support from partisan media will not assist in any way. The hyperbole of mutual insult creates and feeds a story which would not run if its true issues were known openly. Remember media interest is solely in a good story.

If the principles were applied with negotiations conducted in private until a wider audience need to be informed, the parties will have the time and the space to conclude where their real interests lie.

There can be no doubt that the doctors’ dispute, with sensible but differing views on both sides, was escalated to the image of a medieval cock fight.

The NHS needs doctors to serve the best interests of patients. Patients need a service which works collaboratively and thus more efficiently.

Let us hope that wiser counsel will prevail and the damage to mutual trust and confidence, so necessary to working relationships, will not be as longlasting as some fear.

Paul Ridout is managing director at Ridouts Solicitors.