The constitution is an opportunity to put to bed the tired old arguments dogging the NHS and will underpin the values and principles at its core. Non-executive directors are the ideal champions for this cause

The energy and verve with which the NHS celebrated its 60th birthday was a sight to behold. Across the country, staff, patients and organisations produced badges that are still being worn with pride; they published documents telling the human stories making up the history of the NHS; they had hospital open days showing the massive changes to the NHS since the day Nye Bevan declared us open for business; and they reaffirmed the special place the NHS holds in the national heart.

I attended the NHS 6Oth anniversary service at Westminster Abbey, which showed the NHS at its best through the people who are the NHS. The NHS Retirement Fellowship reminded us all of the connection that those who have worked in the NHS still have with the service.We had frontline staff who provide the life-saving and life-enhancing services the public rely on every day. And we had patients telling us their stories of how the NHS was there for them when they needed it.

It was a humbling experience. We, the suits, sat and listened in awe as those who have always been the lifeblood of the NHS said why they still loved it. This was replicated across the country. This is why the NHS constitution has arrived at just the right time.

Staff satisfaction

I understand that satisfaction with the NHS is at its highest rate since the Department of Health started regularly tracking views. Dissatisfaction is at its lowest for a generation and the numbers who see a bright future for the NHS are outstripping those for any other public service.

Before the constitution, I often wondered why nobody had yet written down what the NHS was all about, what people could expect from it and what the service can expect from those it serves and employs.In every controversy about reform in the last 60 years, from the introduction of prescription charges to the creation of foundation trusts, a written constitution would have been an effective rejoinder to those who felt the founding principles of the NHS were in the firing line.

That is why the NHS constitution and the next stage review have been so important. The review brought staff, patients and the public together in unprecedented numbers to discuss the future they wanted for their NHS. The regional visions are truly local, and the supporting mechanisms announced by Lord Darzi will drive the change we said we wanted in our local NHS.

It is the constitution I am most excited about. The constitution brings together the focus of my last two columns. First, the role of non-executive directors in standing up for the NHS, promoting the brand and the good things that happen, but also holding their executive teams to account for delivering the best care possible to patients.Second, the recognition that the best in the NHS is always changing and progressing but at the same time remaining true to the values and principles that underpin the service's very existence.

The call for non-executive directors to lead the charge in engaging people in the consultation around the constitution is a vote of confidence for our leadership and our commitment to the service. It is an opportunity we need to grab with both hands, really getting out and about promoting the constitution and making sure each of our organisations has something to say about it.

Government commitment

This constitution is an opportunity to put to bed the tired old arguments that come up every time change is mooted or progress is suggested. All NEDs and executive directors, in fact all staff and patients, should have the constitution close to hand, pointing to the sections about free at the point of care according to need whenever someone bangs a Bevan quotation on the table.The requirement on the government to reaffirm its commitment every 10 years will make it transparent if it attempts to change the fundamental nature of the NHS - no more accusations of change being brought in by the back door.

This constitution is a positive attempt to build on the support the NHS has across the country. It offers us opportunities to do what people are asking from us. Don't slow change, because the NHS needs to change to carry on being the best, but make sure that change is mapped against what is best about the NHS and what has driven the NHS since Bevan was midwife to the greatest social movement of the 20th century.

It is up to us, as non-executive directors, to take this opportunity.

The NHS constitution consultation ends on 17 October 2008. For more information, go to www.dh.gov.uk