Lord Darzi's review and the new local involvement networks have pushed public engagement to the top of the health policy agenda. Robina Shah speaks to national patient and public affairs director Joan Saddler about her plans for increasing public involvement

With an open approach and personable manner, Joan Saddler, the national director of patient and public affairs, knows how to win hearts and minds. However, she is also very clear about the role of boards in enhancing the visibility of patients and the public.

Here, she speaks candidly about her aspirations for patient and public involvement and the challenges boards will face.

Robina Shah: What aspirations do you have in your role?

Joan Saddler: As national director of patient and public affairs, I have three key aspirations:

  • NHS organisations planning and strategising their role as PPI leaders, with a clear emphasis on involving staff and communities;

  • NHS organisations ensuring that patients, the public and staff are engaged and involved in shaping NHS services;

  • that PPI and local accountability structures are effective and sustainable.

RS: What does this mean for trusts?

JS: NHS trusts should have effective long-term strategies to ensure the above. They should have a critical understanding of their populations and use staff and community feedback to radically commission relevant services. They should show local leadership that is on a par with local council leadership, where chief executives and commissioning directors would be as powerful and visible as the local mayor and leader of the council.

RS: What key messages do you wish boards to embrace?

JS: Many boards believe in the concept of patient and public involvement and engagement, but they struggle with implementation. Successful boards will eventually find solutions to critical and complex problems, therefore ensuring the organisation has the skills, as well as the will, to embed patient and public engagement.

Patient and public involvement is not difficult, but it requires complex planning. Boards currently have a range of important drivers that the system has previously lacked. These include an emphasis on patient experience in the key operating framework targets, an emphasis on quality and personalisation of care in Lord Darzi's report, and the real operational levers the world class commissioning framework can facilitate.

RS: What are your ambitions for local involvement networks?

JS: They can become strong community forces if they are given the time and will to become so. Based on the premise that we want to address the "whole" health of our communities, the current level of resourcing can be maximised through additional patient and public engagement activity that is jointly commissioned from a number of public sector bodies.

The organisations ahead of the game will already be working to ensure a strong network can become a catalyst for service excellence. It is clear that by using the resources for the network that were never available to patient and public involvement forums, while also ensuring the diversity of networks, we will have a stronger and more accountable body.

Boards have maximum opportunity to deliver on patient and public involvement and engagement as this forms the basis for current policy shifts. The challenge will be to ensure there is an organisational culture that sustains community and staff engagement.