An early seventeenth century proverb informs us that, for practical as well as moral reasons, honesty is the best policy. Oliver Cromwell, when writing to the High Sheriff of Suffolk, Sir William Spring, in 1643, remarked that ‘a few honest men are better than numbers’. In 1814, Jane Austen recognised the difficulties of positions of power when she was writing her novel, Mansfield Park, remarking that ‘we do not look in great cities for our best morality’. Yet only with the pursuit of honesty in public life as well as in private, can one hope to achieve the safe haven spoken of by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius when he said ‘nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul’. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us that ‘honesty’ is being ‘free of deceit; truthful and sincere; simple and unpretentious; genuine and straightforward’.
Why is it then, with over two thousand years wherein leaders in a variety of fields have recognised that being honest is an imperative of life, do we find ourselves confronted by newspaper headlines informing us that honesty appears to be the last moral value adhered to within the NHS? In the past few weeks we have seen a number of these, not least those proclaiming ‘Rotten NHS culture led to cover-ups’, followed by discussions of ‘institutional secrecy’, ‘NHS scandals’ and regulators ‘suppressing evidence of failures’. The Secretary of State for Health, the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, was even moved to make a speech in which he demanded a ‘new culture of openness, transparency and accountability’, whilst also recognising that ‘the best motivated people do make mistakes’.
That latter comment is important, for the pursuit of honesty is not the same, and should never be the same, as the pursuit of litigation for negligence. In an honest workplace, with every person sincerely striving for the common good, negligence should be a rare beast that raises its head. Honesty underpins the act of doing the right thing at the right time and then being clear about what it was that was done; even if, with the value of hindsight, matters could have been done in a better way.
In the same speech as that mentioned above, Jeremy Hunt went on to state that the success of a new culture of openness and transparency ‘will depend on the right incentives and consequences’, citing the need for greater powers for the regulatory bodies such as the Care Quality Commission (CQC). However, regulation and regulators are not the answer; they have never been the answer. Regulators are merely ‘the dust-carts that follow the Lord Mayor's Show of life’ as the NHS commentator Roy Lilley recently put it. They tell us what went wrong in the past; they do not give us reassurance that all is well in the present.
No; it is not more regulation that we need. What we need is for those working in the NHS (and politics, and any other facet of public life) to be honest. For only on the solid bedrock of honesty, do we have the capability of building the necessary facets of a valued and enduring society.
First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, 4 July 2013
© Copyright Robert M Jaggs-Fowler 2013