Clinical commissioning groups: how to ensure their first birthday isn’t their last

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It is more than a year since clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) formally came into existence in England, and although strategic plans are slowly beginning to emerge, CCGs continue to struggle with an infrastructure originally designed to control a national system.

The 2012 Health and Social Care Act saw CCGs as the mainspring of commissioning, capitalising on general practitioners’ twin roles: dealing with patients at the ‘front door’ of the NHS and referring and coordinating their journeys through its complex institutional pathways when necessary. The notion was that general practitioners’ (albeit anecdotal) knowledge of local services could be synthesised to inform operational and strategic commissioning throughout the NHS. Giving CCGs the freedom to change services in their local health economies was intended to encourage innovative models of care that were more user friendly and (hopefully) better value for money.

However, CCG leaders found themselves the late arrivals at a party already in full swing. NHS England had established the ground rules, subsumed specialist commissioning and primary care, and determined how CCGs should work and be managed. And adding to the harsh financial pressures, CCGs found their budgets being raided for contingency and efficiency funding as well as for augmenting specialist commissioning, maintaining pre-existing private finance projects, and supporting social care initiatives.

In terms of how to engage and enthuse newcomers, this is not what textbooks recommend, but for the current policy to work CCGs must pull their weight. How can this be achieved? CCG development seems to parallel adolescence. By the time children leave home to live independently, they need to be able to deal with the physical, financial, and emotional hurdles that they will inevitably face: they must shoulder responsibility and risk.

Similarly, CCGs were intended to assume increasing responsibility for services and develop a mature relationship with NHS England through the area teams and commissioning support units. Many have commented that this is not happening and that a form of indirect cajoling has developed instead. Despite a few signs of change (such as NHS England accepting an annual survey of its performance by NHS Clinical Commissioners), the general sense is that CCGs are under-resourced in human and financial terms and that the need to cope with what is operationally urgent is preventing them from dealing with what is strategically important. If CCGs are not allowed to develop sufficient self determination, their growing frustration and enduring dependency will drive their participant general practitioners to lose interest at best and throw adolescent tantrums at worst.

CCGs were intended to be clinically driven by autonomous professionals who function better as volunteers than as conscripts. However, such professionals (especially independent general practitioners) traditionally lack experience of corporate working, and so encouraging them to consider collective needs as well as those of their individual patients and practices is key to the success of their CCG.

This is a complex challenge that needs tackling at various levels. Overt CCG leadership requires organisational expertise as well as a thorough knowledge of local context. Many of the clinical chairpeople and accountable officers still need to learn more about strategic thinking, which takes commitment as well as protected time and funding. Whether it is even possible remains to be seen; CCGs vary greatly in their arrangements and ambitions and even the roles of clinicians and managers differ considerably.

Leadership needs to be mirrored by support among members; clinical commissioning cannot succeed without ‘grass roots’ input informing strategic thinking. Support will vary, and senior (strategic) CCG staff will have different perspectives from frontline (operational) clinicians. Such differences have never previously been bridged, and consequently individual clinical decisions have rarely influenced high level strategy. If CCGs are to exploit their potential fully, this aspect of their functioning needs a lot more development, which also takes time and money. So far, neither has been prominent, with most attention being paid to traditional senior NHS leadership, and almost none apparent to its corollary, what we might call ‘followership.’

Another obstacle to the successful development of CCGs is that the commissioning of primary care is separate to that of secondary and community services. CCGs control most of the latter two but none of the former. If a CCG decides to replace a traditional hospital service with a primary care alternative, it can decommission the first but cannot directly commission the second.

If CCGs are to hold responsibility for providing healthcare for their populations (the idea implicitly underpinning their creation), then this mismatch must be removed to give them the tools and accountability needed to provide services. If we believe in localism at all, then how they use these tools should be their decision; if they choose to provide services within their own organisation rather than subcontracting with local NHS Trusts, then that needn’t constitute a conflict of interests as long as the accountability is in place.

Outcomes such as agreed levels of morbidity, patient satisfaction, timeliness, and financial probity all offer measures of accountability irrespective of the agency involved. As it stands, CCGs are unlikely to change their paradigms of care because current mechanisms discourage change rather than rewarding it. Moreover, any existing momentum is likely to dissipate as those involved become increasingly disillusioned.

With the NHS caught between rising demand and lessening funding, the system will increasingly have to do more for less. Giving working clinicians some responsibility for achieving this, by connecting their daily activity to strategic leadership, seems logical. But CCGs will have to be supported much more emphatically, politically and operationally, if we want health service policy, local services, and the needs of the whole local population to be brought together coherently.

This is a slightly revised version of a paper prepared in collaboration with Michael Dixon, and first published in the BMJ (online 2 April 2014 as BMJ 2014;348:g2306).

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CCGs need to evolve and mature, NOW!

I have writEvolutionten before about the difference between ‘unconscious incompetence’ and ‘conscious incompetence’, and how one has to recognise a deficiency before one can address it, but I have rarely seen such an acute example as the one that currently exists in the CCG world.

As new organisations, often incorporating senior GPs with little if any experience of strategic leadership, it is perhaps not surprising that CCGs have taken time to grasp the breadth and the depth of the issues that face them; not only are they notionally responsible for an annual budget of over £60 billion of public money, they have to ensure that their own primary care house is in order, and deliver a degree of corporacy amongst their members that has never even been envisaged, never mind achieved.

However, now that they are nine months into their first ‘live’ year, one might have hoped to see more recognition of these issues, and a wealth of initiatives both locally and nationally to try to jolt the young groups into a maturity that admittedly needs to be well beyond their years. It is disappointing therefore to note that (certainly in my universe), there appears to be little if anything happening at a systemic level. The Leadership Academy seems intent on setting up a production line to manufacture senior leaders (an oxymoronic concept if ever there was one), and attracting mainly managers from provider organisations.

Others that might be expected to be compiling effective, accessible programmes to fast track CCG development (NHS Confed? BMA? RCGP? NHS Clinical Commissioners?) seem at best merely to be considering setting up such initiatives. They appear to be more concerned with meeting DH/NHS England operational edicts and maximising contractual benefits, beginning to replicate what CCGs were intended to end once and for all: doing things right at the expense of doing the right things.

In the meantime, NHS England, in its unreconstructed macho fashion, is starting to exert more direct pressure in the only language that its political masters seem able to understand: reductive operational targets. The whole notion of culture change and clinically led progress is rapidly being diluted, to be replaced by structures that will look more and more like PCTs, or the even older Health Authorities.

So what is required? The first thing is for CCGs themselves to recognise the need for internal development; even in my own small way, I have been trying to encourage the development of locally focused leadership programmes, learning sets, even stand alone workshops for CCG staff and their members to start to get to grips with the agenda, but it is proving to be a steeply uphill task. CCG chairs and accountable officers should think about resourcing such work themselves, as large scale mass produced products can never achieve the kind of cultural and organizational ‘fit’ change that a ‘bespoke’ programme can. The larger players (see above) should support and facilitate these local processes, and some central resourcing would be very helpful to oil the wheels and get the show on the road.

Do it now, applying a bit of welly to the process, and progress will be satisfyingly fast; leave it much longer, and those in the rank and file of the CCGs, the GPs who really need to ‘think differently’ to achieve systemic change, will have lost interest and gone back to the day job. Without them, not only will CCGs not succeed, the ‘supply side’ drivers (hospital crises, by and large) that have steered the NHS for so long will come to dominate even more strongly, with the only levers available to control them being the traditional blunt, insensitive, centrally controlled levers that have never really worked.

As the adage has it: ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ Isn’t it time that CCGs started taking control of their own destinies?

Square pegs in round holes: why new structures never solve functional problems

ImageWhen you sit down for a meal, do you choose your food on the basis of the cutlery and crockery in front of you, or does your food determine your choice of utensils?

For most of us, it’s the latter; for soup we need a bowl and a spoon, a steak needs a plate and a sharp knife. What we do drives how we do it, form reflects function.

So why is it almost always the other way round in the NHS? Despite the fact that we all understand the theory, we continue to look at (and change) structures, with barely a thought given to the manner in which we would like the functions to evolve.

Thus, only recently, NHS England deputy medical director Mike Bewick apparently suggested that ‘GPs should form larger provider organisations’ in order to improve access, a structural solution to a functional problem if ever there was one. Nothing was reported on what the problems with access actually comprised, suffice it to say that larger practices were deemed to be the answer.

Now I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that if I want good service in my personal life, I tend to go to small providers (restaurant, butcher, vet) rather than the faceless bureaucracy I get when I deal with a mega-provider; the only advantage that they offer is lower pricing, usually at the expense of customer service.

But that specific example is missing the overarching point; to solve the GP access problem properly, we need to understand its underlying causes; the sticking plaster of any simple structural solution simply isn’t enough. If the issues are about inappropriate demands (A&E anyone?) then putting in more ‘supply’ will merely exacerbate the problem. If it is about inflexibility in skill mix adaptation, then larger practices would be a very expensive (and equally inflexible) way of solving the problem; and so on…

So why do we seem so ready to turn to structural solutions? Firstly, structures, whether physical buildings or organizational hierarchies, are easy to conceptualise, and we all prefer things to be simple rather than complicated, even if simplicity is reductive and ultimately unhelpful.

Secondly, simple interventions are usually easier to measure than complex ones, something that is particularly important to politicians, who want to be able to point at new edifices (preferably with walls, roofs and a plaque to unveil) and say ‘I did that.’

Thirdly, structural solutions calm the insecurities we all have when life changes (as long as I know where my desk is, my job must be safe) and so help us to cope with uncertainty, even if that protection is illusory.

However, apart from the fact that structural solutions are rarely more than symptom control (using a medical analogy), they also distract us from sorting out the underlying problems. If my non-steroidal medication keeps my repetitive strain injury quiet, then I don’t have to think about changing my working practice to make real changes to the way I work, thus keeping life simple, immediate, but ultimately still broken.

The only way to start solving the underlying problems of the NHS (and of most large macro-systems, for that matter), is to take a cool, dispassionate look at what we’d like the system to produce, and then work out what is required to meet that brief. Of course, much compromise and sleight of hand will still be required, as we can never really start from a blank sheet of paper once such a large system is running.

But at least we can sort out the real diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan, rather than botching yet another short term fix merely because there are twenty other similar problems sitting in the waiting room.

The best compromise may well be to carry out such ‘whole body diagnoses’ on small but complete ‘micro-systems’ (a single practice, a CCG, even a hospital Trust), rather than looking for root and branch reform of the whole creaking organization at once. As long as the analysis and the treatments in the small unit take into account its interfaces with the larger system, then one may have a way of carrying out an holistic, meaningful analysis of the functions of an entire entity, and beginning to introduce the changes needed to improve that functionality.

Not only would the scope and size of such an approach give it a better chance of being effective, it would also allow the inclusion of two other key factors vital to the success of any change management programme: ownership and ‘buy in’ from those involved, and the start of a cultural change ‘cascade’ whereby success amongst those who are in at the start of the process appeals to the later adoptors and tempts them into the programme.

So, CCG Chairs and practice managers, are you up for having your micro-system analysed and put onto a change management regime? It’d be enlightening, cost effective, and very productive.  It’s something that I would be really keen to explore; all we need now are the pump priming funds…

This article is based on a piece published in Pulse on 27 August 2013.

CCG: friend or foe?

Friend or foe1Put yourself for a moment into the shoes of a GP; not an ambitious, management focused, media hungry go-getter, but a doctor who wants the best for his/her patients. Your list size is average, which means that around 1600 patients are registered with you, and depend on you to co-ordinate their care, and be their first point of contact, their main provider of care.

Do you happen to know how much the NHS spends on an average GP list each year? Using the back of an envelope (so the figures are approximate), I worked out that  in 2012, the UK NHS budget was close to £110 billion, which was available to look after about 60 million people; that works out at about £1800 for each person, which meant that for an average list, about £2.9 million was available. Scary isn’t it?

Now obviously, quite a lot of this was spent on fixed overheads like Public Health England, and redundancy packages for displaced managers, but let’s ignore these for the moment, because it’s always been the Government and ‘The Centre’ that have determined these. The important point is that since April this year, control of over two thirds of this budget has been handed over to CCGs, to spend on commissioning services for their patients.

The logic underpinning this move has been explicit since the 1990s: GPs co-ordinate their patients’ care, and their referral of these patients determines much of the activity in the community, mental health and acute sectors; so who better than these individuals to ‘own’ the resources associated with all this activity, and use their knowledge, common sense and autonomous professionalism to begin to move activity in ways that improve both the effectiveness and the efficiency of that care?

All the reforms of the past two decades or more have been moving towards this end. GP fundholding, GP commissioning, PCGs, PCTs, and now CCGs, all have been designed to wrest control of activity as much from politicians as from the large provider organisations, to stop them peddling their vested interests to the public (often through the tabloid media).

The logic of all the policies developed over this time (Working for Patients; ‘a primary care led NHS’, ‘the New NHS-modern, dependable’; Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS; to list but a few of the buzz phrases) have all been pushing in the same direction, albeit with different structures in place to make the policies happen.

So how does this link to the title of this piece? Are CCGs a Good Thing for GPs, or a Terrible Disaster? I started by pointing out that in theory, GPs each have the power to control the manner in which £2 million pounds or more should be spent on the care of their patients, so I’ll follow that up with two challenges.  The first is: who do you think better understands patient flows and needs: patients’ GPs, or middle managers based in whatever incarnation of health authority happens to be in vogue? Only GPs know what their patients’ medical needs really are and with the freedom to be innovative, they could probably think of all sorts of ways of doing things better, more quickly, in more user-friendly ways: it’s £2 million pounds, for goodness sake…

But my contrary second challenge is about strategy: £2 million may seem like  a lot to you and me, but it’s only a couple of trees in the enormous woods of the NHS; how do we a) maximise its impact and b) minimise the risks to individual GPs, their practices, and their patients? The strength of general practice lies in individual patient care.  If GPs are to be involved in planning and procuring services for entire lists, then they will need ways of working that offer economy of scale and provide insurance against unexpected events (imagine what a cluster of motorway crashes over a holiday weekend would do to the Trauma & Orthopaedics budget) without destroying the ‘can do’ spirit that has been so integral to their success over the past 65 years.

Where CCGs are genuinely ‘owned’ by their GPs, then the new organisations have great potential.  As in any successful corporate entity, individuals will need to accept that the needs of the group will sometimes trump their own local issues, and they will have to toe the corporate line a lot more often than they may have done in the past. However, they should then expect their CCG ‘corporation’ to offer support and act on practical suggestions often enough to show the practices overall benefit and maintain their loyalty. They could then be seen as ‘friends with teeth’, where the relationship needs constant effort and development, but where the gain (whether in terms of patient care, professional satisfaction, or even primary care development) justifies the pain.

However, if CCGs are either run in a top down fashion, or driven by political rather than care based priorities, then it will not take long for the cynicism to emerge; like the PCTs before them, such CCGs will quickly be seen as foe, whose actions are to be resisted and subverted.

In summary then, CCGs have the potential to be THE agent for change in the new world of NHS England, but only if their growth and development are carefully nurtured. The large scale leadership developments that seem to be emerging from the new Leadership Academy have never worked before, so it is hard to see how they will be more likely to succeed this time. What is needed is enough interest to be engendered amongst ‘working’ GPs to persuade them to invest some of their precious time and emotional energy in getting their show on the road, and make it a show of which they, and the entire NHS, can be proud.

And that won’t happen without effort or resources; but with the potential for every GP with an average list to really influence how £2 million is spent on his or her patients, isn’t that investment worth it?

This piece is based on an article first published in Pulse magazine on 24 June 2013

Links to two recent papers

Here are links to two papers that may be of interest; the first is useful, not just because my wife Sarah is the first author, but because the finding that the NHS Health Check could be easily and cost effectively be improved. The link to that one is

http://tinyurl.com/c9zjuye

The other paper is based on work in which I was involved that looked at the process and impact of staff engagement in four NHS Trusts. It showed how leadership, genuine ‘buy in,’ and a dynamic programme all help to develop and maintain effective staff engagement. The link to that is at

http://tinyurl.com/dybudgj