Readings for a new #publichealth councillor

Over the past few weeks, as the local government year starts to ramp up, a number of newly elected councillors have asked me for some basic reading on Public Health.  This is my suggested list for them.  Perhaps you could suggest some?


Dear Councillor,

Here is as  promised at the induction seminar the self-reading guide to getting your head round public health. There are many more topics than those below, and I merely set out some of the more important. Perhaps the best thing is to come and talk and if you want material on specific issues like drugs, or children and young people, I will supply you with a list.

Public Health principles: the very basics

Public Health is about working with populations, out of a framework of analysis, evidence and an intention to promote and protect their health. This involves working with a range of determinants of health from education levels to health behaviours and the various threats and hazards to our health which arise from the environment (naturally occurring diseases) and from the products and progress of contemporary society (air pollution for example). Poverty and inequity lurk behind most poor health like an eminence grise et horrible.  In my own mind, neither individual nor societal explanations for the burden of disease and ill-health and poor flourishing our society carries are sufficient. Both must be held in dynamic tension to elucidate what the issue is and what we can do.  Equally, Public Health is not, to me, purely a science. It is an application of various sciences and art.   Epidemiology and Leadership, Evidence and Influencing come together or lie ineffective. They are a blend, if you will.

We now have three out of 6 short e-learning video presentations on what public health is on Herts Health Evidence and more will be added soon.  You should be able to access these free by requesting an account at the site.

The Open University has a variety of free online courses here

If you wanted a book, then my best bet to start would be Virginia Berridge’s Public Health: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press, 2016. Let me know if you have difficulty finding this, I can track it down easily in London next time I’m there. There are many more choices after that from classics like Donaldson and Donaldson’s essential public health through to Geraint Lewis’ Mastering Public Health which is to my mind far more useful than Donaldson and Donaldson.

English Policy on Public Health and NHS (because Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have very different systems.)

This is invaluable

The easy read on the last seven years of policy history (about which I could talk without cease and without notes) is this from the Kings Fund and this set of videos . A further read is here

I think you can trust the King’s Fund an independent health think tank. It’s well respected

Responsibilities of Local Authorities

In terms of the key Public Health Responsibilities in local government, the choices are endless so I would go for the list below

  1. The basic guidance (there is an awful lot more)
  2. The Local Government Association publications are always extremely valuable and I suggest these two as starters

But there are many more from the LGA, and the LGA website has an invaluable series of publications for local authorities on public health.  I am of course biased but the Association of Directors of Public Health blog has a series of very short pieces. and it’s worth checking our updates here

Mental Health

The Local Government Mental Health Challenge website is a very useful starting place to some of the issues  I find this guide on system wide (population or public health approaches to mental health) commissioning principles useful  and Finally, the Mental Health Foundation’s report is very good

Health Inequalities

The Marmot Report is probably the best starting place but there is also a social sciences answer to it too, which makes specific policy proposals, some of which we have adopted in Herts

The NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans

I would look no further than the reports from The King’s Fund

I suggest pick these and come and have a coffee and ask any question you like, or we can even do a seminar for your group or whoever.

Happy reading.  I should finish on one note. If you are confused, then you join the rest of us. If it all makes perfect sense, then you really have missed at least one important thing.





Not another video about HIV? Yes! Here’s why.


In less than a month, on 11th October 2017, a new and I think ground-breaking resource will be launched which tells the story of people living with and affected by HIV.

What, another one?  I hear some of you ask.  Yes, and I’ll tell you why.

Why another resource?

This resource is different. Funded by Public Health England, through their HIV Prevention Innovation Fund, this new resource will feature people prepared to talk despite the stigma.  It privileges the voices of people living with and affected by HIV above other voices. Multiple people living with HIV and affected by it are in the resource, have co-produced the resource and have been in workshops considering, commenting on, augmenting and amending the resource. This has been, in and of itself, a powerful experience.

This resource has a series of videos, accompanied by a website of resources, blogs and other materials. It features people with HIV prepared to share how they thrive, cope and how HIV, their health and the deepest issues of their lives come together, and the problems and the positives of that.

And I have been privileged to be the sponsor of that project, at PHE’s request.

This will be a tool to combat stigma.  It will be a tool to show people the nuanced reality of living with HIV. It is a tool for people with and affected by HIV.  And it is a tool for celebrating people with and affected by HIV.

The changing nature of life with HIV


We are in a time when virological suppression is a major success story (People I work with, people I love who ten years ago would have died are still alive and well and every day I cherish that and them.)

We are in a time when we could achieve the end of new HIV transmissions, and tools like PrEP are further resources in the long travail which has been the journey since the first people I knew and loved with HIV died. Today, many people with HIV are thriving , some in jobs vital to our society, others quietly living and working and relating, living out their gifts and their talents.

But, others still aren’t thriving. And it’s not just about biology. Far from it. With the success of virological suppression – where the virus is essentially regarded as undetectable – come a range of opportunities, choices and still many challenges. Stigma, ongoing challenges of living, new health threats to people with HIV, and the need to renew our efforts to cherish those with and affected by HIV while reducing new infections.

People live longer, they contribute their talents and gifts to their loved ones and our society.  Great.   For some, cognitive decline, however subtle, diseases of ageing in an ageing cohort of people with HIV, negotiating social support, relationships and just coping with life alongside a lifelong health condition, remain psychological, social, practical and – dare I say it – spiritual and existential challenges.

Negotiating life with HIV still takes skill. For every person who accomplishes it with panache, there is a story of sheer hard work behind it.

In a world where Pre exposure prophylaxis is becoming more available (though I notice our trial in England is still dragging its heels) and undetectable status means different issues for negotiating intimate relationships than it once did, we need more than ever to reaffirm people, reduce stigma, and most of all, learn from our friends, colleagues, loved ones, partners and residents with HIV.  One of the world’s foremost HIV resources, Aidsmap has a great post on why it endorses the prevention access statement for HIV which makes you realise just how much has changed, and how much we still have to achieve.



So come on, what’s special about this, really?

Well, two things.  First, the people in it.  Secondly, the people in this resource, and the resource itself, will address HIV through the context of Faith. Specifically, Christian faith in this resource, but other faiths may follow suit.

I want to tell you why, and why health professionals should take notice.

But let me say this first: this resource is not an exercise in Christian exclusivism. It’s an exercise in affirming the particularity of faith and producing a model others can use and follow. A one size fits all approach to faith is an immature approach to diversity. In the same way most of us have multiple protected characteristics. Seeing people through the lens of one shows how poor the imagination of much of our diversity policy and the assumptions around it still are.

The Project will be called Positive Faith (Launches late October 2017.) The resource features people from a range of Christian churches. I’ll speak about why later.

A few thanks to the people who’ve worked hard

The project is being managed and led by Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support.  The wonderful Vicki has project managed it.  CAPS are a small charity which provides direct support and care including supporting Positive Catholics.    Our local Hertfordshire HIV Voluntary agency, HertsAid, has given significant support and effort to supporting this programme. And Public Health England have, of course, funded it.

Some reasons why we need this

First, we know from ever greater scientific evidence that for people of faith, their understanding of health challenges, their coping, even their health behaviour, is profoundly influenced by and mediated through their faith. People of faith – even those who feel excluded by it – greatly understand their health experience, even down to their efforts to live with HIV or stay free from it, in a way linked to their faith. We still lag behind in the UK with that understanding in many of our health services, despite it being a commonplace of Health Psychology for decades. We cannot do health without encountering faith in dialogue for people of faith. Ellen Idler’s 2016 book Religion as a social determinant of Public Health (Oxford University Press) is a lucid presentation of the evidence for this.

Second, health services sometimes still seem to remain squeamish, embarrassed or discomforted by the presence of faith. It’s the protected characteristic of the equality act many feel uncomfortable with. But over 40% of people in the UK still confess a religious faith of some kind. NICE guidance, NICE standards and more and more scientific evidence affirms that to personalise health care, we must recognise that we cannot treat faith as something totally private and separate from it. If a person of faith is in the clinical encounter, so is the issue of faith.

Churches struggle with HIV, Health services struggle with Faith

Faith is not going away. It is not dying. Even if you think it’s a minority pursuit, it’s important to that minority, which is still one of the largest in the country. And this resource is an attempt to redress an inequity in health – that of faith and HIV.

We must do better on this as a health system. This new resource speaks actively into that. If churches are sometimes uncomfortable about HIV, health services still feel uncomfortable about faith. This resource seeks to bridge that gap. To that extent this is a series of interventions about reducing stigma to build health equity for a population which still faces many challenges.

Why only a Christian resource so far?

Thirdly, this resource seeks to build inclusion of people with and affected by HIV in churches. To that extent, this clearly is a public health intervention. And this is why we haven’t produced a multi-faith resource. To understand HIV in the context of a particular faith, there needs to be dialogue in the language of that faith for people who have it. Yes, we need Islamic, Judaic, Hindu and more resources. And I hope people will use this approach as a template. But for a Christian black African woman to understand her HIV and her faith or for a gay male Christian to understand his faith and HIV prevention for himself or others, we and they need to relate that Christian faith specifically to health.

Is this really about prevention?

How will this prevent HIV? Well, by affirming and including people and pointing to them how much their health is something to be cherished and how much their faith acknowledges this. And we need to find a way to keep ourselves healthy and resilient to get the best from life. And health doesn’t mean a blissful state of freedom from any problem. It means adjustment to the realities of our physical, psychological and social challenges and limitations.

This resource sits firmly in the tradition of public health interventions to strengthen individuals and change communities.

More in-depth reflection

Nearer the time the Catholic Press are expected to cover this with some significant space. Articles have already been commissioned by The Tablet and The Catholic Universe .  The Catholics in Healthcare Blog will obviously carry a post. The Pastoral Review will carry a more in-depth article on the pastoral, theological and church issues around this.

The resource will be launched on 11th October 2017 by the RC Archbishop of Southwark and the Anglican Bishop of Southwark at an event in London in which people with HIV in the Video will speak. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the Master of the Dominicans, will speak alongside people with HIV.  For invitations contact Vicki Morris the Project Manager or Jim McManus the sponsor.


Systems and Transformation for better population health: pointers on the journey



Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in two sessions at the Public Health England 2017 juliaConference.  I took part in a Behavioural Sciences in public health session and in a Public Mental Health session. At both sessions the discussion, comments and questions from the audience were stimulating and deeply thoughtful.  In the public mental health session I came face to face with the strong realisation that I was in a – packed – room full of people all of whom were thinking about systems approaches.  I even asked if that was what we were doing and got enthusiastic nods and responses. What an experience!  Seriously, it was brilliant.

Anyway, lots of conversations ensued afterwards with people asking about systems. Now I have blogged before about whole systems approaches to mental health and about some of the leadership issues in leading across systems, and some of the problem solving approaches public health can use in a systems world.  You can’t do systems work on your own. And you need to be structured, purposeful but also opportunistic.  We should, as Public Health types, find a natural bent to this.

Top tips for system working

For me the key thing about a system is that every system is perfectly designed to produce what it produces. So if it’s dysfunctional, in what it produces, you are going to have to disrupt it.  And that takes planning, effort, and a coalition

This is an art not a science, so my top tips for systems working start with doing some reading on systems and then work with people who like working on system change.  Some resources you could use for systems thinking are:

There is also an online course in Systems Thinking for Public Health from Johns Hopkins. This will give you one take on systems thinking, because there are several takes on this concept.

The thing about a system is that systems science is not a complete explanation

Recognise though, that systems approaches often come from an engineering or management paradigm (many business schools grew out of engineering schools historically) that see systems as machines.  I think some of that is true, but for the most part systems are made up of humans so there are ALWAYS complex social processes and cultural issues at heart, and they explain behaviour of the system and the people AT LEAST as much as the processes in that system. So, if you don’t understand a system at least in part as a complex set of social processes, you are doomed to fail. So go beyond systems science before you go rushing in, because systems are actually not machines but complex social networks and processes.

Understanding complex social processes

You could do a lot worse that do some reading on changing cultures and complex social processes. My top reads would be:

  1. Wiggins  & Hunter. (2016). Relational Change: The Art and Practice of Changing Organizations. Bloomsbury
  2. Shaw (2002). Changing Conversations in Organizations: a complexity approach to change. Routledge.
  3. Ralph Stacey (2012) Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management. Routledge
  4. Social Network Approaches to Leadership

A first key step is to try to understand the system, map it, understand it. Conceptualise it somehow. Then it’s vital to recognise that the system is made up of complex social processes, and you need to understand those to intervene, and you need to intervene in multiple places and do so purposively. Sometimes you just need to be opportunistic.

To intervene, you often need to disrupt the system, and that means getting a bunch of people to join you. Set some sensible system goals so you know how you’ll get there and when. Start somewhere, more or less anywhere, and start where you think you might get most output.  No, it’s not scientific in a positivistic way. Most systems don’t work and can’t be understood like that anyway.

Changing systems is a journey, expect it to take time.

Understand the failure points

We need to understand the lessons of failure of transformation. One of the best papers I ever read is John Kotter’s  “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” listed above.  Kotter talks about eight steps to transforming an organisation, and if you don’t do these, they are very strong predictors of failure.

I seriously recommend getting hold of this paper. It was published in the Harvard Business Review, originally January 1995 then reprinted in 2007 in BEST OF HBR.  This paper is so popular online that HBR doesn’t let you download or print it. I tracked down a paper copy through the British Library which is now much dog-eared and annotated. But it’s been worth every penny for me.  If you only ever read one paper on transformation, read this.

Kotter gives eight golden rules of what you need to do for successful transformation.  For me, these have been an excellent guide to any successful change exercise I have ever done. Not doing these are the eight reasons why transformations fail . These eight reasons are:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency – you must identify potential crises and opportunities
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition with enough power to lead change efforts and get them working together well
  3. Create a vision and develop strategies to achieve it
  4. Communicate the vision using every vehicle you can, use your guiding coalition to model the behaviours you want in the new world
  5. Empower others to act – get rid of obstacles and change this that undermine your vision
  6. Plan for , create and welcome Short-Term Wins and CELEBRATE them!  They are important milestones on the journey for morale, convincing people you can do it and get there and checking you’re still heading for target
  7. Consolidate your improvements and keep reinvigorating them. Do not declare victory too soon!
  8. Embed the new approaches and make sure people “get” the connections between them and success

This is not an exact science. But it is a combined exercise in conceptualising, designing interventions, problem solving and leading which will stretch, challenge, dismay and reward.



Linking up Health and Faith: re-learning old lessons

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini. Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

One of my scientific and theological interests has, for some time, been dialoguing scientific evidence on health and medicine with faith.  I believe dialogue between health and faith needs to be scientifically, theologically and epistemologically rigorous in equal measure.  A growing body of robust scientific research is remembering what people of faith seem to have not quite forgotten, than people mediate their understanding of health, and their coping and living strategies, at least in part through their belief systems. That has profound implications for our health and wellbeing.



Some practical examples

Less than a month from now, in October 2017 a new series of videos, and in November a website Positive Faith will be launched as one embodiment of this. This will be series of videos and resources by, about and for people living with and affected by HIV. This exercise has been funded by Public Health England, and led by Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support.  The resource privileges the voices of People with HIV over professionals of any kind. People with HIV explicitly address these issues of health and belief.

The FaithAction health and faith portal remains, for me, one of the great things to come out of Public Health England’s partnerships with the community sector because it works at applying these lessons and collates practical examples.  There are many more. I have been privileged to work with  FaithAction for some time. Their report contextualising the evidence on faith and health for UK commissioners and policymakers is important reading.   Their work on mental health and dementia friendly places of worship has much to offer a prevention and community engagement agenda.  FaithAction have created a series of resources for commissioners, practitioners and faith communities to use together.

A series of Catholic mental health demonstration projects has been delivered.  A mental health access pack for Churches – written by professionals and experts by experience – has been created by a charity whose values commit them to work on disability and health. You can read my invited blog on why I endorse the pack, here.

The University of Leeds with Leeds Public Health team has explored the links and barriers between religion and public health in some really exciting work on mental health.

I don’t claim any of what I say here makes people of faith better or more special than those of no faith in the world of health and care. I merely say that we have legitimate and understandable motivations and values to be in that world, and we have a contribution to make every bit as valuable as anyone else.  And our values inform that. We can no more leave our values or identity at the door that anyone else.

Faith cannot be the one “protected characteristic” that is private when every other one is recognised to be part and parcel of the person. But that’s for another blog.

The scientific evidence behind this

Most of you who know me well know this is an area of interest. I do my job because of my value base.  Early next year my review article on some of the best recent publications in health and faith will make its appearance in Reviews in Religion and Theology

In the process of entertaining this interest I have amassed a smallish library of 200 volumes in several languages, including volumes which stand out like Ellen Idler’s (the polymath Epidemiologist and Sociologist) recent and rather excellent Public Health volume on Religion as a social determinant of public health , the brilliant theological/philosophical work Flourishing by one of my theological heroes Neil Messer  and a range of materials on psychology, psychopathology and religion.  I’m preparing this collection (well the stuff in English anyway) for donation to a library where people will get easier access to it.

Faith still relevant to our population

Some of you may think Faith – especially explicitly religious faith – is a minority interest. Well you may be right, but that minority is still between 37% and 43% of the population depending on who you speak to.  We wouldn’t now be so discriminatory as to dismiss LGBT populations because they’re 2% – 3% of the population depending on who you read, would we?   So let’s recognise that our value bases inform who we are, and most of us are part of some minority. It’s inclusion of every minority’s best offerings which makes social life vibrant.

Prof Stephen Bullivant a sociologist at St Mary’s University has undertaken analysis of ONS data (I believe as yet unpublished) which suggests that, for example, Catholics are present in the health and care field in numbers around eight times more than they would be if they were just present in the same proportion as their presence in the general population.  Incidentally, Stephen Bullivant’s recent report on the “No Religion” population is a good read for anyone in public policy.

People still understand and filter their health experiences, beliefs, behaviours and life choices (including the choice to serve) through their religious belief.  NICE guidance recognises that and has stated there is a strong evidential case for its salience in care.  It is folly not to engage with this. My invited paper to the Equality and Human Rights Commission on what this means for healthcare employers in terms of workforce strategy, service quality and equality and diversity law explores the practical and organisational implications of this further.  The growth of non-religious spiritual and pastoral care in our hospitals, recognising that humanists and others who describe themselves as non-theist and non religious, have spiritual needs too, is welcome and valuable alongside care for those who do have religious faith.

The Guild of Health and St Raphael

A short while ago, I was approached by the Guild of Health and St Raphael to become their president, a role which I shortly take on, after a bit of reflection and dithering on my part. I look forward to this immensely.  It came, to me at any rate, as something of a shock. I did the “why on earth would they want me, couldn’t they find anyone better?” And “why  on earth would they want a Catholic? ”  thing. I then thought of suggesting Archbishop Justin Welby before realising he’s a patron already.  And then I thought of Lord Rowan Williams, who’s a patron of something else they do already. Whoops!

In discussing this with a good colleague , she reminded me that she calls me “the health and faith babel fish”. By which she means I seem to be good at translating the field of health to the field of faith. She asked me “do you think the Guild does important things?” “Yes”, I answered. “Does it have a sound theology?”  “Yes”.  Have they got people who are scientifically credible?”  Again, “yes”. Just for starters, the Director, Gillian Straine is a PhD qualified Scientist and an ordained Anglican priest.  “Does it resonate with your desire to make clear the links between health and faith?” “Yes, vey much so.” “Well, then in your own words -get on with it.”   And so, with that kick up the motivations, here begins a journey.

Formed in 1904 to bring together members of the clergy and medical professions to study and promote the healing ministry of the Church, it claims to be the oldest organisation in the UK working in the field of Christian health.  Anglican in heritage it is now ecumenical in outlook. The two Anglican Archbishops of York and Canterbury are Patrons along with the Methodist Church’s President, and now the Guild has let in a – rather stumbling – Catholic President! (What were they thinking, I hear you ask?)  An academic journal is coming. And practical resources. We have plans!

Academic community of interest

The academic community interested in the crossover between health and faith in the UK is growing. From Professor Chris Cook (psychiatry and psychology) at Durham, to the Guild’s newly launched Raphael Institute collaboration with epidemiologists, scientists, medics and psychologists, through to the work of Professor Michael King at UCL and many others I could mention, a body of work is beginning to be pumped out in a UK context examining the links between health and faith.  Similar communities in German medical schools, Swiss Universities,  Italy and, of course, the United States are creating work of use and value to the public health community.

Putting effort where my mouth is

There are a number of reasons why I am delighted to take on the role of President. First, Health and Faith, and the links between it, are an enduring interest.  My paid professional role as a Director of Public Health seeks to improve and protect the health of a population, something to me which resonates deeply with the call I believe all faiths – including the humanists I am lucky to know and learn from – have to improve human life and hold in good stewardship our earth.  I have written elsewhere, in The Universe about the vocational aspect of this.   And I guess as part of that I need to play my part in dialoguing the health and faith world constructively and rigorously to help us find what mitigates for maximum human flourishing – for those of all faiths and none.  That doesn’t mean those of us of faith leave our values at the door of the office, by the way.

The second is that participation in the work of ensuring people are as healthy as possible, in all dimensions, is a direct participation in one of the ultimate purposes of what most people of faiths do – the cherishing of and service to the human. Visit a Sikh or Jewish social service centre if you haven’t ever done so. You’ll be amazed.

The third is that because of this insight, people of faith have much to offer from “all our best traditions” as the hymn goes to the world of healthcare, and to the whole issue of what health means.  In fact, we were here first. Long before the NHS, before organised health care, we were there.  And people like the Historian of Science Gary Ferngren and others are writing the history of that engagement.

Christian Social Teaching as a Health Inequalities Manifesto

A further reason is that this provides a much needed opportunity to explicitly link Catholic Social Teaching (sometimes called the Catholic Church’s best kept secret) and its seven principles embodying Justice, dignity of the person and so on to issues of health.  Read any book on inequalities in health and a book catholic social teaching side by side and they say very similar things.  People have a right to health, and the means to health including good , healthcare, education and so much else and this is part of doing justice to our world. Good quality healthcare is framed as an exercise in justice and love in such teaching. I can find that link implicitly or explicitly everywhere I look. The founder of the Science of Healthcare Quality and Healthcare Improvement, who was not a Catholic, explicitly defined Quality Improvement in Healthcare as an exercise in love.  The links are significant. For more on the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching, read here. Recent changes over the past fifteen years in US health care policy have generated a significant body of Catholic thought on Just Health Care policy including a whole body of thought on access. I’ll be discussing my take on what Public Health and Catholic Social Teaching agree on with regard to access, equity, justice and commissioning policy at an International conference on mental health in Oxford in summer 2018.

The fourth reason is that now, explicitly in the policy frameworks of all of the four devolved administrations of the UK, there is the recognition that health has many social dimensions, and needs social actors. This is a Kairos moment – an auspicious time when we can speak into the agenda of what it means to be healthy, and what health and social care is about. We have things to say.  And that means re-energising communities about what they can do on their health.  Faith communities can be a part of this. And examples of good practice here abound, from dementia friendly places of worship to social inclusion programmes and projects for people with long term conditions.

The riches of tradition informs the progress of today

The fifth reason is that while each of us can offer things from our own tradition – I have a particular tradition which feeds my commitment to improve and protect the heath of the population.  I don’t claim it’s better, I just claim it has enduring relevance. Catholics founded religious orders dedicated to health and healing, for example. Countless people we call saints have been engaged in health.  The St Vincent de Paul Society is a Catholic charity providing help from white goods to holiday breaks to clothing to utility crisis payments and has a bigger volunteer workforce than CAB last time I looked.  Entirely funded by Catholics.  Mary Aikenhead, founded the order which created the hospice of which I am a trustee. Her values of advocacy for and inclusion of the most excluded (and said in those words) are a constant reminder to me not to become complacent in a public health system where it would be easy just not to try  to find a way through the cuts being imposed on us.

Those Catholic religious orders still run health and care services across the World and the UK (and over 150 centres from hospices to refuges for victims of human trafficking in England today).  One of those orders is the biggest non-governmental emergency aid agency in the world, among whose volunteers I am proud to count myself. My tradition is supposed to roll up its sleeves, include and serve. (and it often needs a good kick to remind it of that.) Moreover, my tradition attests to the fact that health is social as much as it is individual.  These must go together. No human being is anything other than precious.  Justice, Love and Hope are the hinges on which we embody that insight.

Institutions sometimes get decadent and fail people. That happens in the NHS and public sector as much as it happens in the churches. The point is that continual renewing of our purpose – maximum human flourishing. Every faith which has a sense of the divine is at its best committed to human flourish and justice – even if at its worst we shamefully can and do at times betray and sully that commitment – because we believe that’s what God wants for God’s world.

The whole person

The sixth reason I am keen to do this is because the scientific evidence supports these insights as much as it informs them. We are becoming increasingly aware that health includes the whole person, and especially for those who cannot be cured, health is about making a good response to the realities we face. Like the Guild’s Director, Gillian, I am a cancer survivor, lucky to be alive after a Grade IVB lymphoma. Like Gillian, that experience has shaped how I am rediscovering the riches of the Christian tradition to speak to today’s world on health. Her book Cancer: a pilgrim companion is a brilliant read.

For those with long term conditions or disabilities, those with long term mental health challenges, those who are dying, the World Health Organization’s definition of health as a complete state of psychological, physical, spiritual wellbeing is hopelessly optimistic, and unreal. It implies they are less than fully human, and with that comes the risk they become devalued.  That is not a Christian view. Suffering, limitations and disabilities are not valueless.  It is also not a view that sits with the science of health inequalities, otherwise why bother with the discourse of tertiary prevention?

The World Health Organisation’s vision is valuable, but its valuable because of where it points us. It is future rather than present, a hope for the future. That means we have to revisit what health means here and now. And I would argue that the science and our theology are mutually affirming on this, and the Guild is ideally placed to do that work from the academic work at one end of the spectrum to the work of caring, praying and doing at the other.

Called to serve

Earlier this year, The RC Diocese of Westminster led a season of events entitled Called to Serve the Sick. I hate the term “the sick” but that’s for another time.  The series was intended to be a practical continuation of Catholics being recalled by Pope Francis in 2016 to serve and welcome, when we sometimes exclude too easily.  A series of roadshows, which I was privileged to present at, discussed a Catholic Understanding of Health and Social Care, why Catholics should feel a particular importance of committing to health, social justice and social care, and what local communities can do about it. We had an audience of health and care workers, and people struggling with health issues. And people of all faiths and none. We’ve been asked to do more. There is a demand for this work.

The Bishop who led this season, Bishop Paul McAleenan said that “It is fitting that this season comes as a continuation of the Year of Mercy, giving us the opportunity to practice that most important act of Christian love, care for our neighbour. Good health, poor health, disability and ultimately our death, are integral aspects of what it means to be humans precious to God, and so they are of huge importance to us as people of faith.

On this, I hope, people of all faiths and none can make common cause.

















Chemsex: Why should it be a Public Health issue?


I don’t know about anybody else, but I can’t help thinking that the issue of chemsex is one we are still not really getting our act together on.  I claim no specific expertise here, but what I do know is this issue is impacting on the health of our population, and an already vulnerable one at that, so we need to act. And I have several friends and colleagues from across the country -the youngest 24 and a student, the oldest 50 and a professional in the City, whose processes of getting out of the harm they’ve come to I have helped with.

We seem to have depressingly little in the way of national leadership or action on this from the Public Health community, with the work of some dedicated individual clinicians and community activist -step forward David Stuart and 56 Dean Street, Greg Owen, Matthew Hodson, GMFA , James Wharton, MenRUs, Burrell Street Clinic for their Safer Chemsex Kit and a few others being most visible. I have provided links to several pieces of this work in the footnotes, but let me also direct you to  London Friend’s work on LGBT drug use and recommendations for treatment services .  I hope anyone I have missed off will forgive me.

It is simply unacceptable for the skills and resources of the Public Health profession to be absent from this issue.

I was discussing this today at another meeting. I said to a colleague from another agency “people say we don’t have a problem locally” and before I could continue to say “and they’re wrong” he interjected, “they should just open grindr, it’s everywhere.”

The use of some kind of substance to enhance sex is known and common throughout history (drinks while dating?) And if people are fine about that and use without harm, then I don’t feel it’s my business.  But recently the phenomenon of chemsex has become a bit better known than it was. A search of MEDLINE and PSYCARTICLES when I was doing a quick review to inform this blog, after removing duplicates, found in 2014 3 papers, a search for 2017 found 48 papers so far in the health and psychological literature.

Chemsex is a term for a complex of behaviours – use of dating apps to have parties where sustained group use of drugs happens, particularly drugs like cocaine, crack, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) and crystal methamphetamine. Sex is often but not always a given at some of these parties. Slamming – injection of drugs for quicker highs, sometimes happens, and with it sometimes sharing needles.

While it may be more of a scene for gay men, bisexual men and heterosexuals do it too. What will that pattern will be in two years time? We know that trends started by gay men sooner or later get picked up by the wider heterosexual world, or am I just remembering disco through rose tinted (glitter encrusted) spectacles? (Showing my age there.)

Increasingly, use of chems or drugs is reported by men using dating apps for 1-1 encounters too. Recent work has shed more light on the multiple motivations and issues at play.  From the many paper available, I have a few which I think resonate. Weatherburn et al[1] identify a range of motivations linked to “enhancing the qualities valued in sex” including enhancing attraction, heightening sensation, intensifying intimacy and connection and, for some men, overcoming lack of libido. Media attention[2] and the interest of the scientific press[3] seems to have been somewhat limited to date.

The increasing intelligence from reporting by clinicians and community groups of problems presenting from chemsex is concerning. From understandable motives – socialising, feeling good, enjoying sex and coping with life pressures are reported as factors, certainly in GHB use for some time[4] , the drug use is primarily intended as a facilitator of these. But clinicians are reporting a range of harms including addiction and other sequelae.

Dedicated professionals like David Stuart and others working on this issue[5],[6] have brought greater light on chemsex. The publication by James Wharton of his chemsex experiences[7] in Something for the Weekend and the associated meda reporting[8],[9]have gone some way to cast some light on this as an issue which needs addressing.

Parties are not the only places, however, where chemsex is becoming an issue. Increasing use of chems with sexual hook ups means some men may rarely have sex sober. It’s not just physical risk, but psychological. Intimacy may become associated with being high, and for some, dependent on it.


A 2014 BMJ editorial suggested a minority of men engage in chemsex[10] but community reports suggest this is growing and becoming more prevalent. There are as yet no robust epidemiological estimates. Weatherburn et al report up to 18% of men from three London Boroughs uses cocaine and 10.5% GHB compared to 4.8% and 1.6% respectively of men elsewhere in England[11].

Wharton quotes estimates that a gay man dies in London from GHB overdose every 12 days but very few have been high profile[12]. Estimates of prevalence vary in recent reports[13] but what is clear is that this is becoming an increasingly prevalent presenting problem in sexual health clinics, and few services as yet seem prepared to address it effectively.


There are also some people who seem to be able to use drugs regularly without seeming to come to harm. If people genuinely can do that safely, and we can help them successfully avoid harm, then my interest ends there. But many do come to harm, and it’s those who experience harm in any form I’m interested in here. And the harms from chemsex can be wide.

Whether or not this is a minority phenomenon in terms of the population, the harms to some users are significant and the barriers to accessing services also important disablers of helping men deal with harms arising from chemsex[14].

What we don’t know reliably is how many men engage in chemsex without coming to some form of harm. Most data from clinics and the small amount of research to date identifies some kind of harm. A spectrum of harms across physical, psychological and social health is possible. Some of the documented and reported harms are shown in Table 1 below. But this isn’t exhaustive.

Table 1: Harms from chemsex

Physical Health ·      STIs, HIV and other Blood borne viruses

·      Physical effects of comedowns

·      Risks to circulatory system from injection

·      Respiratory risk from frequent use

·      Risk of death from overdose

·      Disrupted sleep patterns, anorexia, weight loss

·      Impaired immune function


Psychological/Mental Health ·      Use of chemsex to facilitate social contact and overcome loneliness, isolation

·      Coping mechanism for stigma and homophobia

·      Impact on coping skills, sleep, employment, cognitive functioning

·      Impact on relationships of becoming habituated on having sex while using drugs

·      Psychological impact of financial problems from financing habit

·      Impact on identity integration and acceptance

·      Bereavement from people in social networks dying as a result of G

Social health ·      Group identification

·      Coping with stigma

·      Holding down a job and responsibilities

·      Risk of debt and homelessness

·      Criminalisation for possession of drugs and sometimes dealing


Public Health Issues

Chemsex is not just a drugs or an HIV or a sexual health issue. For most men it seems to be linked to a complex manifold of issues. From the physical risks to health, to the psychological risks and impact on lifecourse development, there are significant issues which impact on the populations and individuals who use it.

I have spoken, written and presented elsewhere on how the need to ensure LGBT populations are able to live happily and successfully across the lifecourse must be a public health issue[15],[16]. So I won’t repeat that here. One of my worries is that chemsex for some can hamper or impair that process.

The mental health impact of being unable to have sex or be intimate unless high presents a number of challenges. But there is another set of issues. If some gay men use chemsex to cope with stigma or feelings about being gay, that must be seen as potentially problematic. It is a commonplace in psychology of LGBT populations that a key task is identity integration and acceptance[17]. Theory and evidence assumes that identity integration and assimilation is crucial to health and wellbeing outcomes for gay men across the lifecourse[18],[19],[20]. It is assumed to be especially important to ensure inclusion for LGBT people in education and employment. If chemsex disrupts such processes, or means a population or sub-population of gay men can only feel good enough about themselves where mediated through drug use (either individual or in groups), there may be significant avoidable psychological morbidity as a result. If what Wharton says about younger gay men finding it easy to get into this scene is true, then that has worrying implications about the ability of those men to form attachments and integrate their identity as they grow, with potential maladaptation and poor coping and mental health across the lifecourse[21].

Policy frameworks and action

While chemsex is mentioned in the new UK Drugs Strategy, there has been much criticism of the lack of commitment on what to do about it[22]. There remains no coherent public health response. Community harm reduction approaches[23] including safer injecting kits[24] are most visible interventions with the best available frameworks for clinical response being those developed by David Stuart[25] There is as yet no clear national policy framework or consensus guideline on what can or should be done. Community intelligence is still crucial to developing action on this, and we need to find ways of making sure we capture and factor that into response planning, on a more agile basis than we sometimes do.

What can be done?

A range of action is needed, and this needs to be revised as we know more. I group suggested actions under domains here.

Domain 1: Establishing prevalence and incidence

  1. We need as clear a picture of prevalence, service use, harm, morbidity and mortality as can be compiled, nationally and locally
  2. Including and using community intelligence in this development will be crucial
  3. Asking about chemsex use should become a routine question in sexual health services on the electronic patient record

Domain 2 : Harm Reduction strategies

  1. We need to work with providers of dating and sex hook-up apps to target information on harm reduction to users engaging in chemsex
  2. The current good practice (chemsex care plan and harm reduction information and kits) should be rolled out to those areas who identify they have a developing issue
  3. Support harm reduction including continued information and kits to reduce harm
  4. Agencies could consider safer chemsex courses as a way of helping reduce harm including teaching people skills of what to do about GHB overdoses
  5. Agencies should combine efforts to make available a single reliable source of information on reducing harm from chemsex and where to get help
  6. Sex venues should consider placing information on chemsex and where users can get help.

Domain 3: Service response and readiness

  1. Most chemsex users don’t find drugs services resonate with them on the whole. We need to identify what drugs services and sexual health services can to do address this and roll it out
  2. Sexual health and drugs services should identify what they can to do ask gay men about, identify and respond to chemsex issues, and develop collaborative approaches to sharing skills
  3. Those services should become skilled in particular identity and lifecourse issues facing gay men
  4. Services should consider whether they can recruit people recovering from chemsex harm to work with those seeking support
  5. Drug services should consider as part of this work both the LGBT supplementary guidance of the NEPTUNE programme work on NPS ,the London Friend work on drugs services and LGBT populations and the work of David Stuart

Domain 4: Developing consensus on interventions

  1. Agencies working on this should convene with experts on drug use, sexual health and LGBT development to develop some consensus guidelines on harms and issues, and intervention strategies, and keep this under review.
  2. Learn from the work being developed by the London Chemsex Network as part of this

Domain 5: Community resilience

  1. LGBT community groups who provide social groups or counselling facilities should consider what they can do to continue to support gay men with lifecourse identity development
  2. Employers with large numbers of gay men in population centres likely to be affected should consider what resilience and support packages they can put in place for employees with performance issues arising from chemsex








[7] Wharton, James (2017) Something for the Weekend: London : Biteback Publishing












[19] Hammack, P.L (2009) The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course New York: Oxford University Press







New Government Drugs Strategy for England; One and a half Cheers

The Government has released a new Drugs Strategy for England, along with one or two other documents . This strategy needs close reading by commissioners and a range of stakeholders. There is some good stuff in it, but also some disappointments. This is my take. Right now I’m feeling  8/10 for aspiration, 6/10 for clarity and 5/10 for action.

Government says that the economic and social cost and changing population drug trends means a new strategy needed. Fewer drug users are coming into treatment and those under 25 who use opiates entering treatment for first time has fallen substantially. By contrast they say, there are more adults leaving treatment successfully but rates vary between best and poorest performing local authorities, and rates have levelled off in recent years with a decline in opiate users leaving treatment successfully.  The increase in drug related deaths requires action, but some are still working out what.

The aim is “to reduce all illicit and other harmful drug use, and increase the rate of individuals recovering from their dependence” and  they will be “taking a smarter, coordinated partnership approach;“  What’s not to like?  Well, this is a mixed document. Some great and welcome stuff, some areas where it remains to be seen what will change and some areas where, frankly, they could have done much better, even without funding. The question I have had in my mind throughout is “will this strategy serve people better?”  In some cases, undoubtedly yes. In other cases, much more could have been done.

The logic model of this strategy is an implicit one.  Joined up responses and local stakeholders with greater transparency. It is a massive missed opportunity that that significant and positive logic remains poorly, if at all, articulated across this document.

The legitimate role of the state in drugs

There is a debate to be had on what the interest of the state in drugs is. Indeed, there are lots of people who think they’re having that debate. Some of them though, seem to be longer on rhetoric than evidence. The influence of this debate, including the recent (and for my money patchy and inconsistent) report by FPH and RSPH on drugs is conspicuous by its absence.  My interest is harm. Where there is harm or potential for harm to people or communities, then we need to act. Where there isn’t, I’m not sure I, personally, have a role.  If people are using drugs without any harm or potential for harm, then that’s much less of a priority for me than those who really are harming themselves and others. I’m aware that this varies across government; customs and police have different as well as shared interests to me, and reducing supply remains important even if we only see that as a way of reducing crime. It’s important. But this strategy could have done a basic network analysis of those to guide us all on what we should focus on. That is left to local areas, if it is done at all. And that’s an omission.  All of that suggests to me that the policy agenda on this continues to remain short on the joined-up thinking we need to be mirrored at national, regional and local levels.

Responses from the people who will end up doing the work

The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) and the Local Government Association (LGA) have both responded to the strategy.  The ADPH statement points out:

  • “The local response will require Directors of Public Health to continue to play a central role and we can no longer avoid the fact that cuts to the Public Health Grant are damaging to government’s ambitions. There is no long-term vision in this strategy to ensure services are adequately funded.”
  • “The pressure on Directors of Public Health and Local Authorities could have been easily addressed by reversing the cut to the Public Health Grant; the announced cuts total £531M while additional expectations continue to be created.”

Meanwhile the LGA response, while affirming that “Local government will continue to play its part in working with national government to deliver on our shared ambition to support those individuals and their families devastated by the harm caused by drug misuse” points out that  “we have long argued that reductions by central government to the public health grant in local government that is used to fund drug and alcohol prevention and treatment services is a short-term approach and one that will only compound acute pressures for criminal justice and NHS services further down the line.

It concludes “Leaving councils to pick up the bill for new national policies while being handed further spending reductions cannot be an option. Pressure will be placed on already stretched local services if the Government fails to fully assess the impact of their funding decisions.”

Key things for a Director of Public Health to do

For all the lack of mention of Directors of Public Health (not once in over fifty pages), there are numerous mentions of Local Authorities, and the document implies the system role we have will continue. The key challenge is to turn this strategy from paper to opportunity. That is just not going to happen without Directors of Public Health, local authorities more widely, police, voluntary sector and a range of other stakeholders working together locally. So the lack of even a basic acknowledgement of this beyond the repeated use of the word partnerships is at best, disappointing.  At worst, it suggests a lack of ability to think about systems approaches, despite the fact the strategy implies – and here I fully support it – we need whole systems approaches on this.

The key action for DsPH is to identify what we need to do to build effective local partnerships across reducing demand, supply and building recovery and work on this.  We should welcome the focus on partnership, evidence and transparency, as well as the lifecourse approach.

We should also recognise that no single agency will in reality be well placed to deliver most of this, it requires comprehensive action by a range of stakeholders.  But the role of local authorities and Directors of Public Health needed a somewhat better elucidation than is in the strategy, and to be honest, the role of national government gets little explanation. This document is long on ambition, short on conceptualisation and patchy on action. It will be important for local leaders to fill in these gaps if the ambition and opportunity the document rightly tries to set us towards is to be realised.

At best this document is welcome clarity and focus with very little specific commitment.  PHE will face new demands to support. We need to hold PHE to account to deliver this well and effectively, and to add value in the system. That varies by region and Centre, if PHE’s own stakeholder survey views are anything to go by.

Drug related deaths, lifecourse approach, recovery, prescription drug use, chemsex, NPS, working with police, better offender management, drug testing on arrest and more are all on my agenda. Some of this document helps, some of it still leaves us on our own to sort it out. It’s a shame that the leadership role of local authorities in this is mentioned more implicitly than explicitly.


The strategy is owned by the Home Office, but it’s clear this has been significantly influenced by Public Health England.

There is no new money but several re-announcements of existing or previous money. While there is not a single mention of the Director of Public Health, it seems existing funding through Public Health Grant (until 2019) and the commissioning responsibilities of the Director of Public Health will remain.

There are lots of good intentions on partnerships which seem to boil down to a national strategy board to hold local areas and other work to account.  While one can see where concerns of different stakeholders have sometimes got through, this strategy feels written close to the chest of government, and what feels like lack of concrete commitments in some places, vague promises of support and work in others shows that. In a time of austerity, why did we not get the system together to work out what we could do without money. I think we would have had a better product.There are a number of things to be welcomed but this could have been a much better document with that approach.

The commitments on Families, for example, are spread across the document but beyond saying PHE will work with drug and alcohol family courts , produce a toolkit for local authorities and an exhortation that “evidence based psychological interventions which involve family members” should be available, there is often not much to go on.

Much of this gives PHE a significantly enhanced role of support or guidance, though some will argue that this is what they should have been doing anyway, and there is little in the way of detail on what will actually happen. The use of “support” occurs 150 times throughout the strategy and “work with” 17. But there is precious little detail and some will wonder about PHE’s ability to deliver.

The strategy seems to verge between a deficit approach “local areas need support” while recognising and exhorting local partnerships to do better at other times. This feels like it could have been better thought through.  Its really good they want local areas to be more effective but the relationship set out in here feels extremely one sided.  Will local commissioners have representation on the new national Board? If not, why not?

For all their talk on partnership and integration, the model still feels like it veers towards national doing to local and holding them to account.

Measuring outcomes gets various mentions with, on page 36, its strongest statement, a framework of measures and outcomes from treatment to recovery. A homelessness and housing measure, and measures for crime, mental health and employment will be added.  Without the impetus or requirements for agencies to work together though (and this never gets beyond exhortation in the strategy), this will be more difficult to achieve if local relationships and co-ordination don’t prioritise this. Good idea by government, but have they really thought through how to make this drive change?

A section on governance is perhaps most disappointing of all.  Given everything that could be done locally to address some of the aspirations of this strategy, there is only a commitment to a national strategy board (fair enough, that will be useful) which will “ use greater transparency and data on performance to support action by local services to deliver the best possible outcomes and monitor progress.” The old National Treatment Agency’s obsession with performance management by another name perhaps?

There will be a National Recovery Champion who will sit on the Board, provide leadership, support collaboration, seek to address stigma and act as a ministerial envoy. Well, as a change tool, this has mixed reviews. Has government learned little from the mixed experience of Tsars, Czars and Tzars across clinical areas, public sector transformation and drugs among other areas since 1994?

The statement that “the Care Quality Commission will play a vital role in assuring quality” is very welcome, provided CQC does better at understanding what it is we are all trying to achieve. The document talks about quality in an encouraging way. That’s good. But we need to work together to recognise it, and there is little concrete here to go on. Take for example what good looks like for specific populations. There are sections on specific populations across the document. These range from really welcome but could be stronger (dual diagnosis issues) to tokenistic and feels like government doesn’t actually know what to do (chemsex.)  The phrases “good practice” appear throughout. What this looks like across any area remains to be seen.

I’m not going to cover the global action chapter which feels more like its relevant to people other than local commissioners.


Reducing Demand – adopting a lifecourse universal approach

I count at least 20 commitments in this and other chapters on this:

  1. PHE will help local areas by providing professional guidance for midwives, health visitirs and school nurses under health child programme
  2. Providing support and guidance to LAs including systems to support integrated commissioning and delivery from 0 to 5
  3. Supporting school nurses, youth workers and community services to work together
  4. Providing information through child health profiles
  5. Encouraging schools and teachers to “develop their practice”
  6. Encourage prevention strategies in schools
  7. Develop resources and share them, and monitor existing programmes
  8. Specialist substance misuse services should link with wider childrens’ services
  9. Govt says they will support youth offending team to work with individuals
  10. Action on families : PHE will wotk with Family Drug and Alcohol Courts and local public health teams to improve outcomes and the existing Troubled Families programme. No mention of Family Safeguarding. The strategy later commits that PHE will develop a toolkit for LAs to support response to parental substance user
  11. Vague and unsatisfactory commitment on intimate partner abuse (page 12)
  12. In depth research on sex work
  13. Homelessness work will be done through the Homeless Prevention Programme (but nothing specific on drugs)
  14. Expectation to continue to work together on veterans drugs issues nothing concrete other than provide tailored pathways
  15. On Older People Advisory Council on Misuse of drugs looking at evidence on older people
  16. On new threats they talk about novel psychoactive substances (NPS) and will establish a new clinical network of experts and clinicians.
  17. In prisons NHS England has carried out a review of its commissioned provision and will increase focus on NPS
  18. Neptune II – an NPS programme, will be promoted more widely across the field
  19. Chemsex – PHE will support areas by providing guidance on close collaboration between sexual health services and community groups
  20. Misuse of prescription medicines – “we will support local authorities and CCGS so people dependent on medicines can access suitable treatment”

Some of this is good, some feels like a litany of “things we must mention” rather than a coherent set of strategically thought through concentrations of effort. Little of this seems to have much in the way of strong evidence base and the strategy seems to assume beyond pilot areas mentioned that it isn’t happening already. Some of this may be useful but this feels like doing for the sake of doing. Phrases like “encouraging” schools, seems to have little in the way of teeth given how government feels this is urgent. Some encouraging noise about universities’ role are given, for example, but no clear action. There is an incredibly weak statement on prescription medicine use especially given what others are doing about it

Restricting Supply Chapter

There are some new actions but mostly targeted at national level.  Some specific commitments to be welcomed include:

  1. Govt will look at options to make improvements to drug driving regime including remedial courses
  2. Look at how anti social behaviour legislation can be used to tackle drug related offending

Sub chapter on Drug Related Offending

This section  is mixed. There are some good things in here and if we work on them we could make the system work better. Some things need greater elucidation, though.

  1. Encouraging wider user of drug testing on arrest.
  2. push for drug testing to be more consistently available in the community so it can be part of a community or suspended sentence (feels like a backwards move for some areas)
  3. Early intervention for offenders through “better integration” with community mental health and substance misuse services
  4. Increase use of treatment as part of a community sentence including a protocol for drg rehabilitation
  5. Considering what to do following the pilots on out of court disposals
  6. Against the background of prison reforms, do more to restrict supply in prisons including testing and treatment. A specific list of actions and committments
  7. Some vague statements about local partnerships
  8. They will work with integrated offender management arrangements to share practice
  9. Continue to support heroin and crack action areas

We need to turn some of the very vague statements like “we will work with” into concrete actions. This section of the strategy seems strongest on the national enforcement and supply restriction work and work in prisons.  Buzzwords like better integration and vague words about local partnerships are welcome signs of intention but we need to turn these into action. The National Strategy Board will not achieve this unless it develops strong local relationships.

Building Recovery

This is, sadly,  probably the weakest chapter, even given the welcome but weak  lifecourse section.  There is a very welcome reminder of support after people finish treatment and a useful (page 31) and a list of points on things to enhance recovery. I like this checklist.   A good highlight is an emphasis on working from custody to community and actions to reduce drug related deaths.

But other than one or two pieces of action, it feels largely like most local commissioners are left on their own with the promise of PHE “support.”  All in all a missed opportunity for government to play its part much more synergistically with local commissioners.

A section on commissioning starts by saying nobody should be left behind, confirms the extension of the ringfenced public health grant to 2019 and says there will be greater transparency through building on the Public Health Outcomes Framework to “hold local areas to account” and then talks up the £30m Life Chances Fund and £10m payments to homelessness prevention programme. While the latter is very welcome, this section seems to say little of any use.  Again, some useful pointers but it’s up to local areas to make of this language of intention what they can.

Later in the strategy they commit to expanding the measurements of outcomes and treatment indicators (page 36), which could be very useful for commissioners and local stakeholders. Transparency is good.

I support recovery as part of response to drug and alcohol use. I really do. But evidence for recovery approaches is still building and in some areas is patchy, so the statement that  ACMD has been looking at the commissioning of drug treatment and recovery services and the impact this can have on recovery outcomes for individuals and communities is really welcome.  We need much more evidence and improving practice. But they could have recognised here that actually some of the providers around the country are doing amazing work. The commitment to “carefully consider any recommendations to inform future policy” from this while welcome, feels a let down given how important this area is. We need to be even more dynamic as a field on building and implementing evidence of what is effective.  Government’s leadership role in this alongside the rest of us is not well articulated here.


A re-iteration of need for local partnerships contains no specific commitments on doing anything to support them.  The 2007 guidelines on commissioning have, however, been updated, which is welcome.  PHE will support and share guidance and there will be a broader set of indicators (feels like they’ve already said this several pages earlier.) Commissioners “should” develop quality governance structures for drug treatment linked to safeguarding procedures for children and adults. (page 30.) The advice that we address quality in rehabilitation and detoxification is welcome .  But there is no indication of what quality looks like and this strategy is not going to give us it.  The proof will be in how agencies work together.


This is a major issue in our field. There is a welcome statement on ensuring we continue to have the right workforce including working with HEE and Royal Colleges.  What will the National Strategy Board to do support this is my question back?

In particular I welcome the statement that Government will “work with Health Education England and other stakeholders, in line with the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health recommendation, to support development of an appropriately trained and competent workforce to meet the needs of people with co-occurring substance misuse and mental health conditions. “

If these commitments happen, it will be all to the good and it’s good the strategy recognises that.

Perhaps one of the most long awaited announcements has been the outcome of the Dame Carol Black work on drug use and employment.  Nothing really new here. Universal Credit will still roll out, JobCentres will have a “transfored roled” and a new “Work and Health Programme” will provide support to people who are long term unemployed and give early access to people with drug issues.

Finally, I strongly welcome the recognition of user engagement but this could have been better phrased. The section on peer-led recovery, by contrast, feels weak and beyond a mutual aid toolkit for peer support exhorts local areas to “support community based initiatives which promote and sustain recovery”







The Strategy Question

It feels like strategy is flavour of the month. (That’s not a bad thing.)  Our own second Public Health Strategy for Hertfordshire is in consultation right now, and I have been asked to help with Strategy development for two national voluntary agencies I work with and a major local charity. Meanwhile the County Council’s Corprorate Management Team had a strategy afternoon (always useful) and the Prevention workstream of the STP has to deliver its prevention workplan.  Strategy is ever present.  It must be the end of the financial year!

Yesterday a very enjoyable and enlightening twitter conversation was started by J Thompson-McCormick on public health strategy, which prompted a range of folk I respect and whose views I learn from to tweet their take on strategy. What struck me was the variety of takes, but some ever present common themes.

That prompted me to do a bit of reflective learning.  I produced my first strategy in 1990 as a new local government officer.  Since then I have lost count of the number of strategies I have led, had a hand in or simply advised on.

When I came to Hertfordshire I led the process of our Public Health Strategy in 2013.  I learned that Hertfordshire likes a “plan on a page”  – whatever you do a graphic representation helps. This year I had nothing of value to add when my team did the work with others and did it brilliantly. To me that’s success. They get it. Actually being able to let them do it and clear the space for them was my most useful contribution.  What that showed me was that there probably isnt enough space to put a cigarette paper between my ambitions and those of my team. I couldn’t be happier about that.

Some folk think our first Herts Strategy was too detailed ( to be honest. it’s somewhere between a strategy and a business plan) but it does have a strategy on a page. And it was detailed for a reason – Public Health was new to local government and I had to both set out our stall and get permission to do things. I don’t need to make it so complex now. Strategies and our approach to them should adapt and change with circumstances. Now I have to work out how we deliver public health in a very straitened set of financial circumstances and a different partnership and governance world. Some fundamental drivers for our strategy (money, partnerships) have changed. Our approach to what the strategy looks like must too.

The absolute fundamentals

What nearly thirty years of doing strategy has taught me is that there are multiple ways to do strategy, and the acid test is whether it gets you to where you need to be as an organisation.

When I worked in the private sector we had people who used the Strategic Planning Society knowledge and people who used Operational Research techniques, and indeed these can be crucial in the mix of doing good strategy.

I’m convinced that the private sector remains better at intersectoral collaboration – read partnership – than much of the public sector.  In my experience private sector partnerships are driven by constantly articulating and driving out the value to each partner, however that is expressed, rather than having a competition about who can fit the biggest pile of caring-sharing management speak into strategies. We could learn an awful lot from that.

The fundamentals of strategy

I think there are only seven fundamentals of Strategy, and those given below are mine. I don’t expect anyone else to agree. I still find a Harvard Business Review article from 2010 on the Five Questions of Strategy hugely useful. That piece begins with the sage advice that “People make strategy more than it needs to be.” There’s a fairly similar piece in Forbes I like to refer voluntary groups to. NCVO produces four extremely good and short videos on strategic planning for the knock down cost of £8.99. These are brilliant and I have used them many times with groups. So use what works for you, don’t assume any single person has THE formula.

1. Does it get you to where you need to be given the context you face? (And no, let’s not analyse that to the nth degree right now.)

2. Does it deliver the value you need, however you conceive that? (partnerships, outcomes, services, income)

3. How do you do it with the least cumbersome set of paperwork and processes?  If you have to read across nine documents to work out what you need to be doing, you’ve probably got something wrong.  Anyone who tells you rigidly you must have a strategy, a business plan, a delivery plan and a suite of strategic action plans may have it right for them, that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. There is NO hard and fast rule here. A strategy should ideally be a simple high level document with a “how will we get there” plan underneath. But if you combine the two, then that’s fine. That doesnt make it bad strategy. Failure to get results makes bad strategy.

4. Do the science (information, data, numbers, evidence), the art (influencing, leadership, stakeholder views and values) and your instincts (this feels and looks right given the issues we face) chime to tell you across all three of those domains this is right?

5. Strategies live and breathe and change, so expect to be in a different place by the time you get there. The key is whether you adapt as you go.

6. At a glance – can you graphically summarise and represent your strategy on a page?  No?  Then it’s too complicated.

7. Leadership and culture. The English public sector context is now such that leadership across distributed functions and responsibilities is the key to outcomes. Running empires is a dead leadership tactic for a passed financial era. (That doesn’t mean you let others control you or your budgets. Be a strategic dealer, not a doormat.)  Writing a business plan entirely on your own without any reference to anyone else (step forward several bodies we could all name) shows a signal lack of understanding this.  Leadership which is about getting my organisation somewhere without reference to others is folly.  Leadership which is about ensuring my organisation and others get to where they need to be is hard work, frustrating but essential. Producing a strategy in secret then expecting stakeholders to sign up (the early STP process) is just about the worst way possible to develop strategy and doom it to failure. Do the exact opposite of what NHS England did in directing Sustainability and Transformation Plans in their first six months and I suggest you won’t go very far wrong.

An example

I still think the best strategy I ever worked on was the Catholic Church’s national strategy on influencing healthcare. (As background, in case you’re wondering, over 200 care homes and facilities like counselling centres, with 3,500 projects are run from over 300 Catholic agencies in England and Wales, contributing an estimated £1.2bn of value to health and social care. Recent analysis of ONS data suggests that, compared to their size in the population, Catholics are eight times over-represented in the health and social care workforce in England. )

We had three priorities, suggested by Anthony Levy (an atheist, incidentally) , a man who’s done more strategy than I’ve had coffee, and whose style, take and modus operandi I just love:

  • Gathering – bringing people together to support each other and influence others;
  • Guiding – articulating why based on ONS data, Catholics are eight times overrepresented in the health and social care professions compared to the general population, the values behind that and why a belief in human dignity drives us to work in health and social care
  • Giving voice – Showcasing work, celebrating good practice, sharing what we do

Those three priorities, three years on, spurred action at national and local level with over 200  projects. And we monitor progress and impact under those three themes.  Consultant clinicians, bishops, domestics and policymakers worked together to produce it. We start the next strategy process in April 2017.

Getting to a good strategy

So, if those are the fundamentals, how do you get there?  In reality, there are multiple ways, and I don’t think I’ve ever stuck exactly to any single formula. The only must do is include people who are relevant – people who will deliver it, stakeholders, end users of this, politicians, leaders, anyone you expect to have on board.  I once started a strategy process by gathering people who couldn’t agree round a blank flipchart, said “what do we want to achieve? And we’re not leaving the room till we get agreement” and they produced a very clear set of five strategems within two hours, with some robust facilitation!

On another occasion I got buy in from a group that I would produce an initial rough position paper that they would rip apart and put back together again. And they did.  Usually I like to start with someone describing the situation and context, mutually identifying some principles of what will get us through, and then getting the group to articulate and produce a broad framework.  And then, usually, you have to have a small group work up the detail and come back for validation, amendment and augmentation.  Strategy by committee is painful. Strategy by whole town meeting is impossible.

Where on earth do I start?

Why not start with reading the Farnam Street Blog piece A primer on strategy and then some of the links below?  You may or may not then wish to read Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy if you have the time and inclination.  Then you need to decide on i) what you want to achieve and ii) a process to get there (but one you can change if you need to, in order to get the outcome right.)

The Process of Process

I think however you do it, you need a process to get a strategy.  That means you need to understand, get folk to agree, and then steward the process you’re using.  I like to answer the questions below (and adapt as I go along) so we get a good strategy.  You might find the wickedly helpful strategic planning toolkit for dummies helps. And I know people in private, public and third sectors who’ve used this at my suggestion and say it works.  I’ve adapted some of these principles from a book by Aubrey Malphurs first published in 1999. Others are my own

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why do we do what we do? (Values)
  3. What kind of world are we facing?
  4. What are we supposed to be doing in that world? (Mission)
    1. What are our must dos?
    2. What are our would like to achieves?
  5. What kind of organisation do we need to be to survive? (Vision) What values do we need?
  6. What will success look like? (Outcomes)
    1. How do we measure progress?
  7. How will we get there? (Priorities)
  8. What tools, resources, skills, processes and partnerships do we need? (Leadership, Culture, Skills, Deliverables.)
  9. Who do we need to engage to get a strategy out of this which people own?
  10. How do we make sure we adapt as we go along, and deal with pleasant and unpleasant surprises?

If I had a top tip

If I had a top tip on strategy, it is this. Everyone sweeps and looks forward to the future. Very few when they’ve done that then sweep backwards from the future to today, to see if the plan falls apart, which it often will. Sweeping forwards, then backwards, then forwards to correct is essential in my view.


The role of anyone leading a strategy process is one of stewardship. This isn’t “your” baby. It’s a process you are holding to get a group of people or agencies to a strategy that they can own and invest in. “This ain’t about you, princess.” If you can get folk to buy into this, and it feels right, then you’ve done your job.

Reading and learning

There are multiple tools and books out there. There are expensive courses and Master’s degrees and for some agencies these are useful.  For our purposes they’re probably overkill. I’ve tried to point you as I go along to the cheap and the free and the valuable above. In addition to the resources above, some people find the On strategy stuff useful. Bear in mind though they are trying to sell you their strategy and performance software.  Roger Darlington has a beautifully simple take.  HBR’s 10 must reads on strategy is good.

You don’t need massive sets of books and consultancies on strategy for most purposes.  Business plans and project plans and delivery plans or whatever you call them need detail in them.  Strategies need to blend high level and detail to do them well. In my view this is better produced by the people who will own it with a person or people leading process. Externals, if you use them, are often best to facilitate agreement and ownership rather than write it.

Happy Planning!