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The NHS Partnership: can the NHS work for its staff?

Founded in 1864, John Lewis is one of the UK’s greatest retail success stories. Like the NHS, it is founded on clear, strong principles that have stood the test of time, and both organisations are now treasured British icons. These organisations, however, articulate the role of their staff very differently.

Principles that stand the test of time

The Partnership model at John Lewis explicitly puts its staff at the very heart of all it does: “The Partnership’s ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business. Because the Partnership is owned in trust for its members, they share the responsibilities of ownership as well as its rewards, profit, knowledge and power.”

The NHS articulates its ultimate purpose in terms of its patient. Bevan’s three core principles from 1948 were that the NHS must meet the needs of everyone; be free at the point of delivery; and be based on the clinical need, not ability to pay. These principles were updated in 2011 for the NHS constitution; none of the seven principles in the NHS constitution focus on what the NHS can do for staff in terms of fulfilment or satisfaction.

This seems like a missed opportunity. The NHS employs a staggering 1.7 million people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, making it one of the largest employers in the world, let alone in the UK. Approximately £90bn, circa 70%, of all NHS expenditure is spent on its workforce – ranging from world-leading, highly specialist roles that command incredible salaries, through to non-specialist minimum wage roles.

The future? 

John Lewis is also very clear about the future of their organisation: “While the world of 2028 may be very different there is one thing which is certain – the Partnership of 2028 will still be owned by Partners. It is our job to ensure it stays successful for the Partners of the future”.

Can we articulate a similar vision for the NHS and its staff? Not currently, and Westminster politics certainly play a part in the uncertainty. However, the scale and financially precarious state of the NHS makes promises difficult.

But perhaps making promises is exactly what the NHS should be doing; making long-term commitments to the people who give much more than is expected of them for the care of others.

The John Lewis Partnership is more than a profit share – it exists to support, develop and empower people through fulfilling work. The organisation has made a clear pledge on what it will do for its staff. Maybe there is a similar opportunity for the NHS; to be more open about the values its people are committed to and, in turn, make a commitment back to them. To enshrine this as the eighth principle of the NHS would be a great place to start. 

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