Simon Stevens uses art to sidestep purdah

Authors: Tom Moberly 

Publication date:  17 May 2017


At the King’s Fund’s annual conference on leadership and management last week, NHS England’s chief executive, Simon Stevens, found an innovative way to deal with the challenge of discussing the next steps for the health service within the restrictions of pre-election purdah.

Intentional dullness

Stevens began by saying sorry. “I apologise that your conference has fallen during one of our annual major political events in this country, with general elections, referenda, and so forth,” he said. “As a result, I will intentionally try to be dull, as against doing so inadvertently, which many of you experience frequently.” He went on to explain his plan to work around the restrictions of purdah.

Social care

“Obviously there are certain things that need to be said that can’t be. So what I thought I would try to do is use subliminal messages such that I can’t be interpreted [as commenting] on some of the big issues facing the nation,” Stevens said. “Here is Whistler’s Mother. I say no more, other than that in the debate about health and social care there is still unfinished business. We know that, and it’s good to see those questions being addressed.”

Bringing coherence

“Part of what we’ve been doing in the NHS over the last several years is bringing coherence to the change agenda,” he went on to say. “I make no observation on the following pictures which also sprang to mind.” Then flashed up an image of one of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist drip paintings, work that was once described as “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.” Stevens followed that image with a classic Piet Mondrian picture.

Partnership working

“And of course there’s partnership working, as advocated by STPs [sustainability and transformation partnerships],” he said, before flashing up an image of Henri Matisse’s Dance.

International relations

“All of which is refracted through, obviously, a big international debate about our future relations,” he said, showing an image of Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel. “Those are the subliminal messages over,” he concluded. “I think I’m clear of the purdah restrictions on that one.”

Tom Moberly UK editor The BMJ

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: