Unit with a mission to be honest about NHS

Rosie Waterhouse talks to the leader of a behind-the-screens operation
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A little-known group of civil servants - once dubbed the Good News Unit - has been operating "behind the screens" of the National Health Service for almost three years, gathering "intelligence" and briefing ministers about the service's successes and trouble-spots.

The Corporate Affairs Intelligence Unit employs 30 staff - more than double the number of information officers working in the Department of Health's press office - at the NHS Executive headquarters in Leeds. Its director, Dr Roger Moore, holds one of themost powerful jobs in the Department of Health and also heads the Appointments Unit, which helps in the selection of candidates for appointments to NHS trusts and health authority boards. He has a budget of £1m a year.

In an interview with the Independent, Dr Moore was at pains to dispel the intelligence unit's reputation for secrecy. Following the leaking of a briefing document and "mission statement" about the unit's work, it has been accused of disseminating good news propaganda and playing down bad news, described in internal documents as "hot spot issues".

The leaked document, written in March 1992, described the unit's mission as to enable ministers and officials to present "a positive account" of the NHS and the latest annual report is packed with good news stories.

However, the intelligence unit has since changed its mission statement because it gave "the wrong impression", Dr Moore said. The mission now is to present an "accurate" account of the service. The unit's role is "to keep ministers and the chief executive informed of all issues in the NHS which may attract media attention; to provide factual briefings on day to day events in the context of NHS goals and strategies; and to act as a focal point within the executive for day to day information from the NHS and to provide policy units with information".

Dr Moore said in a written statement: "We're probably the best-known part of the NHS Executive to our colleagues. My desk officers are in frequent contact with trusts and health authorities. We do not, as a general rule, speak to the press. We give information to the press office which they can use to answer journalists' questions."

Explaining the unit's role, he said: "As civil servants we act as the `eyes and ears' of the ministers, the chief executive and departmental officials on day-to-day NHS issues. It is our job to know or find out the facts about any event which may attractmedia attention - both good and bad. We have to understand the individual event and report it accurately . . . together with a brief analysis of how it fits into the policy context: Did the event happen because of current policies? Were curre nt policies being ignored? Has such a thing happened before? Will it happen again?"

Conscious of the controversy about Tory supporters on trust boards, he stressed: "We don't ourselves vet applicants. However, we are working with the NHS to develop a system which ministers have asked should be more open and transparent ."