Governance failure at Countess of Chester Hospital and the British Museum

British Museum - stolen antiquities
British Museum – stolen antiquities
Countess of Chester - baby deaths
Countess of Chester – baby deaths

On 16th August, the British Museum issued a statement that it had identified that “items from the collection were found to be missing” (subsequently disclosed to be more than 2,000).  A member of staff (although apparently not the thief) had been dismissed and a criminal investigation was underway.

The director of the museum, Hartwig Fischer, said “This is a highly unusual incident. I know I speak for all colleagues when I say that we take the safeguarding of all the items in our care extremely seriously. The Museum apologises for what has happened, but we have now brought an end to this – and we are determined to put things right. We have already tightened our security arrangements and we are working alongside outside experts to complete a definitive account of what is missing, damaged and stolen. This will allow us to throw our efforts into the recovery of objects.” Fischer resigned on 25th August after it emerged that the museum had first been alerted to the theft in 2021 by a dealer in antiquities who had come across some of the items for sale online, but that Fischer claimed that all the items had been  accounted for.  The impression has emerged of an organisation with shortcomings in governance and lacking assurance about the security of the processes for protecting its collections and a degree of denial at multiple levels – but spectacularly among top executives – about the possibility that anything might be wrong.

On 18th August, the verdict was handed down in the case of Lucy Letby, a neonatal paediatric nurse working at Countess of Chester Hospital, found guilty of the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others, in addition to which the jury were unable to reach a verdict on a six further attempted murder charges.  The incidents took place between June 2015 and July 2016 and the failure of the executive team to respond appropriately at this time has been greeted with justifiable outrage.  In particular, the paediatricians who first raised concerns about the pattern of baby deaths were first asked to apologise to Lucy Letby for bringing allegations against her, and it was only in July 2016 that she was removed from clinical duties.  On 3rd July 2018, Letby was arrested on suspicion of eight counts of murder and six of attempted murder after a twelve month police investigation.

The history of the case has raised major questions about the failure of the Countess of Chester Hospital, its management, and its board to scrutinising spikes in mortality in the neonatal unit, pay attention to concerns raised by clinicians, and take appropriate action.  Given the attention that I recall being given to mortality trends in NHS Trusts[1] at the time of the incidents, I find it remarkable that the board appeared to pay so little attention to the data.  Much has been made of the failure of the board to respond to the concerns raised by the paediatric consultants.  The inquiry due to be commissioned may shed light on this, but I suspect that interprofessional cultural issues may have contributed: between the doctors flagging concerns and executive directors with a nursing  background (chief executive, director of nursing and, I understand but can’t confirm, director of operations); or even between the medical director, who I understand to have been a surgeon, and the paediatricians.  If so, where was the chairman and where were the non-executives?  Not only does it appear with hindsight that they displayed insufficient curiosity to what was going on, but they should have been calling out interprofessional cultural issues if there were any, and assisting in their resolution.  Given that the chair of Countess of Chester was a former chief executive of the NHS Management Executive, lack of experience can’t be the explanation.

I became aware of the case at some point in 2019.  I believe I saw papers relating to Letby’s referral to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (where I chaired Fitness to Practise interim order hearings) and recall saying to a colleague on the panel that her case had similarities with that of Beverley Allitt[2] .  I don’t think that the case was heard by my panel , rather that we were asked to consider it when another panel was struggling to complete its agenda.  Hovever, it turned out that we did not hear it, either because we had insufficient time ourselves or that original panel was able to conisder the case after all.  Given that Letby did not receive an interim suspension order from the NMC until March 2020 when she charged with the murders, I assume that the papers I saw related to a review of an existing conditions of practice order.  This probably restricted her to working only at Countess of Chester Hospital, who should have been fully sighted on the concerns at the time and able to take actions to protect patients while the case was being investigated.  This was our normal approach to an interim order when a nurse remained in employment but their case was still under investigation and charges had not yet be brought by the Crown Prosecution Service.  Given the shortcomings in the management of this case by Countess of Chester Hospital, I am not sure that this was necessarily the right approach by panels such as mine.  But I always took the view, as a serving Trust chair myself, that I and my board would have been adequately sighted and my professional reputation was at stake if I was not assured that my executive colleagues were not managing such a case safely, and consequently the Trust employing a nurse was better placed than the Nursing and Midwifery Council to manage a case safely and proportionately.

Both the British Museum and the Countess of Chester cases raise major concerns about the possibility that senior executives and boards adopt a culture of complacency and denial, that board members lack cultural sensitivity and fail to triangulate what they are told and read in their papers with sufficeint engagement with the front line (which I have described as “kicking the tyres”), and, above all, fail to employ enough curiosity in relation to both data and to “soft intelligence”.

I am grateful to Elizabeth Rantzen, my former deputy and then successor as Chair of West London NHS Trust for her insight into the juxtaposition of these  incidents coming to light in the same week.

[1] I was chair at West Middlesex University Hospital 2010 – 2015, and West London NHS trust 2015 – 2023

[2] a nurse convicted of the  murder of four infants, attempted murder of three, and gross bodily harm to another six in 1991

Diversity on boards is more than just DEI and EDI

Is there enough cognitive diversity at the top of UK government?
Does visible diversity equal cognitive diversity?

I have long argued that the most important aspect of board diversity is ensuring diversity of thinking around the board table.  The public debate about DEI in the United States (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and EDI in the United Kingdom (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) is much more about the optics of the mix of people around the table.

The message communicated to an organisation’s stakeholders by a visibly heterogenous leadership roster is important.  This demonstrates the commitment of the organisation to being inclusive, treating people equitably and equally.  I have assembled boards that have been broadly representative, in terms of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability, both of the customers we served and the people we employed. This has to be more than cosmetic and must be carried through into the way that the organisation conducts itself.

Important though the optics and the carry through into corporate conduct are for an organisation’s marketing to all its stakeholders and for its internal operation, this aspect of DEI/EDI is not enough to ensure the diversity of thinking required for high quality governance.  Three of the four major officeholders in UK government are from ethnic minorities and the 30% female representation of women in the cabinet is broadly in line with 34% for the House of Commons as a whole.  But the cabinet is remarkably homogenous in terms of experience and academic background, with a predominance of lawyers and graduates in PPE or one of its constituent subjects, and only two (Kemi Badenoch and Thérèse Coffey) with degrees in STEM subjects. A prime minister will always face the challenge of balancing the opinions from different wings in his party, but does Rishi Sunak have enough cognitive diversity within his cabinet (allowing for them all being from the same political party) for good quality decision taking?

Two emails appeared in my inbox calling for divergent thinking on boards.  One was from the Good Governance Institute (a consultancy that works with boards in the National Health Service).  The other was a first-class thought piece from the KPMG Board Leadership Centre (KPMG Embracing Cognitive Diversity in the Board Room)  that reminds us of the UK Corporate Governance Code stipulation appointments should “promote diversity of gender, social backgrounds, cognitive and personal strengths”.  Its authors observe:

“Perhaps the benefits of diversity have been somewhat ‘mis-sold’ with the presumption that hiring people from historically excluded groups will automatically result in increased performance.  But for these efforts to be truly effective and ‘bear fruit’, board diversity will require a different approach and skillset.”

KPMG commissioned Leeds University to undertake a literate review of cognitive diversity and concluded that recruiting for diversity based on protected characteristics alone is not enough and, furthermore, that chairs have a critical role in ensuring that the benefits of cognitive diversity are realised.  The KPMG report’s authors argue for personality profiling to inform recruitment for diversity, for example, to actively develop a mix in terms of risk appetite, ability to focus on big picture or detail, be informed by heart or head, and be task-oriented of people-oriented – albeit (thinking about this from the perspective of a serial chair) recognising the management challenge that this creates for the person chairing such a board.

I’m inclined to take this further, and actively seek diversity of experience, professional background and academic training, which provide proxies for cognitive approach.  Back in the 1990s, I undertook research with the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre into the strategy development processes of 30 companies in the FTSE 100 and was struck by comments from consultants and planning directors working with some of the chief executives about the different styles of thinking of their clients and bosses, and how this appeared to reflect their academic backgrounds.  This resonates with me at a personal level – my wife, a former general counsel, approaches problems in ways that reflect her legal training and are completely different to me with an academic background as historian and business economist.  With many years’ experience of boards in healthcare organisations, I have observed the variation in the thinking styles of different health professions and, among doctors, how within the specialities within medicine.