Hidden away in a former school on the outskirts of the sleepy south-coast retirement haven that is Eastbourne, the Dental Practice Board hardly has a prominent profile. And yet it performs a hugely important dual role within the National Health Service.
On the one hand, it is responsible for paying dentists promptly and accurately - a task that in the year to the end of March 2002 involved processing 47.1 million payment claims, amounting to pounds 1.5 billion in payments to dentists. On the other, it is charged with protecting the interests of patients, dentists and taxpayers through stringent financial and quality checks. This involves its team of dentists travelling around the country examining tens of thousands of patients who have either had dental work or are about to, in order to ensure they receive an approved treatment programme.
On top of this, the board uses its knowledge and experience to create a greater understanding of dental care, issuing regular publications for policy- makers, health authorities and other NHS organisations, dentists and researchers.
With so many groups to serve, achieving service excellence could become complex. But the Dental Practice Board has made substantial progress by concentrating on its principal aim of contributing to improved dental health services by providing low-cost administration and high-quality information.
Indeed, so effective has it been that it has steadily taken on much more work and tackles it with many fewer people. Staff productivity has improved sevenfold in the past decade, and the board now has only 10 staff for every million documents processed, compared to the 97 per million documents when it was founded.
This close focus on productivity has produced savings to the taxpayer of more than pounds 100 million over 14 years - an amazing achievement and a key factor in the Dental Practice Board's being named the winner in the Public Services category. In doing so, it saw off the Veterans Agency, which as the War Pensions Agency was last year's category winner, and the catering department of the Southampton University Hospitals Trust.
Much of its big improvement in efficiency can be attributed to the introduction of information technology and - in common with many other organisations - outsourcing some labour-intensive aspects, such as keying in data, to the Far East.
But that is not the whole story. The board has been able to sustain this efficiency drive largely because of the clear vision and leadership skills of CEO John Taylor. The judges were impressed by Taylor, and comments such as the following sum up the feeling of the panel: 'His vision and values are clearly the driving force behind the organisation. Other leaders could learn from his clarity and commitment.'
For his part, Taylor, who came to the post after a career in industry, puts a lot of the success down to trusting the employees. 'Little by little, we're taking management away,' he says.
Though productivity achievements have inevitably led to the loss of many jobs, Taylor is proud that there have been no compulsory redundancies and that the positions that have gone were generally lower-skilled. Existing employees have always been encouraged to apply for the new, higher-value posts and to come up with ideas for improvements.
The commitment of Taylor and his colleagues to continuous improvement means that they are hardly complacent. But their efforts to date go some way to living up to their claim to 'combine public-sector ethos with commercial-sector efficiency and traditional values with modern practice'.