Helping NHS boards take charge on digital

Sonia Patel

‘There’s no going back ... we need to continue to make digital advancements in the interest of our staff and patient care; we need board leadership to maintain the momentum.’  I regularly hear these sentiments as I engage with regional and national digital leads.

We know the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across health and social care.  More importantly it's changed mindsets, with trust boards rethinking operating models to further capitalise on the digital opportunities presented during the pandemic.  

To assist them on this transformation journey we commissioned the Digital Boards programme, to help empower board leadership to understand and harness opportunities to further develop their digital maturity.

NHS Providers has published a second guide for boards, Building and enabling digital teams, building on the first guide, which helped kickstart the boards collective confidence in beginning to tackle digital transformation. The first guide helped them to start asking the right questions; to build that capability and to fully understand that the board is at the helm of navigating the trust, STP, ICS through digitising services for patients, staff and for providers.

For me the second leg of the Digital Boards journey is to introduce a new challenge - how they can embed that change in their organisation and bring their staff with them. It makes clear that whilst digital technology enables the transformation of an organisation, the board has to focus on user needs of their staff and patients and keep that in sight as change progresses. I think it's essential and it's where the transformational power of digital lies.

The guide says, ‘Building good digital teams are identifiable by the extent to which they demonstrate a digital mindset’.  I think ‘good digital teams’ are identifiable by three main characteristics: user centred design, agile ways of working and a knowledge of how to build and operate modern technology and data services.

Executives need to be as comfortable with these concepts as their teams. They have to get under the skin of it and work together, it's a huge undertaking. The board has to be knowledgeable, agile and has to understand the power of feedback and seek it out as they experiment with short cycles and scaling experiments that work.

The individuals which make up these teams will understand the role of design in delivering great products and services, how design processes work, how to conduct user research. All this being done with the end user in sight; be that staff or patients, or those with accessibility needs, or from diverse backgrounds, or health inequalities. 

These highly skilled people are already working in health and social care, under our very noses. The board's next lesson is to ensure it  identifies these staff members and teams with an understanding of the fundamentals of user centred design, agility, and modern technology services.

Board leadership mustn’t delegate a digital agenda to a CIO or a transformation team. They need to jump in, understand and get involved in the talent pipeline and services. Whilst still ensuring there is a clear technology and data accountability line to the board for live services and advising on technology decisions.

Boards will need to revisit their operating model(s) removing silo working wherever it is found, perhaps between the board and IT or maybe across IT, clinical and operational teams in order to deliver successful digital transformation and services.  

Guiding them through that, will keep the momentum alive and in a way it’s the next lesson, so to speak, of the Digital Boards programme.