NHS Digital’s path to innovation and digital transformation
Here in the UK, our National Health Service is one of the most established and recognised entities not just in this country but also highly regarded around the world.
It would find itself in sharp focus during global pandemic in 2020.
During that time NHS Digital – the data and technology provider to the wider NHS healthcare system – found themselves, together with front-line staff, battling to deliver digital capability into the hands of the wider public as well as the healthcare services on which they depend.
In January 2022, the Enterprise Digital Podcast was joined by NHS Digital’s Sally Bogg to talk about the power of having a shared purpose in what turned out to be a very motivational episode.
Sally has worked in IT service management since 2006 – across many functions and worked extensively in higher education before joining NHS direct at a time when we were all being advised Help the NHS and stay home and found herself having to challenge a lot of the service management norms.
Think back to how we, as the wider public, previously interreacted with healthcare services – in person and dare we say it, with more than a dash of bureaucracy.
Now, we came to rely on apps to track our whereabouts, provide records of our NHS history and generate Covid passes, all in very short space of time.
The pandemic brought forward a lot of innovation and digital transformation across all sectors. The real change was the NHS Login app where they were putting healthcare data into the hands of citizens – Sally saw this as a real turning point.
Seeing people using the app (for example when Covid passes were required to get into events) meant that interest in having that access was going up.
“The minute you need that data to get into a festival or a large-scale event, you can bet they’re interested,” Sally told the Enterprise Digital Podcast.
“Having that information in the palm of their hand is the real transformation.
“We were seeing delivery and development not just touching the healthcare system but becoming citizen facing.”
Sally described it was exciting but daunting when you consider the scalability – the underpinning app was NHS Login, which went from 500,000 to 60m end users.
Thinking back to those early times, especially as Covid is here to stay and as the seasons change, we are hearing of a new strain about to hit the town, Sally described how the real key to success was the commitment, passion and drive of the NHS Digital workforce.
They were working just as tirelessly as the magnificent front-line (clinical) staff.
How was this achieved?
They discovered they could work a lot faster and a lot more flexibility.
Sally said: “Incidents have been incidents and problems have been problems but we’ve had to learn to think outside the box and work flexibly because we’ve had to go at things so hard and so fast, but they still have to have to have the right level of assurance.
“We have to be confident that they will deliver what they have to deliver and won’t fall over every two minutes.”
It came down to adapting all that knowledge around service management but being able to take that and do it slightly differently in a more flexible way.
It’s a cliché – but failure was not an option
Anyone who has ever been involved in any service management project can appreciate that sometimes they get bogged down in the process.
NHS Digital’s success hinged on commitment to the result.
“We had to get these services up and running and into operation.”
“Risk profiles changed, decision making got a lot faster, the way things are assured and approved are a lot faster.”
Real world impacts
Sally joined NHS Digital in May 2020, when the UK was three months into lockdown. Teams who had traditionally been office-based were now having to work at home.
The format of working was very quickly adapted to closely replicate the working practice in the service bridge, with set calls three to four times a day that replicated the meetings they would have had in the office.
In fact, during that whole time many organisations, not just the NHS, proved that they could deliver well remotely.
As she points out: “Imagine the pandemic without Teams or Zoom.”
Technology evolution – but not at the expense of everyone
The collaboration tools we have come to depend on so much now also had to evolve just as quickly – but if we take a step back and consider that the wider public also includes those who are not constantly glued to some kind of smart technology, they also had to be prepared to support a non-digital route.
Service management often has a bit of an image problem as the departments that put the brakes on projects, and Sally saw that ‘traditional’ roadmaps did still exist, but now instead of a one-to-two-year roadmap, Covid forced NHS Digital to be able to work to a three-to-six-month timeframe.
“We learned to expect the unexpected and be ready to reprioritise on a frequent basis. Have an outline with the understanding that something may come along.”
Listening to the podcast, the passion and commitment that drove the team is at the forefront of Sally’s experience, as she summarises the key factors of success during a very challenging time.
- Achieving absolute clarity around a sense of purpose and direction – if you can provide your workforce with that and bring them along with you that is really powerful.
- Learn to work more flexibly and be more open to doing things differently – e.g. in terms of service management, not sticking rigidly to old ways of working is absolutely critical
- Sometimes we have to let go of being the doers and start being the enablers – Change management is a good example – traditional service management holds, owns and governs the process and typically has also been the doers. However, why can’t our product teams do change management? Bring those worlds together.
- What is our value as service management? – if we can’t articulate that then we need to change and we need to do something different. We can talk a lot about salaries and things that motivate people but understanding your values and what you’re contributing is really powerful and is not utilised anywhere near as much as it should be.
It took a global pandemic to bring about innovation and digital transformation on an eye-watering scale. Now, going forward, Sally hopes that they can come out of recovery and take those lessons learned and build it into a new world.
The Enterprise Digital Podcast is a regular discussion on all matters related to Enterprise Service Management and Digital Transformation. The hosts are Barclay Rae and Ian Aitchison, who share and discuss their thoughts on the converging worlds of technology, service management, people and management, business and corporate development, governance, automation and more… Regular guests will be invited to try and get a word in…