Public Services > Healthcare

Digital Health

David Bicknell Published 22 January 2013

Rachel Neaman tells David Bicknell about her digital leadership role at the Department of Health, seeing beyond 'technology' and driving cultural change and new ways of working to create a digitally enabled organisation


The publication of digital strategies at the end of last year by government departments has highlighted that departments' drivers are different, and so are their strategies and their approaches to publication.

Unlike other transactional departments' strategies, the Department of Health's digital strategy focuses instead on the department itself as a strategic department of state, and on both its policymaking role and its role as steward of the new health and care system.

This strategy demonstrates how the future Department of Health can lead the way as a digital department of state, and provide policy leadership for a digitally enabled and technologically ambitious health and care system.

Rachel Neaman is the department's digital leader. She began her career originally in publishing and moved via roles taking on broadcasting and content initiatives to the Department of Health in 2004 to head up the content and web teams. She is currently the deputy director for digital, channel strategy and publishing.

"My job looks two ways: across Whitehall, in digital media working very closely with GDS and the other government departments, making sure we are all working to the same principles," she says. "I also look across the health and care system, working with our arm's length bodies to make sure that we're aligning the way we're delivering digital and communications."

Neaman points out that although the government digital strategy focuses very much on transactional services, the Department of Health's position is different to other departments.

"The Department of Health does not have transactional services for the public and that will be even more the case with the new health reforms. So when the new health system comes into full establishment from the 1st April, there will be even more of a separation between the department and the transactional services the NHS provides because we will no longer be the headquarters of the NHS.

"And while the department has previously been ultimately responsible for the delivery of those transactional services and I have had a role to design and define those with the NHS, from the 1st April that will formally stop, although I will continue to work very closely with the NHS Commissioning Board and with Public Health England," says Neaman.

"The department's role is to be the steward of the new health and care system and therefore what I will be doing will be trying to ensure that the system is following the principles that we are setting across government. It is all about being very collegiate and creating a 'hub and spoke' model for the whole health and care system that says 'This is how we do things.' We are developing our digital health site as a place where digital practitioners in the health and care system can come and share experiences. We want the system to jointly own it and develop it so that it becomes a digital resource centre for all."

During 2013, Neaman expects to be working with arm's length bodies to develop a community of digital specialists in the health and care system, working to consistent principles, consistent standards and consistent practices.

"In May, the Department published the information strategy for health and care," says Neaman. "That set the strategy for the health and care system, so we're not reinventing the wheel there. The departmental digital strategy is about the department as a department of state, and not about the health and care system. From the 1st April this year, our role will be much smaller and more strategic; we will be a policy making body and therefore quite a large part of the strategy is devoted to how digital can help policy-making."

Despite the changes, Neaman still sees plenty of opportunity for digital initiatives.

"We're already doing some quite ground-breaking stuff in our digital engagement work around policy. It fits very nicely with the open policy-making agenda, so we're working with our head of policy profession here and working with his equivalents across Whitehall to demonstrate how digital can help in each of the stages of the policy-making progress.

"The policy-making side is going to be a large driver for our digital work because policymaking is going to be the department's primary role. The USP of our strategy is that in order for the Department of Health to steward a digitally-enabled health and care system - or a digital-first health and care system - the department needs to become more digitally enabled itself."

So what does that mean for the Department of Health? Neaman is focusing on a number of different areas.

"One is policy making. That's our bread and butter. How does digital help with that, from research and insight through to consultation through to delivery and evaluation? The second key area for us is communications. This covers social media engagement and stakeholder discussion and is we want to embed a more devolved model of digital communications within the department so that we have more members of staff using their own personal voices in an official capacity to talk about their work to build understanding and engagement."

The strategy includes a case study of the Department of Health's Director of Nursing, Viv Bennett, who has taken to Twitter and used it to help her develop a three-year strategy by engaging with nurses in that sort of forum. Before the advent of the department's digital mindset, engaging via Twitter was not something that she would have thought about doing.

"The department's digital strategy has been helpful for us in codifying and demonstrating why what we have been trying to do for a couple of years is legitimate and important and is in line with the rest of government," says Neaman. "It was about 18 months ago that we started trying to really make proper use of social media as a business tool. Now we are expanding this to social media monitoring and influencer mapping.

"These techniques are becoming much more important to us and we're using them in a much more strategic way to help us to shape policy. People are beginning to realise that it's one thing having physical press cuttings and focusing on traditional media, but if you're not aware of how your work is being talked about in social media you're missing a huge opportunity both to understand how what you're doing is landing but also to know who your key influencers are. It is absolutely about demonstrating the importance of engagement and participation in building policy."

Neaman points out that the Department of Health's digital strategy is being delivered as a digital product.

"While there will be a pdf document, as there has to be, we are actually delivering the strategy as a mini website in itself. So there will be more case studies and more information behind the digital product than there is in the actual paper version of the strategy. We have started to ensure that we publish all our major policy announcements as digital products too, starting with the information strategy in May last year."

Another area that Neaman is keen to point out in the digital strategy is the need to target the department's digital communications.

"Traditional media provides more of a mass broadcast opportunity, while digital media allows for a far more targeted approach and to do that you need to know who your audience is. You need to know their behaviour, you need to understand where they go to get their information and you need to go there too, because you cannot rely on them coming to you.

"We do a lot of digital partnerships with third parties. An example is the Dementia Challenge, which is a big prime ministerial initiative. We run that with the Alzheimer's Society and what we're doing there is aggregating content from other sources rather than trying to be the central content provider."

Although the term 'digital leaders' is a new one in government, for Neaman it embraces a range of skills and career paths.

"The digital leaders group is a very interesting group, because there are people from a whole range of backgrounds. There are people like me who have a communications background; we have CIOS and people with IT backgrounds; and there are people with service design and customer service backgrounds too. And that highlights something that I think is very important for the future, which is that digital isn't about one single skillset.

"This idea that there are traditional siloed career paths within the Civil Service or even the industry, I don't think is appropriate for a digital world. We need to have people who are digitally literate, but who also understand customer insight and customer service. Traditionally in the Civil Sservice you start with a policy; you hand that over to the IT people to build something and then you hand it over to the comms people to worry about communicating it and to the customer service people to deal with the aftermath."

Actually, argues Neaman, you need everybody up front right from the beginning saying, 'How is this going to work in a holistic way?'

"That is a huge culture change for government and potentially also for the private sector. It's not an issue specific to the public sector, but within the Ccivil Sservice it plays in to all sorts of other areas and processes around career paths and HR and how we're structured as an organisation, which is very tricky to overturn."

Eventually, Neaman expects CIO and digital leadership roles to converge much more.

"We're already seeing IT roles shifting in our own organisation as we move to GOV.UK. We've already transferred three roles from IT into my digital group in the last year, and they're now doing a much broader role than when they were in the IT team. Then they were CMS operators, and now they're doing a whole range of things, including filming and multimedia."

Neaman also believes that one issue facing all the departmental digital leaders is explaining just what 'digital' means.

"One of the challenges is the need to explain to people that digital is not IT and technology but of course IT and technology are a part of how we do things digitally. I think there is a culture change to be had in how we package the purely technical element of a CIO role alongside a digital leader role, and this also goes back to the fact that all departments have different needs and are different businesses.

"You have the seven big transactional departments and those are what the Government Digital strategy really focuses on because that's where the big money savings and customer satisfaction savings are going to be: that's where and how most people transact with government. But for us in the Department of Health, big transactional services are not what we do."

Neaman suggests that the Department of Health itself has not focused too much previously on the fact that it has a digital leader.

Now, it has the opportunity to do so.

"And so the strategy is an opportunity to refocus and to demonstrate - and that's my intention in the strategy - that this is about making us a digital department of state, a digitally enabled organisation so that we work better and more effectively in order to be able to steward a more transactional, digitally-enabled health and care system. So it is about internal change, cultural change, new ways of working and as, I've deliberately said, it's not just about technology."








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