All executive and non-executive board members should take responsibility for the digital strategy. Too often trusts delegate this to one team, or a set of consultants and fail to consider how integral digital is to the safe and effective delivery of care, and to the ability of staff to do their jobs well.

A good digital strategy doesn't stand alone; it is integrated. When you read it, it should be clear how it links to and enables what your organisation – and indeed your system – exists to do. This could be through doing existing activity more efficiently or through enabling new activity that could not be done before.

It will be user-centred, meaning that it is rooted in a deep understanding of the needs of your patients, service users and staff.

A good digital strategy is mainstream – something that people can digest, remember and understand how to contribute to. It should create alignment, empower people in your organisation, and ultimately be useful to your delivery teams. For example, a good digital strategy will enable teams to make good decisions that fit with your organisational goals.

It must also be realistic – helping you to build trust and momentum with your staff; acknowledging your current reality, what you've already delivered, learning from previous successes and failures and setting achievable goals goes a long way.

It also needs to be focused and selective. This means your digital strategy should make it clear what you're not going to do.

Why effective digital strategies are important

Without a clear strategy for your digital investment, you risk several things happening in your trust. You will almost certainly find that the number of digital technologies and systems you have increases, and the number of projects and programmes multiplies, and no-one will understand what you're focussed on and what you're not.

As we have seen time and again over the course of the Digital Boards programme, the current funding models for digital (often capital, often short-term) mean that without an effective digital strategy trusts can get caught up in chasing the latest pot of money for investment, without a clear view of what they're trying to achieve.

Doing the hard work of building an effective digital strategy and ensuring digital is truly built into all your corporate strategies gives you the opportunity to examine where you are now, what's working and what isn't in terms of patient and staff experience, and where you most need to put your energies over the next few years. Technology can be used to create collaboration or block it, and this all starts with a strategy rooted in long-term thinking and system working. A good strategy gives you the evidence and compelling reasons to say no to things that aren't going to help you deliver against it.

Lastly, clearly articulating your vision and outcomes for how digital will enable transformation, and agreeing how you are going to communicate this to staff, partners, patients and the local population, helps build trust and engagement for the work – without which you will struggle to get buy-in for change. The act of digitally transforming your organisation requires significant bandwidth from your staff, and being clear on how your digital strategy relates to what your staff are there to do – namely, deliver safe and effective patient services – goes a really long way towards setting them up for change, and aligning everyone's efforts to help you get there faster.

Hear from a trust leader

Watch the video below for reflections on creating an effective digital strategy from Marion Dunstone, chief operating officer and David Bacon, director of finance at Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust.  

Shared board ownership of the digital strategy at Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust 

Common pitfalls

  • Digital strategies that are IT-driven, focus on technology and technical changes and often on unproven technology, rather than on the wider enablers of digital transformation. In other words, getting distracted by 'cutting edge' technology that is not so well evidenced, when really it would be far more useful to focus on getting the basics right.
  • Digital strategies that are vague and cookie-cutter; it could apply to any organisation, and it doesn't include a tangible, measurable description of how things will be different when the strategy is delivered. Or worse, they read like a shopping list without demonstrating the trust's priorities and considering constraints, underestimating the resource and time required to implement.
  • Digital strategies that are too long-term and not reviewed often. Technology moves quickly, and you need to be able to respond accordingly. More than a five-year time horizon won't allow you to do this effectively.

Questions to ask

When you come together as a board to review your digital strategy, these key questions can help you assure whether you are setting the right conditions for success:

  • Do you know what digital services you are operating now and how they are performing?
  • Do you understand your users and their biggest needs?
  • What are you not prioritising in your digital strategy?
  • Can you explain how your organisation's digital strategy aligns with your system strategy?
  • Does your board understand what the impact of the strategy will be five years on?

To learn more, read our longer guide to digital strategies – in it you'll find more about what makes a good and bad digital strategy and how to go about designing one.

Three more things you could read on this subject