'Start with people' is the mantra that underpins NHS England's recently published statutory guidance for Working in partnership with people and communities. At the Health Innovation Network, we think this message also applies to the ways that we turn the good intentions of the strategy into real benefits for patients and services.
Given how busy we know health and care staff are we had initial reservations about the length of the strategy document as a catalyst for change.
Happily, though, we believe the depth and breadth of innovative thinking contained within the guidance could help encourage health and care services across the country to truly work in partnership.
Here are some of the things we really like about it:
The overarching objective is partnership with people and communities
Terms such as patient and public involvement barely scratch the surface of the benefits partnership working can offer people, communities and health and care services. Through focusing on true partnership as our aspiration, the recommendations recognise the value of abiding by a powerful set of principles.
It backs up its 10 key principles with practical inspiration
The document provides detailed insights and real-world exploration of several different techniques that can facilitate partnership, including co-production, co-design, engagement, consultation, and informing. No one methodology is given prominence over the others, recognising every project and scenario will have its own requirements and reiterating that it is the outcome rather than the process which matters most.
It provides clear evidence of how partnership can make a meaningful impact on tackling some of the NHS' biggest challenges
Involving staff at all levels is key to making decisions, and can sometimes come across as a "tick box" exercise. Setting out clear examples of how partnerships are already starting to help us address system challenges and deliver benefits relevant to the Triple Aim will convince more people that the reward of developing meaningful partnerships is worth the effort.
But how do we turn words on a page into creating change? Well – it starts with people!
Getting the spirit of the guidance to the right people
We all need to consider who in our organisation and network needs to read this document and the best ways to engage them in the conversation.
So we need to ask ourselves what level of understanding do we think people within our organisations need? Who do we prioritise educating about the 10 principles set out in the guidance? And who needs to remember the "start with people" mantra when it comes to planning their next project? The answer to this last question is: All of us.
Living the principles to bring the guidance to life
Getting staff and stakeholder groups involved in partnership working is not something that can be activated by one-way communication. What better way to start than by working with people in partnership to put some of the principles from the guidance into action?
At the Health Innovation Network we are already seeing the benefits of taking a principle-led approach to involvement across many of our projects, such as in our ongoing work to reduce restrictive practice as part of our Mental Health Safety Improvement Programme.
A broad range of service users and carers who have lived experience of mental health conditions have been partners in the project from the outset. As well as taking on "traditional" roles within the project group (such as sitting on steering committees), these experts by experience are beginning to guide and contribute to the communications and engagement of the project.
We hope that taking this approach will enable our experts to tell the credible and accessible story of the work, and ultimately improve the spread and adoption of the improvements we are making.
While it has often been far from straightforward, we, the 'other side' of this partnership are learning from our experts, that the visibility of people with lived experience in mental health change projects is a really important factor for the credibility of the work.
The ways that projects evolve through partnership is not a process that can be accurately mapped or proscribed. At times it can be challenging, and we certainly have needed to take time to reflect, learn and adapt our approach. Ultimately, we hope that the value delivered is worth the effort – we'll certainly be persevering with the principle of 'starting with people'.