Reflections on two years of Digital Boards

Saffron Cordery profile picture

15 March 2022

Saffron Cordery
Deputy Chief Executive
NHS Providers

Our Digital Boards programme does what it says on the tin. Over the past two years we've worked with our partners at Public Digital to deliver events, publications and development sessions that support board leaders to take charge of the digital agenda. So far we've engaged with over 1,500 trust leaders and this has all been made possible by support and funding from Health Education England (HEE) and NHS England and Improvement.

Demonstrating impact

Digital Boards is designed to improve board level confidence and understanding of the digital agenda. It's about getting board leaders to approach digital in the same way they would quality or finance and making it everyone's business.

Boards are central to driving digital change. As James Freed, chief digital information officer at HEE, rightly says, this is about equipping the people who control the culture of the organisation and enable things to happen. In other words, if the board gets it, so too will the organisation. And we've seen progress across the sector. For example, Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust's recently developed digital strategy states:

"Leadership for the delivery of the digital strategy sits with the trust board. Not with one individual board member, but collectively and individually, with each executive director taking a digital perspective."

And the programme is showing that visible collective responsibility at board level is driving change within trusts. Following his board's participation in a bespoke board development session, the chief information officer at Herefordshire and Worcester Health and Care NHS Trust commented:

"There is now a direct link from execs down to the troops. My team are motivated and empowered to get on and deliver improvements."

Our board sessions are leaving trusts with action plans, and, critically, plenty of energy and coherence in their approach to leading digital.

Hot topics

Across our events and board sessions, we're having a range of conversations on digital. The nature of these conversations depends where the trust is on its digital journey.

For boards looking at their digital strategy, we've helped work through its development, and challenged them on whether their strategy is integrated, user centred, useful, realistic and focused. While leaders don't need to be technology experts, we've discussed how they can all be asking better questions that will ultimately lead to better decisions on technology. And we've also asked boards to come up with ways they can get closer to the user experience and manage risks more strategically.

Almost every board we've spoken to has raised the issue of digital exclusion. We've discussed how tackling this means designing services that meet all users' needs – designing for inclusion. But we've also talked about how digital isn't about 'either or' in service design: it should be digital for those who can, so you can spend more time with those that can't.

But the truly innovative space is where digital overlaps with quality improvement (QI). As the sector emerges from the pandemic and learns to live with COVID-19, we need new ways of working to support staff and to support service recovery. Trust leaders recognise the opportunity in bringing together existing expertise in digital and QI to drive the transformation of care delivery. Boards have discussed developing a shared language that coalesces all teams around service improvement.

Listening and learning - how our offer has developed

We have remained responsive to the needs of our members throughout the course of the programme. To begin with, this meant delivering most of our events and board sessions virtually. Based on the feedback and conversations with busy trust leaders, we've iterated, tweaked and ultimately improved our offer for boards.

Delivering virtual board sessions has made it possible for us to dial in leaders from other trusts to share their learnings. A director of nursing at an acute trust in the north east shared their reflections on a Cerner electronic patient record implementation with a trust in the south west. This peer learning is incredibly powerful and helps improve board level understanding of the key challenges and opportunities faced by the sector.

We've evolved our events offering too. Alongside our larger events, we now offer smaller workshops and masterclasses to enable practical learning of digital skills. For example, how to bring certain skills into the NHS, such as user research, or demystify complicated topics, such as interoperability. These are designed to improve board level understanding of the digital agenda.

What next

We have delivered board sessions to 59 trusts and look forward to developing and evolving our offer for more organisations over the coming year. For those we're yet to work with, we're talking to trust leaders about how we can adapt our offerings to better meet their needs. We're expecting more face to face delivery across our events and board sessions, which presents a number of opportunities for us to refresh our delivery and engagement with trust leaders.

We'll continue to work with HEE to identify opportunities to join up with other elements of the Digital readiness education programme, whether that be working with other digital experts or other parts of the sector.

And we're excited to be working with our partners to soon develop a similar offer for emerging integrated care boards. We'll be applying the same key principles that have underpinned the success of our existing Digital Boards programme, with the aim of supporting system leaders in their mission of improving outcomes, tackle inequalities, enhancing productivity and driving wider social and economic development. Watch this space.

This blog was also repurposed for Public Sector Focus.


About the author

Saffron Cordery profile picture

Saffron Cordery
Deputy Chief Executive

Saffron is NHS Providers deputy chief executive, part of the senior management team and sits on our board. She has extensive experience in policy development, influencing and communications and has worked in the healthcare sector since 2007. Before moving into healthcare, Saffron was head of public affairs at the Local Government Association, the voice of local councils in England. Her early career focused on influencing EU legislation and policy development, and she started working life in adult and community education.

She has a degree in Modern Languages from the University in Manchester, for ten years was a board member and then chair of a 16–19 college in Hampshire and is a trustee of GambleAware, a leading charity committed to minimising gambling-related harm. Read more

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