Sustaining the momentum on digital transformation

Saffron Cordery profile picture

22 September 2020

Saffron Cordery
Deputy Chief Executive
NHS Providers

Six months in, it’s a good time to take stock and reflect on the learning from the first few months of our new Digital Boards programme.

Over the summer we successfully delivered five virtual events (including peer learning sessions), published our first introductory guide to digital leadership, and delivered bespoke board development sessions to four individual trust boards. 221 board directors from 101 trusts have so far engaged with our programme.

We’ve had some great conversations with trust leaders about their views on the digital agenda and the role of their trust board in harnessing the opportunities it provides. And we’ve heard thoughtful reflections from chief executives and digital leaders about the role digital played in response to COVID-19.

What did we hear from trusts during our virtual events?

In many ways, our programme is very timely. We launched just as providers accelerated their adoption of digital technologies in a matter of days and weeks in response to COVID-19, which has galvanised boards around the importance of digital. Within teams, there has been a single sense of purpose that has allowed necessity to overrule any naysayers. Trusts have been empowered to take decisions locally and implement innovative solutions. As leaders face the challenge of sustaining this momentum, it may be helpful to playback what we’ve heard about how trusts were able to make so much progress:

  • Prioritisation: across the sector, there has been a single sense of mission. The NHS has focused on a smaller number of priorities that has allowed trusts to deliver on digital at pace and at scale.
  • Workforce: staff and teams were released to be creative based on their intimate knowledge of patient need. Now more than ever there is a “give it a go” ethos across the sector. Despite this, however, concern remains about burnout within the workforce.
  • Governance and risk: during the peak of the pandemic there was a greater acceptance of risk, although never for patient safety or quality. Many suggested that virtual meetings meant quicker decision making. Boards empowered their delivery teams to get on and move fast.  
  • Communications: to maintain visibility while so many worked remotely, trust leaders turned to video blogs, virtual town halls and online public board meetings to engage and interact with staff. 

Following the first phase of the COVID response, trust leaders are now focused on resetting services to avoid “springing back” to old behaviours. For boards, this has meant asking what needs permanently adopting, what needs to be abandoned, what needs adapting and what else do they need to consider going forwards. Some are even reappraising their digital ambitions and strategy in light of the recent progress they’ve made. 

What is the readout from our board sessions?

Our board development sessions are also helping to shift the dial in terms of board understanding, confidence and capability to lead the digital agenda. Delivered with our partners Public Digital, these sessions offer a facilitated discussion that covers the key learnings of boards on digital transformation.

Trusts tell us the sessions are giving them an opportunity to share their perspectives and properly discuss digital. These are new conversations: some have admitted that previous discussions on digital have focused on the technology itself or even specific business cases. Board members are reflecting on their on their own responsibilities and developing a sense of collective ownership.

Through the feedback we’ve received, we know the sessions are helping “raise the sights” of boards about the full potential of digital. In some cases it is helping frame future discussions about the trust’s digital strategy. 

What next?

Despite the progress made by boards, we know there is still some way to go. Our autumn programme will be focused on helping trusts build on their achievements and exploit the opportunities of digital – not just the technologies but digital ways of working – to transform care delivery rather than simply move existing services online.

Over the next few months we will be holding virtual peer learning sessions at our annual conference, along with a panel discussion with trust and national leaders. 

We will also be organising a virtual “go see” visit with a trust that will share the learning on delivery of an electronic patient record, highlighting the practical takeaways for board members. We are also holding more virtual seminars and round table discussions to enable learning from peers and other sectors.

Our second leadership guide will be published in November. This will explore how boards can support enable their digital teams, and the implications this has on governance. We will also be publishing a board briefing on improving user experience that will play back learning and reflections from trusts across the country. 

And we have board sessions booked with ten more trusts during the autumn, and we are looking to book in several more.

So, it’s an exciting time ahead for the programme and we look forward to working with leaders from across the provider sector as the NHS seeks to sustain the momentum on the remarkable changes made over the past six months.

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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