In light of the progress made on digital during the pandemic, trust leaders may be reviewing or even refreshing their digital strategies. Given the importance of this agenda and the experiences of the last 12 months, board leaders must be clear that this work cannot be outsourced to the chief information officer or IT department. One of the many lessons that I am confident the NHS has learned from the pandemic is that digital simply cannot be siloed.
At Greater Manchester Mental Health Foundation Trust we published our own digital strategy back in 2019. Here I outline some key reflections for board leaders who are about to refresh their own digital strategy.
My role in digital strategy
I sit on the board as executive director of nursing and governance. I don't consider myself a digital leader. I don't hold the responsibility for digital on the board. This sits with our finance director. But I do take an active interest in the development of digital at the trust, in the same way I expect my board colleagues to play an active role in the quality agenda. Digital is everyone's business.
That's why I was involved in the development of our digital strategy from the very beginning. I joined our digital strategy development board. Nurses represent the largest workforce within the trust and I was there to amplify their voice and express their needs and concerns. A key success criteria of a trust's digital strategy is the extent to which it is clinically owned. But it is equally important for me as a trust leader to be able to communicate our future way of working to my staff.
During the development of our digital strategy I kept walking in the shoes of a newly qualified staff nurse on a Monday morning: would it be be meaningful to them? Will it mean they have access to equipment, health and wellbeing support, and the right training? If they have an innovative idea, how will they let people know, and are they in the position to have this discussion? This is how I made it feel real.
The role of the board
The GMMH FT board had commissioned us to develop a digital strategy with clear and timely updates on objectives. It was on us to demonstrate, with tangible evidence, how we were delivering these.
We held two main sessions with our board: one to get their formal sign up and a second focused on our implementation plan and executive sponsorship of the different workstreams. We were warned that while a "nice shiny strategy" might sound appealing, it needed to meaningful to staff, patients and service users.
The board also provided helpful challenge during our development work. A couple of the non-executives pushed us to go faster and stronger. Other board members questioned us on digital inclusion and the social value we could bring to other local organisations such as schools, which has led to schemes like laptop recycling.
My advice for other board leaders
Developing your digital strategy is an opportunity to improve services for patients, service users and also staff.
There is no such thing as a perfect strategy, and with hindsight there are things we could have done differently. For example, we probably overthought the objectives right at the beginning of this process and spent too much time trying to "polish" them. This led to a bit of "analysis paralysis." It would have worked better to get these out in a "raw" form and ask people for their views.
As a board leader you don't need to be digitally savvy. Developing your digital strategy is an opportunity to improve services for patients, service users and also staff. During conversations about digital strategy, don't be worried about asking daft questions. As part of their recent publication Building a digital strategy, NHS Providers has published 10 questions board leaders may want to reflect on to assure that the strategy is on track.
Finally, I'd say have the confidence of being yourself and the role you're representing on the board. As a nursing leader I was proud to represent my nursing colleagues during these discussions: this was about improving their experiences, reflecting their concerns and expressing their needs. A good digital strategy is about inspiring people to transform services and create alignment. I found it helpful to walk in someone else's shoes. Do whatever helps you to make it feel real.