I joined the Department of Health in August last year. I still sometimes feel like the new boy, but I've been here long enough for people to expect to see results. So how are we doing?
When I joined, I found a Department that did an awful lot of digital publishing, but far less digital communication. I found pockets of digital brilliance, but it was far from systematic, and much of the work of the organisation was untouched by digital.
Most of the routine digital publishing done by the Department wasn't intended for a digital audience at all. The Department published lots of scanned letters, typeset bulletins, printable policy documents and press releases; an online repository of stuff, all designed to be consumed offline.
The tiny digital communication team that I joined was sat in the corner of a building in Elephant & Castle, manfully working to ensure that the wheels of the publishing machine kept moving.
I also joined a Department about to embark on a huge programme of change. Change which hundreds of thousands of health and care professionals - and millions of patients - cared deeply about. And change which people were already talking passionately about online, whether the Department liked it or not.
The digital strategy we described last year said that we'd focus on: doing the basics well, putting most effort into things that matter most, and removing the novelty from doing brilliant digital communication.
So what have we done? Some highlights:
One of the first things we did was to physically move the digital communication team into the middle of the office. My team didn't thank me for moving our desks away from the window and into the corridor. But we moved digital a few inches closer to the action, physically and metaphorically.
We created a few channels designed exclusively for an online audience, including a handful of blogs. Unlike all the letters and bulletins we published, our new channels were designed to be read from a screen, and distributed, shared, subscribed to, and commented on online too. I don't expect anyone - except maybe my mum - to print pages from our blogs in order to read them.
We used one of these new channels to help us tell the story of changes to the health and care system. Our modernisation channel has been the home to news and conversations about these changes. The site is populated by bespoke digital content in the form of first person articles from experts and thought leaders, and short news posts. The content is delivered on the site, via email alerts or multiple feeds, and amplified through social media, often using integrated 3rd party tools for engagement. The site came into it's own during the listening exercise over the summer, and has been a home for hosted conversations with the NHS Future Forum, clinical commissioning pathfinders and others. The site isn't the extent of our digital engagement around change - some of our most effective digital engagement has taken place on sites and channels other than our own. But a couple of hundred thousand visitors to these pages suggests an appetite for this kind of digital engagement and content from the Department.
We're currently doing a similar thing to support the engagement exercise around care and support, using an online home to aggregate the conversations, and working with stakeholder groups to help generate engagement and discussion.
We've tried to make our digital content more personal, relying less on "DH spokesperson" and more on content from named experts. Our strategy, and policies support this approach, and we're generating an increasing range and volume of attributed digital content from ministers, officials, and experts from inside and outside the Department. This has often been our most engaging and effective digital content, whether it's webchats with ministers, blogs by Departmental thought leaders, or articles by health practitioners, and whether it's hosted on our owned channels or elsewhere. It shouldn't, and doesn't, feel like a novelty any more that we're producing this kind of content. Regular attributed content from authoritative voices is at the heart of just about every digital communication plan we put together.
We've shared our work with colleagues in the wider health and care community as openly as possible, using the tools and techniques we recommend to others. We've used our Digital health site to publish our strategy, and our policies and guidance, supported by Tim's blog and my own. In his spare time, Tim has also helped facilitate the weekly #nhssm tweet chat, which has become an established feature for anyone interested in how the NHS uses social media. I think our open approach has helped us to build our networks. It's a living demonstration of some of the techniques we encourage others to use. And it's helped us to answer, and probably pre-emt, a few FOI requests too.
We've just completed the first stage of Maps and Apps - a crowdsourcing exercise to find the best ideas for mobile health apps, and the best examples of current apps. What's been interesting for me about this work is that - because of the subject matter - the digital team have played the role of expert policy team as well as delivery team. Our success, I hope, has been to ensure that the exercise has a life beyond the 6 weeks of crowdsourcing, feeding the digital conversation straight back into the work of the Future Forum and the Information Strategy.
And we've changed our approach to corporate publishing, hugely simplifying our corporate content, introducing a streamlined editorial process to enable us to focus our effort on the priorities of the Department, and moving the bulk our publishing work away from legacy systems, to a simple blogging platform. I've talked enough about this elsewhere before, and no doubt will again - there's more to do.
Alongside all this activity, we've had more than half an eye on a couple of other big strategic drivers for digital communication in the Department. The first is our own Information Strategy which, among other things, will address what government does with health information online in the future. The second is the work around the single domain for government, and all that goes with it. We've been contributing where we can, and everything we've been doing in DH feels like a step towards this, or at least aligned to the thinking.
We've done all this with a brilliant - and now slightly less tiny - digital team, now organised in a way that means we should be able to focus our best work on the priority issues for the Department. A member of my team who left recently said that one of the things she enjoyed was the range of different personalities and approaches within the team. We are far from a team of identikit geeks, but we manage to complement skills and experiences pretty well, sharing a willingness to adapt, and a pride in the work. It feels (to me at least) like a good place to work.
What have we still got to do?
We still need to persuade staff in the Department of the value of digital communication. Sometimes I think that the impact of our evangelising is greater outside the Department than inside. We need an ongoing internal campaign, and lots more good examples to draw on to show how digital work has helped to solve problems.
We need to be better at systematically listening to, understanding and sharing online conversations. We've done this well in patches, but it's not embedded in the work of wider policy or communication work, and it should be. We need to do more to make this easier for others in the Department.
We've not followed through on all of our digital engagement promises. We're getting better at matching the techniques to the challenge, but we've sometimes got over excited about what's possible, and then been disappointed when the practical limitations have got in the way.
I don't think we've nailed digital publishing yet. We still sometimes publish when we should be communicating. We're not routinely making the most of modern techniques for generating and distributing information and ideas. We could do more to help the Department make more efficient use of time and resources. We need to convert some of our pilots and projects into routine work.
We need to do more to devolve responsibility for content generation where it makes sense for us to do it. If we get that right, we'll get richer content directly from the source, and we'll create the space for the digital communication team to focus on our priorities - delivering brilliant digital engagement campaigns on the big NHS, public health and social care themes. If we don't get it right, we'll feel too weighed down by the relentless weight of corporate publishing to do all the creative stuff.
And we still need to sort out some internal organisational issues which distract our focus from our most useful work. I should have sorted this out by now, and I haven't. A subject for another blog maybe.
So some successes, but could do better - the same as all my school reports. It feels to me like we've laid some of the groundwork, and tested and proved some approaches on some big policy themes. But we really need to step it up a level to embed the things that have worked well into the day-to-day work of the Department. We're not quite there yet, but it's exciting to know won't be short of opportunities to test our approach in the next few months.