Digital isn’t just about publishing anymore. The Department of Health (DH) digital team certainly knows that, but there are plenty of people within the department – and across government – still to be convinced of the wider benefits of digital, or uneasy about new ways of working.
Digital engagement is not just about a one-way push of information out. It’s about holding conversations in a digital space and – crucially – about the impact of those conversations. It’s about opening up what the department is doing. It’s about listening. And these are things that not everyone is entirely comfortable with. But things are changing. And dementia has become a trailblazing policy area, starting to put the DH digital strategy into action.
Dementia policy, and the delivery of the PM’s Dementia Challenge, is one of the Secretary of State’s main priorities. And it was the first priority area to have its own site. The Dementia Challenge site provides a home for the Challenge, where people can engage, access DH-generated content, learn about the work of the 3 Dementia Challenge champion groups and find routes to relevant external content.
The Dementia Challenge site has already been used to gain people’s input in May-July 2012. Two of the champion groups invited comments on specific questions on creating dementia friendly communities, and health and care for people with dementia. They received online comments from people who work or care for people with dementia, as well as from stakeholders such as the National Council for Palliative Care, and leaders of specialist memory services.
The Dementia Challenge isn’t only about what DH is doing – the department is just one partner, alongside Number 10 and the Alzheimer’s Society. And when it comes to raising awareness of dementia – and working to improve life for people living with dementia and their carers – everyone who blogs about dementia, everyone who becomes a Dementia Friend, or does something else to help achieve these aims, is a partner too. The Dementia Challenge is not just happening in one place – either geographically or digitally. And the site reflects that multiplicity in the ‘Said elsewhere’ feature, which links to a selection of relevant content, wherever it is.
We want people to engage with the Challenge through a range of channels – not just those that DH manages. We want to reach users where they are spending time already, whether that’s on digital channels of charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society, on forums, blog sites, or twitter. In my previous blog Being a real person on twitter, I wrote about the amazing self-named twitter community of #dementiachallengers. They are a group of highly motivated people with a special interest in dementia, who are discussing the issues every day. Many are people who have, or had, a loved one with dementia, while others are working in the social care field. They are people with a wealth of experience of dementia, but are not the ‘usual suspects’ who sit on expert groups.
One of the #dementiachallengers, Lee (@dragonmisery) has set up the Dementia Challengers site to signpost online resources for people caring for someone with dementia. Nothing demonstrates better how the Dementia Challenge is more than a government initiative – and how it has its own digital life – than people who care about dementia creating their own digital community and helping others.
Tapping into this community provides a great opportunity for policy colleagues to engage with people with day-to-day experience of living, caring or working with dementia. I’ve learnt a great deal from them myself and now I want to find ways of extending those benefits to the dementia policy team. So this is the next step, to fulfil some of the central aims of the DH digital strategy – embedding digital processes in the way we work, giving policy colleagues the tools and confidence to engage digitally, and helping them identify the most appropriate digital tools and techniques for each stage of the policy cycle. And I’ll continue to try out new digital ways of opening up our work, such as the live blog from the Dementia Village, which helped extend the reach of the event.
These new ways of working raise fresh questions about how to judge success. It’s certainly not all about traffic, especially when we are encouraging people to engage in different digital spaces. In the coming months, we’ll be working on developing an evaluation metric for our digital work on dementia, which will enable us to prove success and focus our efforts on what has the greatest impact. I have a feeling this process will raise new questions and ideas about the methods we use to engage digitally. And hopefully the results will help win over a few internal colleagues who aren’t yet convinced about the benefits of digital engagement.