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The most important role of a (digital) leader

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The Department of Health Digital Team putting up bunting
The Department of Health Digital Team putting up bunting

My time at the Department of Health will shortly be ending. I leave proud to have worked with such an impressive team - this blog highlights some of their achievements, from generating the highest number of visits ever to a GOV.UK health page (smoking in cars), to ‘dragon’s den’ events to encourage innovation by policy makers, to the ‘having a baby’ project to improve services to mothers and their partners.

The biggest project the digital team got involved in was the NHS.UK alpha. We’d done our homework and knew there was a major challenge to be solved - over 3,000 websites across the NHS.UK domain; information and services often in different places; and very low digital take up. In sum, information and services designed around the structures of the health and care system, not around patients and frontline staff.

We saw an opportunity and agreed with NHS England to seize it - jointly launching the NHS.UK alpha, a new digital health and care service centred around patients and frontline staff. We deliberately broke the mould. The project crossed organisational silos; brought together outside expertise and talent from inside the system; and from the start was relentlessly open, user focused and agile. In the notoriously fractious world of health informatics we all knew we were taking a chance. But one that was crucial if we were going to deliver better, more effective online health services. To quote Janet Hughes we were bold.

A year later from idea, through alpha, to beta, the result has exceeded our ambitions. The project has generated excitement in both digital and health communities about this open, collaborative, user focused way of working. It has delivered exciting prototypes, such as the diabetes planner, demonstrating opportunities to better connect health information and services. And, at the end of the alpha, the team presented the most compelling strategic case I’ve seen for a digital approach in health and care to reduce unnecessary demand, increase efficiency and increase quality. The project passed its digital service assessment, was shortlisted for the Civil Service Live innovation awards and is now being scaled up in beta under Rachel Murphy’s impressive leadership within NHS Digital. That is the most important legacy in my view - the building of a digital delivery capability that is crucial to make the next generation of online health services a reality.

When I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from that project, one that sticks out is on the role of a leader in today’s civil service. Many people - including in digital teams - still hold a very traditional view of leadership: the need for an alpha being leading from the front. But in my view a leader’s most important role is giving cover for brilliance. We were able to attract a highly-talented, highly-dedicated team and give that team the room in which to do something amazing.

Leaders don’t have all the answers, I think success is about:

  • unleashing the talents of your team
  • helping them target their energies in the right direction
  • reminding them why what they’re doing is so important
  • acting as a champion and advocate helping to sell the vision
  • modelling the right values  

Did I deliver on this vision of leadership? I’m proud of the culture and environment that meant my team didn’t feel shy telling me that I can be a tough task master, grumpy on Mondays (!), and that I didn’t always react brilliantly to the sceptics. Taking this project forward helped us all discover things about our strengths and weaknesses.  

And that brings me to one of the most important things to get right - building the trust that enables a team - especially your top team - to be open, to share, to listen and support each other - to be human. I’m lucky to have had such a great team.

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