The last time the department’s communications function was subject to a capability review, the report said “the department’s digital capability was assessed as being very strong.” That was some time ago though, and a lot has happened since including huge changes to internet culture and technology, and DH 2020, the programme to make the Department of Health smaller and better, which has involved changes to every part of the department, including its digital functions.
The internal review of digital and communications that I have just done for the director of communications was an attempt to assess the impact of all of that change on the DH digital communications function, and to help answer the question: what digital communications function does the department actually need now?
As part of this work we conducted 22 1-1 interviews with people inside and outside government and the health community - thank you very much to all those who took part. We also ran 4 workshops, ran a survey of digital skills, and reviewed a range of other existing evidence.
Here’s a short summary of what people told us:
People told us that they thought the purpose of digital communications in this department should be to do one of 3 broad things: to engage people in policy making, to coordinate digital communications work across the department’s arm’s length bodies, and to help deliver the digital elements of DH-led communications work.
They told us that at its best digital communications work in the department had enabled the department to operate as an open, listening organisation, but that the function would be more effective if it was better able to focus effort on areas with the greatest opportunity for digital methods to have value.
The interviews revealed high expectations for digital policy engagement, particularly from those we talked to outside Whitehall, and high expectations for the role that digital methods should have in providing the department with new sources of data, different perspectives and other evidence.
People told us that the department should aspire to become a digitally mature organisation in which digital work is the norm rather than the exception, but the capability survey and the interviews suggested that digital maturity is an aspiration rather than a reality at the moment.
People talked about the value of a culture in the digital profession that encourages openness and collaboration, and they also told us about the cultural challenges in organisations that can sometimes mitigate against opportunities for innovation or new ways of working.
People told us that there are some digital roles that are specialist by definition, but that there are elements of digital work that can and should be mainstreamed. People warned against non-specialists overreaching in an effort to mainstream digital skills, which can have an impact on quality. And they talked about the importance of credibility for those leading digital work.
The people we interviewed told us about the importance of recognising the motivations and likely career paths for people in digital roles. They talked about the joy of doing digital work as well as the benefits it can have. And they talked about the importance of creating an environment that enables digital professionals to thrive.
So that's what people said. We'll use everything people told us, and all the other evidence we've gathered, to inform what the department does next with its digital communications work.