CIO interview: Stephen Hale, head of digital, Department of Health

“I want to make digital less of a novelty,” says the Department of Health’s head of digital Stephen Hale

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“I want to make digital less of a novelty,” says the Department of Health’s head of digital Stephen Hale.

“Part of our job is to do us out of a job in a way. We make digital so mainstream so we stop noticing it as so innovative.”

The Digital Team has its roots in the digital communications team at the department. When Hale joined four years ago there were only four other people publishing website content. “And that was it – we’re much more ambitious now,” says Hale.

The Digital Team, set up at end of last year, has recruited more more people for the team’s five sub-divisions. Headed by Hale, the team ensures the department uses digital to make better policy and that it is part of everything the department does.

“The challenge is for us to drive up the confidence of leaders and staff so it doesn’t feel innovative rather the best solution the problem,” he says. “Digital is such a broad term - the more you think about it, the more it can help with everything. Not just how you can make campaigns, but how you can provide better services.”

But digital can’t just be a case study or a novel project. Hale says it needs to be a mentality that is accepted by the department to drive change.

While the Department of Health has been innovative with one-off digital campaigns, Hale says these aren’t enough and only have limiting lasting value. Hale says the Digital Team is trying to follow in the footsteps of the Government Digital Service (GDS) by bringing digital expertise into health, rather than paying other providers to do so.

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G8 summit communication

Hale cites the G8 summit on demantia last December as a campaign as an example of how digital can be used as a solution to policy problem. It allowed health ministers from around the world to discuss the disease.

The department wanted more people outside the summit to get involved, so the Digital Team used technology to make this happen. The ‘Open by Default’ summit asked people to contribute online weeks before and, during the lead up to the event, data around dementia and diagnosis rate was mapped using visualisation software.

On the day itself, the event was video-streamed over the web to engage people, while the team identified digital advocates who had become involved during the run-up and invited them along.

This step towards open policy making became a sustained way to use digital as “the norm”, says Hale, who has plans to conduct similar exercises at future events.

“These are policy problems, where we need to find solutions and include as many people as possible to get involved. And digital is one way we can do that.”

And the department is starting to learn from the team’s digital lead. Hale thinks staff at the department are listening and the Digital Team is now being asked to get involved in projects much earlier that before.

“Four years ago, digital was an afterthought,” he says. “Do your policy, then digital would be involved by putting a PDF together.”

But Hale says the dementia summit had digital throughout the process, and he is now seeing people at the department take it more seriously.

For our policy-engagement work we tend not to use our own channels, and are much more likely to use social media or partners

“That’s not right across the board,” he says. “But it's my job to make sure people know its routine, and a mainstream-established function.”

While the department has an information services division responsible for the “technology on people’s desks”, the two teams work closely together, especially in grey areas, such as replacing the intranet which was in fact a project led by the digital team.

Hale's background

After three years at the Foreign Office, Hale joined the Department for Health, working with e-communications and publishing. While the Digital Health team now spreads well beyond that remit, it still has a responsibility to publish some print documents, but it also engages with corporates through gov.UK and NHS Choices.

“For our policy-engagement work we tend not to use our own channels, and are much more likely to use social media or partners – it’s a far more effective way to reach the right people.”

The Digital Team may engage with nurses or communities that already exist and deal with the public for promoting policy engagement, “but it’s not about publishing,” he adds. “It’s more about the web.”

Similarly for applications, while the team has experimented with app development in the past, it tends to leave it to developers out there that use government data to create self-care apps.

Hale thinks healthcare will benefit from wearables in the not-so-distant future. With innovations such as the Apple Watch more people will be able to manage their own care.

But the main focus for the Digital Team will be more granular than the onset of consumer technologies. Hale wants to ensure health policy and digital delivery are aligned by integrating strategy and policy from the beginning. He pointed to the Obamacare website which was a huge healthcare transformation for the US, but depended on digital delivery, which didn’t initially work at launch.

“The website didn’t work and it took a lot of effort to make it work,” says Hale. “It’s important to align policy and digital delivery – today there isn’t really policy without digital service.”

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