Unconference in progress

We originally set up this blog to talk about the the work the NHS.UK team was doing. From now on we’re going to be using it to talk about the work we’re doing more widely in NHS Digital.

Yesterday we held our first unconference (a conference where there are no planned talks and the agenda is co-created by the attendees, on the day) for everyone who works in Domain A and some invited guests.

Domain A is part of NHS Digital. We’re a team of about 250 people, responsible for 5 programmes:

  • NHS.UK
  • Implementing free wifi across the whole NHS estate
  • Personal health records and identity assurance
  • Encouraging the ecosystem of safe, effective apps and wearables, and integrating apps and wearables into health and care services
  • Widening digital participation

Why we decided to run an unconference

I *love* unconferences. My first nervous forays into digital government were through the brilliant UKGovcamp, where I first got to know my amazing friends and colleagues in the public sector digital community.

Unconferences are great for providing a space for people with something in common – a mission, goal or passion – to talk, share ideas, develop relationships and build and sustain communities of action, support, practice and interest.

We thought an unconference would be a good way to bring everyone together to talk about things they care about, problems they want to solve and ideas they want to try. We were hoping to help foster a feeling of a shared mission and community, increase everyone’s awareness of what others are working on and how it all fits together, and provide some space for everyone to share ideas and experiences.

I really don’t think you can over-estimate the value of getting everyone together like this from time to time. It’s especially important when you’re all working in different teams, in different bits of the country, on different but related things.

Who was there

As a lot of people are involved in running live services we can’t all take a day out at the same time. In the end about 150 people were there, which was a pretty good proportion of the whole team. That’s also a pretty ideal sized group for this kind of event – enough for a good range of sessions but not so many that it becomes too noisy, hectic and overwhelming. In future, we’ll need to rotate location and timings so that everyone can take part over time, at least.

We can’t hope to tackle the complexity of the health and care ecosystem on our own. If we want our work to make a significant impact, we need to work hand in hand with people from other national, regional and local organisations and with patients, clinicians and commissioners. So we invited a small group of patients, clinicians and regional organisations along.

We were really glad we did this; having a more diverse crowd generated richer, deeper and more useful conversations. We plan to invite more people to join us in future – an important (but by no means the only) way for us to develop relationships and work with our partners and users.

Setting the context

It’s really unusual to have any presentations at all at an unconference, and usually I would steer well clear of anything resembling a keynote. But…

Part of our purpose for the day was to help everyone understand how their work fits with everyone else’s – we wanted to make sure everyone had the same basic context for the day. So we decided to spend the first half an hour or so on this, before we launched into full-on unconference mode.

Each of 5 programme directors gave a 2-minute intro to the work their teams are doing. (I don’t think there can be many places in the public sector working on things with such potential to make a difference, at such scale. It’s pretty awe-inspiring when you look at it all as a whole.)

We also wanted to share with everyone some emerging thinking on a few critical strategic questions. Establishing clearer answers to these questions will help us make rapid, consistent and effective decisions. It will also make it much easier for others to work with us and understand how we can help.

How we can make sure we understand the whole range of user needs in any given situation

We need to understand and meet needs both for end users (such as patients and carers) and clinicians, and understand the wider delivery context for digital services. Otherwise we won’t see digital services adopted and used at scale and they won’t have the impact we want them to have.

We also need to understand the range of types of needs and need states our users have at any given moment including their emotional, practical and clinical needs. This means we need to take a really broad, inclusive and collaborative approach to all of our work.

The role of national platforms, tools and services

As set out in the recent capability review, we need to make clear our view on the role of national platforms, tools and services in the context of a highly distributed, networked health and care system. We are developing a platform / ecosystem approach. This will involve a combination of national, regional and local platforms, tools and services that, taken together, make it easy for service providers to create, iterate and retire digital services.

The role of third party providers of digital services

We’re aiming to use our national role and capabilities to encourage the development of a vibrant ecosystem of safe, secure and effective health and care services. We will work to help those services integrate into NHS systems and processes, and help users find and use services likely to work for them.

We’ll be writing and talking more about our work on these questions in the next few weeks – if you’re reading this and want to talk to us about it, please get in touch.

It was useful to have an introduction, even though it’s not very unconference-ish

I think this introductory session was worth doing, this first time – the feedback on the day was good. It seemed like the information and ideas we presented were genuinely useful and relevant to everyone. It helped people have productive conversations during the rest of the day.

We’ll see if on reflection people felt this was useful when we gather everyone’s feedback in the next few days.

Unconference pitching and sessions

After our brief set of introductions, we opened the floor for people to pitch things they wanted to talk about for the rest of the day.

We had planned to run 6 concurrent sessions over three 45-minute slots, but we had so many people with ideas for things to talk about that we ended up running 8 concurrent sessions.

Unconference session grid

We worked hard to encourage people to pitch, and we were overwhelmed. We were really pleased that people from a good range of disciplines and teams pitched things to talk about. Even at that early stage we started to see the benefit of having invited guests from outside our team as well as people from Domain A teams, as people pitched challenging, diverse questions and topics.

We can do better at this in future by giving people more notice about how pitching works and maybe offering support and shadow pitching in advance for nervous pitchers. We’ll also be giving people a chance to share pitch ideas online ahead of time, so that the introverts and reflectors are fully included.

The unconference sessions

The 8 concurrent sessions all took place in one big room, which I was worried would be too noisy but actually worked out fine and helped us all move easily between sessions and feel part of one big team.

Unconference in progress

I was hopping about between sessions for most of the day to try and get an overall sense of how it was going and what sort of things people were talking about. I was really excited by the amount of energy and engagement around the room, and the huge range of ideas people were sharing about how we can work more effectively, openly and collaboratively. We’re carrying on the conversations now in our teams, and we’ll blog about things we do as a result of these conversations.

Want to talk to us?

We’ve agreed to run another similar event in the autumn, with a wider range of people invited. If you’re interested in coming along, or talking to us about our work in any other way, then please let us know.

Likewise, if there are things you’d like to see us blogging about, let us know and we’ll do our best to share useful and relevant things.

You can also join the conversation over on Twitter, using the hashtag #NHSDigitalATeam



Domain A Strategy Director

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