Can digital add rocket fuel to NHS England’s citizens’ assembly?

Can digital add rocket fuel to NHS England’s citizens’ assembly?

Recently Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s National Director for Patients and Information, blogged  about his aspirations for a new citizens’ assembly – he wants it to be the next step in putting ‘patient participation at the heart of its [NHS] decision making’.


I confess my first reaction to reading the post was ‘yeah whatever’ [you can tell I have teenagers] I have heard such platitudes so many times before – words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘participation’ trip nicely off the tongue, but how often to we involve citizens really well in the NHS and how routinely do we quantify what difference their involvement has made.

It can be too easy to focus on the process at expense of the outcome; involve people too late or half-heartedly; get tied up in professional structures, management hierarchies and just sheer workload with reduced resources, all of which can work against us involving people really well.

But whilst I can feel jaded about the context, I can’t help but feel moved by Tim Kelsey’s intent. I know that when I’ve had the opportunity to involve people using services really well (be it from recruiting new staff to setting up new projects and services) it has been a nourishing and rewarding experience and we’ve achieved something more than we could have done on our own.

Rocket fuel

So what will make Tim Kelsey’s words really count for something?  I wonder if part of the answer may lie in the confluence of his two areas of responsibility – technology and participation.

I have previously blogged about how I believe social media affords the flattening of hierarchies, a directness of address, a fluidity of conversation that builds and develops over time, not to mention a transparency not easily achieved through a completed survey or written letter. Can digital play a part?

Tim Kelsey talks about the role of digital in his post ‘This will need a transparent and open process which is one of the reasons why the event is going to be live streamed and why we will be including comments and ideas from our digital participants as well as the people in the room – in the 21st Century we are going to need to be ‘digital by default’ at the same time as making sure everyone has the chance to participate and contribute.’

The challenge and opportunity we have is to use the principles of social networking (not just the platforms) to accelerate participation. But we have a way to go. At the moment most of us in the NHS are largely broadcasting on social media platforms. We need to build both the culture and practice of social networking into our conversations and we need to have the right tools to monitor and measure. #AboutMeLeeds is one experiment aiming at moving digital participation forward in Leeds and we’ll be learning from the experience to improve online participation in the future.

Tim Kelsey’s metaphor of participation as a ‘living system’ is one that appeals to me and the principles of social networking might just be a means to make some progress.  You can find out more about the citizens’ assembly event on 22 and 23 October to develop the citizen’s assembly here and you can contribute to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #NHScitizen.

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