Transforming public services

Darren Curry joined the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) in 2002, where he helped process prescriptions while studying at university. Seventeen years on, he is now chief digital officer based in Newcastle and responsible for overseeing the digital transformation of the organisation

What is the NHSBSA and what services does it provide?

The NHSBSA is an ‘arm’s length’ body of the Department of Health and Social Care. We have a diverse portfolio of services that accounts for around £35 billion worth of NHS funding – or 25 per cent of the NHS budget. We deal with approximately 25 million customer facing transactions and about a billion business-to- business transactions per year.

As chief digital officer, what is your primary responsibility?

My role is to lead the team that creates and maintains digital service offerings to our users – whether NHS customers or employees – which meet their specific needs.

The NHSBSA is currently on a mission to digitise its services as part of its 2018-2021 Business Strategy. What are the benefits of this to the NHS and its users?

The top benefit is improving user experience. People are becoming more digitally enabled and they want to access our services differently and more efficiently, compared to the more traditional, paper-based systems. The second benefit is that it delivers efficiencies for the NHSBSA. If we can remove the manual processes in a transaction or service, our employees can refocus on the users who require more support, more guidance and a more bespoke service. The third benefit is the knock-on benefits to the wider NHS and users’ health.

Can you give a specific example where digitalisation is benefiting the wider NHS and people’s health?

We’ve worked on the digitalisation of the low-income scheme, which enables those on lower incomes to receive support for the cost of their prescriptions. Traditionally, you had to apply for this via a complicated printed application form. Our user research showed that some people found this intimidating and as a result didn’t submit it. We’ve transformed this service to make the process more accessible. Users can now apply online and get a digital certificate within 24-hours of applying (instead of waiting around two weeks). It means they can access the medication they need, when they need it, at the primary care stage – instead of potentially missing out on essential medication and placing more pressure on the secondary care stages of the NHS.

What technologies are you utilising as part of this digitalisation?

We’ve migrated our services to the cloud, using multiple suppliers including AWS and Microsoft. We’ve also integrated machine learning to enable predictive analytics to be used on data from some of the 30 million prescription forms that go through our system every month. In addition, we’ve recently gone live with some AI services in our contact centre – using Amazon technologies – which has provided a 40 per cent efficiency on customer queries for our European Health Insurance cards.

What is the size of the digital team in Newcastle and what skills do they represent?

We started around two years ago with a team of five people. Our aim was to show proof of concept on how we could deliver things differently. It was a cross-functional team that represented user experience, software engineering, performance analysis, delivery and Scrum expertise. Over the last 12 months, we’ve scaled from that initial team to around ten teams (approximately 110 people). There is around a 70:30 split between internal NHSBSA employees and from contract or supplier partnership arrangements.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Because we’ve transformed the way we work – away from a siloed delivery to a more agile, cross-functional, co- located, collaborative approach, embedded in user research – a big focus has been on cultural change within the organisation. All the governance processes and funding around these had to change which has been a challenge. Another challenge is to recruit and retain people with the right skills in the North East.

How have you addressed these recruitment issues?

One of the things we’ve done is to introduce a student placement scheme. Last year, we took on three students who were excellent and this year, we’re taking on a further seven. We want to show young people what digital opportunities there are in the public sector.

You mentioned the NHSBSA digital team is working with private sector partners. Can you give an example of this?

We’re currently working on the digital transformation of NHS jobs to make it easier for people to find and apply for positions within the NHS. We’re partnering with a local SME – Difrent – to help deliver this. We’re also working with another North East SME, Opencast, and some bigger suppliers such as Accenture and Valtech on other services.

What are the short and long- term plans for the NHSBSA digital team in Newcastle?

Short-term plans are to deliver more of what we’ve done so far and to grow our Newcastle team. Longer term, we will be looking at how emerging technologies, such as AI and voice interactions, can be leveraged within the organisation.

Is there an end-point to the NHSBSA’s digital transformation?

People take the view digital transformation stops but, in my opinion, it will never end; it’ll just evolve and change. We’re currently putting a large amount of effort into getting our services up to the level that our users expect. Once we’ve achieved that, we will be focused on maintaining this, while continuing the journey to integrate new technologies which deliver better services for our users.

For more information visit