Let's Talk

HTN Let’s Talk: Leonardo Tantari and Stephen Blackburn at Leeds City Council and NHS West Yorkshire ICB

Welcome back to our podcast HTN Let’s Talk, sponsored by Spirit Health!

For this episode we interview Leonardo Tantari (Chief Digital Information Officer) and Stephen Blackburn (Innovation Manager) at Leeds City Council and NHS West Yorkshire ICB. We discussed the Leeds Integrated Digital Service strategy and the future for digital within Leeds.

To start off Leonardo and Stephen spoke about their current role and career background.

Leonardo has equal responsibility for both Leeds City Council and NHS West Yorkshire ICB. “As part of the those responsibilities I run the integrated digital services team, which is a team comprised of resources for the local authority and therefore the NHS West Yorkshire ICB. I’m also the designated West Yorkshire ICB lead for digital in Leeds.”

Leonardo has a responsibility to ensure that there is a “digital strategy in place for the City of Leeds, and we work collaboratively with our colleagues at regional level as well. I’ve been here for two years now working in this dual role and prior to that I was working in the private sector for organisation like Boots, Travelex, Expedia, and so on.”

Stephen has been working for Leeds City Council for over 18 years and started in database management. “It took me onto information governance and leading on our open data work, and that took me onto innovation. I look at how we can reuse open data and deliver our services using that data in new and innovative ways.”

He also leads on the smart cities programme, which is known as Smart Leeds. This involves exploring “how we utilise, for example, Internet of Things technology to collect the data in real time and then work that data in innovative ways.”

More recently, Stephen has been working in the strategy and innovation team. “I’ve been working on our city digital strategy and I’ve also been putting together our innovation programme which will align to that strategy.”

Consultation and engagement with other industries 

In terms of the consultation and engagement process with stakeholders and different areas, Leonardo explained that a lot of work has gone into the formulation of the new city digital strategy. “We took an approach to develop a strategy at city level, not just for one organisation. Therefore it keeps in account what the city council needs to deliver from a digital perspective, but also from a city ambition perspective,” he said.

He added that the strategy also needed to fulfil the aspiration direction from the ICB. A number of workshops have been run already, but Leonardo said that the focus has always been to ensure “no one is left behind in terms of our digital inclusion agenda. We wanted to ensure that we had a strong focus on infrastructure in terms of getting the basics right on data, particularly when it comes to sharing data between our organisations.”

Emphasising the need for interoperability and a more efficient system flow, Leonardo highlighted that this “helps a lot of people and and particularly the NHS in the current climate to actually deliver more for our citizens. So it’s very much been an inclusive approach in ensuring that all the organisations are reflected in terms of what is contained in the city digital strategy.”

On public engagement, Stephen noted that the “first batch of workshops that were held were mainly outward-facing”, and explained that they reached out to other public sector organisations, third sector industry and academia, to encourage participation in those workshops which focused on digital inclusion, innovation, and digital and data ethics.

“Really what we wanted to do is get feedback from people who were living and working and contributing right across the city, so that they can see their views, their challenges and their priorities reflected in the strategy as well,” said Stephen. They wanted the strategy to be something everybody can sign up to collectively across the city and district. “People can see themselves in it and they can contribute to its delivery and to the delivery of those priorities that are highlighted in there.”

The second batch of workshops were inwardly focused. “There’s a close working relationship now between Leeds City Council and the healthcare system. So we held a number of workshops with council colleagues but also people within the NHS as well. Again, all of their contributions and feedback fed into that strategy as well.”

The challenges and how they were tackled 

Leonardo commented that bringing colleagues from all organisations to work together was a challenge, along with ensuring that everyone had a shared understanding of how the health system works and the challenges within it.

He noted an ambition to continue bringing partners together to better understand each other’s ways of working. “As always, navigating the healthcare side can be sometimes challenging and complex because of the way it is organised, and because it is changing frequently as well,” he said.

“I would say that the approach of engaging with everybody in this way worked – everyone listens to what needs to be delivered, everyone notes the challenges of the initiative that both the authority and the health organisations are already working on. It helped people to focus and find the energy to get involved, and then make the most of what the others are doing.”

Challenges in the healthcare space around interoperability and data sharing are still in discussion, Leonardo said, “particularly when it comes in relation to the development of the shared healthcare record moving forward, and for the integration into systems like the Humber Care Record as well.” He added that interoperability integration “is a challenge which has been there for a while and is still there and we are working actively to resolve it… I would say that we focus a lot on understanding the work that we are doing collectively and each other’s priorities.”

Stephen commented that the approach they have taken on the strategy is high level and broad ranging. “It’s not getting into the nitty gritty of whether we will deliver this specific project, that’s for other people to work on and to deal with in terms of our digital road maps,” he said.

“The strategy is structured in such a way that is hopefully understandable and meaningful to everyone in Leeds – we focus on the foundations first of all. There are building blocks that we need in place before we do anything else. Leonardo mentioned better use of data for example; connectivity and infrastructure, digital skills, digital inclusion and also digital and data ethics.”

Moving on, the main part of the strategy focuses on bringing together wider collaboration and connections within the city.

“How can digital support people through every stage of their life?” asked Stephen. “We take a life core approach, looking at how it can support you through starting well, living well, working well and ageing. We’ve set out clear priorities in each of those areas, along with outputs that we would expect to see if we achieve those priorities.”

Key aims and ambitions of the digital strategy

“We need to find a way to have access to the right data at the right time, in a way that truly represents a single version of the truth,” Leonardo said.

They have recruited a Chief Data Officer as part of their integrated digital services team. “There are lots of intelligence reports and a dashboard coming out which helps with decision making,” he said. “The future is very much to move towards more predictive analytics for machine learning, artificial intelligence and so on.”

For Stephen, a key aim is for the strategy to help people “have the very best start in life, to be able to access our services and to live long healthy and independent lives. Digital and technology is just an enabler.”

The technology shouldn’t be the starting point, he said. Instead it should be about the “problem that we’re trying to solve. Then we need to work backwards from that. How can better use of data and technology help us to deliver the services that we need to our customers, and to people who live, work and visit Leeds?”

Stephen emphasised the importance of digital and data ethics, raising a need to be “really clear on what we want to do, and that we do it in the right way”.

He added: “We only collect the data that we need to collect, for the purpose we need it for. It’s really important – there’s lots of new technology out there at the moment and people can occasionally be quite wary of that.”

Another ambition focuses on digital inclusion and digital skills. Leonardo shared that they have a team that has been working on digital inclusion for a number of years, expanding on increasing digital skills and accessibility to digital services. “If we can reach more people using digital, then we can provide quicker interventions.”

Stephen highlighted a phrase from the strategy: “digital first but not digital only.” He stressed that increasing digital is not about moving away from face-to-face and traditional means of contact, but about providing additional ways to deliver services.

The future for Leeds City Council and NHS West Yorkshire ICB

“The integrated digital services have demonstrated that there is a true potential when we approach things together collaboratively as a team, and it also drives quicker resolution of issues and quicker development of innovative solutions,” said Leonardo. “The concept of working together and solving the problems once instead of having to solve the same problem multiple times obviously brings efficiency in terms of using those limited and scarce resources, including funds and ultimately deliver better services and quicker to our citizens.”

The future is bright, he said, with “more and more programmes of work that we are working on with the ICB at West Yorkshire level.” This includes work to increase reach of solutions: “if we implement a solution in Leeds for example, we can reuse that solution and drive the benefits to other localities within the region.”

He added that it is a learning process: “We’re all learning and it’s exciting – I hope other authorities will follow through in the same manner.”

In terms of the broader partnership and wider collaborative working, Stephen said there is “great work going on all over the city at the moment. From my role as innovation manager, I’m familiar with work that’s going on at the University of Leeds or the Leeds Teaching Hospital innovation pop up space. We are due to launch a new digital Leeds website very soon which will really promote our innovation work.”

Stephen is keen to encourage others across the city to utilise the platform to connect and collaborate, to “ensure that we’re not duplicating effort and we know what others are doing.” He also wants the platform to be used “to really promote the great work that is taking place in Leeds and to encourage others from outside of the city to come in and collaborate with us. That’s what we want to do and how we want to promote Leeds going forward.”

Their hope for digital in Leeds

Leonardo noted a hope to continue working with the digital inclusion team and to expand work in this area, particularly around digital skills.

He noted that if you are not connected to digital, you can struggle with services such as applying for jobs, housing or training, making it more and more important to have the necessary digital skills to access basic services.

“I also look forward to have a more connected setting where the services are accessible and they are easier to work with,” he said. “That is why we are focusing a lot, particularly in the authority, to move more and more services to online.”

From Stephen’s perspective, he is keen to promote Leeds as a city of “innovation excellence, and the broader region for that matter. We want people and businesses to come and invest here, to settle here and we want to work with those startups and SMEs and do some really innovative work with them.”

He raised the growing tech sector in the area and the Leeds Digital Festival. “We ran a hackathon in September last year as part of that digital festival, looking at how can digital technology help people live independently for longer in older age. So there’s there’s loads of activity taking place at the moment.”

Stephen added: “Recently we’ve had some health tech delegations from the likes of Estonia, Norway and Sweden.”

Advice for organisations looking to develop their own strategy

Reflecting on their digital strategy, Leonardo explained that there is always an element of learning from others. “It is something we have done, looking what other cities have done in terms of digital strategy,” he said. “I think that is a very good thing to do.”

“We can all learn from each other,” Stephen agreed, noting that he looked at various other strategies for inspiration. “We have taken our own approach – I think taking that person-centred, life core approach is something that others haven’t done. We wanted to be as high level and as inclusive as possible.”

Inclusion is key, Leonardo added, emphasising the importance of including everybody in the formulation process and “to agree at the outset to the broader schemes and objectives, the key aspect of what the digital strategy needs to deliver on. That comes through relationship and with communication.”

It’s about “encouraging collaboration and engaging with people,” Stephen said. “If you’re wanting to deliver a digital strategy for your city, for your place, one organisation on its own cannot deliver that. An organisation can lead on it, promote it and encourage collaboration. But ultimately, if we’re wanting to improve the skills of our broader workforce across the city, we need to encourage other organisations in the public sector, private, and third sector to all encourage them to to improve the skills of their own workforces as well.”

Many thanks to Leonardo and Stephen for joining us.