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The Strategy Unit has, over the last ten years, developed a way of working that has allowed us to become recognised as a leading analytical organisation in the NHS.

In recent years we have been asked to support the improvement of analytical capacity and capability across the NHS. That has seen us help build, and now provide the development centre for, the Midlands Decision Support Network. It has also seen us work with NHSE/I to produce a ‘toolkit’ (awaiting sign off and publication) to go with the forthcoming ICS Intelligence Function guidance.

Some Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) who are thinking about intelligence are asking for our advice. Our approach to such requests is grounded in the report we produced in 2021 on advancing strategic analytics. This report sets out a series of detailed recommendations, but we are also advising ICSs to consider two fundamental design principles.

The first is that ICSs should disentangle their functional ‘intelligence components’:

The term ‘analytics’ and ‘digital’ are often used loosely. This can confuse. There are distinct functions that an ICS needs and whilst they have essential interconnections, they are also fundamentally different and require different skills and ways of working.

We define these functions as follows:    

Digital – ensuring the availability and continued development of shared electronic records (e.g. to support Population Health Management; to enable clinical decision support etc); supporting the use of digital modes of service provision;

Data management and business intelligence (BI): the development and maintenance of systems to receive, process, link and store quality-assured data on health and care services, making these datasets available and, through the application of Business intelligence (BI), to generate automated reporting systems to support those delivering or managing services; and,

Analysis: the use of technical methods (e.g. statistics, data science, epidemiology, operational research, econometrics etc) to structure and answer specific, strategic business questions.

These parts interrelate, but they are distinct and each should have their own leadership. The leaders of the three functions then become an ‘intelligence triumvirate’ for the ICS.

The second is that the leader for analytics - the Chief Analyst - should be appointed primarily for their analytical and analytical leadership skills.

ICSs need specialist analytical leaders to improve the quality of decision making and ensure ongoing development of analytical capability. The Chief Analyst needs to be sitting alongside the Board and needs to be a trusted guide for them and the system they lead. They may need to be supported in their development as a wider system leader, but that is easier to do than to take a generic leader and support them to become an expert analyst!!

To help, we have developed, in the light of these two principles, our take on the bones of a person specification for an ICS Chief Analyst. You can download that here.

The NHS is a vast complex system; it touches the lives of millions; it spends £1 in every £15 in the UK economy; it has deep and enduring challenges - most particularly that of improving equity. It needs top-flight analytical capability powering a much more robust approach to systematic decision making; it warrants efforts to create a ‘learning system’ powered by robust evaluation; and it deserves an exemplary analytical workforce that thrives through effective collaboration and properly conceived training and professional development.

The answer isn’t magical AI-driven dashboards or trusting that some global enterprise in an entirely different sector can produce some insights that the army of brilliant NHS analysts couldn’t achieve - with knobs on - if they were properly organised and invested in.

Instead, the answer is to build and support a great cadre of NHS analytical leaders and teams; for system leaders to embrace them (and also to embrace their own learning needs in advancing decision quality); to network these analysts properly; and to trust them as our professional advisors in this field, freeing them to do good work.

Finding a cadre of such Chief Analysts is feasible. Some will need more developmental support than others, but the structures to do that are readily created (the Midlands Decision Support Network is already a model for that).

The NHS mustn’t underestimate the analytical talent it possesses - nor the attractiveness of the roles it can create if it really embraces what we have set out here.