Denise LievesleyLinda Davidson

As the NHS Information Centre for health and social care (IC) comes up for its second anniversary on 1 April, Professor Denise Lievesley likens her work as its chief executive to trying to build a new boat while the old one is being dismantled.

Her verdict: “It’s been slower than I would have hoped but we managed to move in the shortest possible time we could legally.”

“We haven’t stopped any piece of work and we haven’t missed any deadlines,” she says.

In addition, Professor Lievesley, who joined the IC from UNESCO, is bringing some different thinking to the organisation. It’s clear that she is committed to providing an effective information service to the NHS and social care – but her horizon goes beyond the IC predecessor organisations’ traditional domains.

Patients and patient groups, the public and public sector stakeholders outside the usual realms of the information specialist are on her radar.

“Information as a tool of empowerment is something I’m really interested in. Too much in the past it has been seen as a tool for the aficiando,” she says.

Reducing the burden

To begin at the beginning, though, the IC was launched with a firm message about reducing the burden of reporting on NHS organisations that were overburdened with requirements to provide data, some of them duplicated by an array of regulators and policy makers.

Acting chief executive, Bob Allen, saw “reducing the burden” as the focus of the new organisation. How is that progressing?

Professor Lievesley smiles: “He came from the NHS and I come from an information background… I do think it’s important, but I maybe have a slightly different perspective. I do think people see information as a burden if it’s not valuable to them. And the minute it starts to be valuable and they are using it and actually see how it’s making a difference in terms of the system, it no longer becomes a burden.”

The Department of Health’s Register of Central Returns (ROCR) is the pillar of the IC’s efforts to reduce reporting requirements.

Professor Lievesley explains: “Through that we try to ensure that when information is collected it doesn’t duplicate what has already been collected and that it’s collected efficiently and effectively. When it’s possible to do it on a sample basis we do it on a sample basis, but really, critically, where it’s possible to use administrative data that’s already available that’s what we do.

“I do believe it’s important that data is collected once and used many times but I also think it’s critical that there’s greater feedback. Coming from outside health or social care I’ve been trying to understand where the data flows back to and one of the difficulties is that it often doesn’t flow back to the people for whom the collection of information is a burden so if you can actually give better information back to them about why it’s been collected and how it’s been used it makes a difference.”

Dr Foster Intelligence partnership

Making a difference with information is where the IC’s controversial £12m deal with Dr Foster LLP to create Dr Foster Intelligence comes into play. While heavily criticised by the National Audit Office (NAO), the deal, designed to make NHS information more easily understood, still stands and Professor Lievesley believes it is already bringing benefits in terms of how the IC “tells the story” behind figures.

“I think we’ve learned a lot from their fleetness of foot. I think we’ve also learned a great deal from the fact that they are great in terms of communicating information,” she says.

However, she expresses total respect for the processes that brought a welter of criticism and a personal appearance before the notoriously demanding Public Accounts Committee. “I think it’s right that we are accountable to organisations like the NAO. It’s fundamental to our democracy.”

She adds: “There’s an implication that we paid too much for the half share [in Dr Foster Intelligence]. I don’t believe that, but I can’t prove that we didn’t any more than they can prove we did.”

The IC clearly sees deals like the one with Dr Foster Intelligence as an important part of future development and has installed a head of commercial management, Dean White, to develop the work. The centre already has an agreement with Newchurch to develop understanding of primary care trusts’ information needs and Professor Lievesley says the IC would welcome approaches from other potential partners with good ideas.

“There are exciting ways we can deliver information. There’s an initiative being led by the Department of Health – but we are involved as is Dr Foster Intelligence – about the delivery of better information to the general public. We’ve been strong on inputs and process but weak on outputs,” she says.

Moving home

Being based in Leeds means a lot of time on the Leeds-London train for senior staff. The city had previously been the home of the DH statistical service, but was a move too far for many staff from the other body merged into the IC, the NHS Information Authority.

Professor Lievesley confirms: “We’ve had to recruit a large number of staff and we’ve had to bring together different cultures.”

In an age of remote working, do we really need headquarters any more?

Yes, says Professor Lievesley: “Building a coherent organisation, getting values inculcated and ensuring we are all signed up to those principles – that needs to be in one place.”

Luckily the booming Yorkshire city has proved attractive to some existing staff who report an improvement in their quality of life and a draw to others.

“It’s a great place to work. Young people absolutely adore it – I’m hoping it doesn’t go out of fashion!” says Professor Lievesley.