Developing a new suite

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The Leadership Academy is made up of a national organisation working alongside ten local academies which operate across the regions of England. The local academies work with colleagues in the wider NHS, delivering a broad and exciting programme of work to deliver the leadership development across a wide audience of NHS staff and organisations.

As the digital team, we were asked to look at developing a new website for the East of England Local Leadership Academy and this gave us a great opportunity to look at the digital tools in use in a local environment.

Whilst initially looking at this collection of tools, it became clear that the ones which were by far the most useful were the ones the local academy had sought out and selected themselves. The people using the software knew the use case, had intentionally gone out to find solutions and then had put into place the most suitable for the way they work. We decided to seek further evidence and knowledge, so contacted the other 9 local academies to undertake some intensive research on the digital tools each were using, the challenges they were facing and the learning we could gather from the innovative solutions each had found.

Following on from these conversations, we were able to identify the main requirements – things that were currently being done in many diverse and wonderful ways. Although local academies have evolved to deliver slightly different services in each of their regions, there was striking commonality in the things that they were using online, and the resulting list was this:

Requirements for Local Academy tools

  • An easy to use website, with login functionality for staff to be able to add and edit content
  • A way to collect user data – either feedback, or surveys, or requirement gathering from their stakeholders
  • A method of managing events – from the initial publicity and announcement, through user registration and to event management
  • A document repository for their users and stakeholders. This needed to have the ability to have public documents as well as protected documents accessible via login. It also needed version control.
  • Newsletter management – from collecting subscribers (and managing unsubscribes) to drafting / editing mailshots and then sending these out, with reports on delivery
  • Private areas – sections of websites that could be accessed via login for specific groups of users to deliver non-public information.
  • A simple method of logging in to as many of these tools as possible with a single password

Pulling all of this together will help local academy staff by reducing time spent managing communications, events and the information they have to share with users – and also help their audience – the staff in the wider NHS – to be able to get access and knowledge of what is on offer.

We chose to work with the WordPress platform. This was for a few reasons – firstly, it is the platform we already use for the national Leadership Academy website, so as a development team we are familiar with it. Secondly, it has a wide eco-system of plugins available for us to tap into, as well as extensive documentation for any custom build requirements. And thirdly, it fits well with our ethos of open development – WordPress is an open source tool and we can benefit from the open source community, but we can also contribute back to it with our work to benefit others (see our separate article about the NHS WordPress theme we have developed for an example of this in action).

WordPress is a tool that is easy to use, has a wide user base and has an administrative interface which is generally found to be easy to use. In addition to this, as a team we already have documentation and training prepared to help familiarise new users and get them active using the platform to create, edit and manage their content.

The next requirement was to be able to collect and manage user data – whether that be feedback, surveys or other data capture requirements. We evaluated a few tools and found that Gravity Forms was a great solution – this allows us to rapidly deploy new forms, manage data and comply with data protection regulations out of the box. We have then extended this further to match specific data collection specifications requested by local academies.

For event management, we investigated a range of tools, including fully customising a full platform in its own right. After evaluating, we decided to go with another WordPress plugin called The Events Calendar, which fully integrates to the main platform we chose to provide users with a seamless experience of navigating events local academies have to offer, as well as being able to book places immediately. Administrators can setup new events in minutes, and are then able to see user registrations and use this information to manage the event on the day and capture user feedback after the event has happened (using the forms tool above).

For managing documents, again we opted to choose a tool that integrated directly with the WordPress platform called Download Monitor. This enables our website editors to upload repositiories of documents and categorise them. Each upload can be designated to be either public, password protected or in a secure (log in required) section of the site. If a document has a revision, it also enables the website editor to replace the single version and anywhere it is referenced, the newer version is automatically replaced – this saves countless hours of editor time, but also ensures that our website visitors are getting valid, up to date information.

For user permissions and assigning sections of the site for different stakeholders, WordPress already offers a level of permission management. However we decided to extend this further using the Members plugin – this allows us to be much more granular with the settings and to offer website editors full control over their web access settings.

And because all of this is managed inside the single platform (WordPress) we were able to meet the final criteria of offering users a single place to sign on to be able to access all of the various tools. This replaces a number of different online tools that were previously used, and gives our website visitors a much more easy to navigate and understand method of interacting with our Local Academies and the programmes of work they have to offer.

One requirement we have not included in the WordPress platform was the newsletter management. We investigated many plugins within WordPress that would do this, but found that Campaign Monitor was a much more sensible option – end users do not generally need to interact with logins to the newsletter system, and the content editors reported back that Campaign Monitor was a much easier to use tool than any of the alternatives we were able to provide, so we decided to keep this as an external solution.

The end result of this work is that we now have an out of the box solution which caters for the vast majority of a local academy’s online requirements, and which we can deploy rapidly. We have already been able to launch the new East of England website, as well as the West Midlands. In addition we are in discussions with a number of the other local academies who wish to transition to using this platform. The benefits include:

The benefits of the new Local Academy platform

  • Consistency for users – many of our stakeholders are engaging more than one local academy, and being able to offer a consistent platform on the sites they are using means end users are more familiar and comfortable finding the information they are seeking
  • Time savings – an easy to use platform reduces administrative time required to communicate to stakeholders. Because updates are quicker, the information on our sites is more likely to be up to date, and can be responsive to current events very easily.
  • Cost savings – because we are able to provision this centrally on a single platform, we have less external suppliers to deal with, less contracts to manage and a simpler path to deliver improvements. In addition, the system is significantly less expensive than the individual tools it replaces.
  • Best in class. Because we have been able to spend the time evaluating the options in each of the areas we have replaced, we have been able to assess what is available and ensure that what we are able to offer is at least as good as the alternatives. This means local academies have access to solid, well tested and maintained tools.
  • Rapid deployment. Because the tools are in our direct control, we are able to respond to user needs much quicker. If a new site needs creating, or if a new feature is required, we can provision this very quickly, with no procurement or supplier engagement delays.
  • Security. Again, because all of the tools are in our direct control, we are able to validate the security of the code, actively monitor the tools for any threats and take quick remedial action if any issues are found.

Creating a Web Platform

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