Stephen Childs on the challenges facing the NHS and how NECS will support customers

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Oct 12, 2022

Stephen Childs is Managing Director of NECS. He gives his thoughts on the challenges currently facing the NHS in a time of change – and how NECS can support customers in the future.

The NHS is evolving – once again at pace! The inauguration of integrated care systems (ICS) and governing integrated care boards (ICB) in July 2022, presents both challenges and opportunities aplenty.

Forty-two new ICBs are now in place across the country, with a common goal of bringing the NHS together locally to improve population health and establish shared priorities; ensuring that high quality, safe health services are accessible to communities, that health and care services are better integrated, health and wellbeing improved and health inequalities reduced. A huge ask. The embedding of any new system and establishing of fresh strategic priorities naturally bring challenges to the table, including how to collaborate effectively and make most effective use of precious resources.

So how can NECS best support a new health and care system? In our role as a care system support provider, we share a common purpose with the ICS, that of delivering the triple aim – improving population health, improving patient experience of care and reducing cost. Our shared purpose makes consideration of a strategic partnership almost irresistible.

Over the last nine years, the NECS Customer Ownership model has become a defining feature of our success. It is a mutually beneficial model, unique to NECS, that we excel at. We hand fundamental control of the strategic direction of the business over to our Customer Owners and share the benefits of our success.

Customer Ownership essentially means that representatives of our largest customer organisations (ICBs, Provider Collaboratives and NHS England) sit in the majority, as Customer Directors, on our Customer Board. Here, they park their interests as individual customers and act in the interest of the business. They hold our own Executive team to account for the delivery of corporate objectives. Subsequently, our governance resembles that of a community interest company – which means that any financial surplus NECS generates is returned to our customers through the NECS Transformation Fund, so they can re-invest it back into their respective health and care systems. Over the last nine years, we have re-invested £30m into innovative initiatives including prevention schemes and the appointment of Public Health consultants into NHS Trusts to improve outcomes for local communities. Recently, we were very proud to hold the first Customer Board meeting with our new ICB Customer Directors, heralding a new era of customer ownership.

As systems have evolved and the needs of our customers have changed, so too has the business of NECS. For nine years we have been learning and strengthening our service offer, supporting and collaborating with customers to help them find innovative solutions to problems. Another of the defining features of NECS is the array of expertise and experience we have to draw upon to find the solution to a customer’s problem. Often the solution involves development of an innovative digital application which is enhanced by change management support to realise its potential. An excellent example of this is the Capacity Tracker, now the national source of information about the operations of 16,000 care homes across the country.

However, whilst our customer base has been subtly changing, we have remained focused on our purpose and where can add value. We will push ourselves even harder to find novel solutions, helping to shoulder and remove any unnecessary burdens our customers may carry. NECS will continue to serve as the engine underpinning the system, allowing them to concentrate on the big strategic issues of the day like faster access to cancer care, elective care recovery, speeding up discharge and preparing for winter.

A strong foundation for the future

The relationship between NECS and its ICB customers is further evolving – from customer supplier to customer owner and now to strategic partner.

Our expertise, experience and reputation, along with the strong relationships we have nurtured since 2013, will allow us to align respective strategic plans, joining up growing networks and building individual relationships across the health and care sectors.

In discussion with our ICB Customer Owners, we have identified a range of tantalising opportunities within our reach if we were to build a strategic partnership. These include:

System cohesion

There are opportunities for greater cohesion and joint working between system partners. NECS will support by harnessing capability and capacity, reducing duplication of effort, driving better value for money by co-ordinating scarce management resources and leveraging greater economies of scale. Our track record as a credible, trusted collaborator, helping to build strategically important connections, is key to the success of this.

Strategic alignment

Close working relationships mean that NECS and customers can develop complementary key enabling strategies, such as workforce, digital, data, ICT and investment.

For example, the NECS data strategy will respond directly to the ambitions of the ICB equivalent, enabling NECS to gear its capability, capacity and infrastructure development to meet the needs of the ICB. Our plans for the investment of the NECS Transformation Fund (at least £4m in 2022/23) mean that we are best placed to respond to some of the strategic development priorities of the ICB, up to three years ahead.

Ability to solve complex problems and deliver solutions: NECS has developed a strong reputation as a solver of complex care management problems at local system, regional and national levels. We apply our extensive diagnostic and analytical capability, growing advisory practice and considerable project and programme management competencies to any issue. Uniquely, we also commit ourselves to being a long-term delivery partner, taking full responsibility for the ongoing delivery of the solution.

Strategic commissioning

NECS has the experience, skills and expertise to play a crucial role in supporting commissioners with their strategic planning and large-scale service reform. Our previous projects include reviewing and co-developing Stockport’s Urgent Care provision and supporting the design, consultation and implementation of the ambitious Healthcare for the Future programme in North Cumbria.

Talent management and development

To remain competitive in our marketplaces, we must be able to attract and retain high calibre people with desirable skills, knowledge, aptitude and potential. The breadth of NECS, our ambition, commitment to equality and diversity and our reputation for quality and innovation help us to attract talent. A combined approach to talent management with our ICS partners would create a powerful recruitment coalition. We could build on the success of the NECS100 programme and offer rotation opportunities, shared coaching and mentoring and joint training and development programmes to help us drive best value for money – and importantly, even greater people experiences.

Quality improvement and cost efficiency

Working together with our customers, we could create a formidable partnership for quality improvement by building on the foundations of the North-East Transformation System and the Cumbria Learning and Improvement Collaborative. Since 2013, NECS has delivered over £20m of recurring savings for the commissioning organisations of the North East and North Cumbria through standardisation and process improvement – experience and capability that could be invaluable to challenged systems in the years ahead.


Finding solutions to old problems and new challenges is at the heart of our purpose and NECS is at the forefront of digital innovation with products such as the Capacity Tracker, RAIDR, Check+, Optica and the SMART tool. We will provide the specialist capability to take an idea and develop it into a viable, marketable and deployable application or service to help benefit our customers.

Security and resilience

As our dependency on digital applications and information grows, so does our reliance on the most robust safety and security of these vital assets. Working in a strategic partnership with customers, NECS will strengthen our position in areas such as cyber security through joint strategies and integrated incident response plans.

The arrival of Integrated Care Systems and their respective Boards has caused us to reflect long and hard in NECS, on the role of our organisation as a true system partner, the future of our customer ownership model and the value we can potentially bring to assist the ICBs with their many, daunting challenges. We believe we have so much more to offer and we are genuinely excited at the prospect of being a strategic partner to our customer Integrated Care Boards. And we have good reason to think the feeling is mutual. As one of our customer-owner ICB Chief Executives declared recently, “NECS is the jewel in our crown.”

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