Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

Monday 31 March 2014

New CERT-UK website will be shortlived

Maude at Sprint 14. Pic: gdsteam on Flickr

Maude at Sprint 14. Pic: gdsteam on Flickr

If Puffbox was still on active service, it would already have brought to your attention the news that:

'The number of government websites is increasing despite a high-profile cull, Francis Maude has revealed. The Cabinet Office minister said his officials were engaged in a "nightmarish game of 'splat the rat'". "As soon as you knock one website on the head another one pops up," he told a government IT conference in London. Mr Maude said all sites - including those for government agencies - would either be axed or moved into the domain by the end of the year. "There is no reason why every single bit of government should have its own unique web presence," he told the SPRINT 14 conference. "It's complicated and it's expensive and we don't need to do it.'

'Government websites on rise again despite cull', BBC website, 29.01.2014
See also: speech on

Sadly Francis apparently missed the opportunity to mention this when, earlier today, he stood up on a stage to launch the 55-strong Computer Emergency Response Team UK (CERT-UK). New organisation... guess what? New website.

I only take some modest consolation from the fact that it's running on WordPress... WP Engine, in fact, as demonstrated by the fact you can access the site via

CERT-UK's director, Chris Gibson proudly declared at the launch event: 'Numerous government departments (such as the Government Digital Service who built our website and other technology) have assisted us.'

If that's true - why does it say 'Built by Surevine' in the footer of every page on that website, not to mention the theme's stylesheet? Why would GDS help prolong its boss's rat-splatting nightmare?

Surevine, meanwhile, are keen to tell you about their participation in Open Source - 'it's core to what we do,' they say. But their claim to being 'active' in the WordPress community is something of a stretch - given that their sole contribution appears to be a single plugin connecting to their own node.js web service, posted not in the official repo but on Github. It's being watched by a total of 14 people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Surevine staff.

There are plenty of other nits I could pick. But what's the point? The site will be shut down in 276 days tops. Won't it?

Comments: 1

Friday 20 December 2013

Why I’ve resigned from WPUK

WPUK adieu

Last night I resigned from WPUK, the coordinating body which emerged from the organisation of the first few UK WordCamps.

In 2008, I felt genuine excitement at the thought that the UK WordPress community had grown big enough to justify its own WordCamp; and I think it was right to focus the community's collective efforts on a single national event through those first few years.

I put my money where my mouth was, too: initially as Puffbox Ltd, then as Code For The People, I have been a corporate sponsor of every WordCamp UK.

However, things move on. A number of city-based meetup groups were formed, and began to flourish: Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Brighton, London, Scotland, my own Whitehall-centric affair even. Any one of them could easily have 'graduated' to operating a WordCamp. (None did, for whatever reason, until this autumn.)

I continued to defend the 'one national WordCamp' position, in the face of opposition from some of my best friends in this business. It was the right thing to do, I argued, until somebody proved it was wrong - by successfully organising another UK event.

In November 2013, I was one of the group which proved it was wrong, by successfully organising WordCamp London.

It came as quite a surprise last week when, out of the blue, I received an email notification of a vote being called among the members of the WPUK 'core group' - a 10-strong, effectively self-selected bunch. We were asked:

Do you agree that WPUK continues as a naturally evolving organisation, and that WPUK instigates as soon as possible the organisation of the follow up to WordCamp Lancaster UK 2013, to take place on 12-13 July 2014 at a venue to be decided?

For a year or more, I'd been trying to get the group to reconsider its purpose. Numerous times I'd tried - and failed - to start a constructive debate about the group's purpose. More often than not, the debate turned startlingly hostile and viciously personal. I couldn't wait to get out; but I hoped the successful running of a London WordCamp would prove that WPUK had run its course.

The calling of this vote forced my hand somewhat. It wasn't especially well worded - but it did get to the heart of the matter. Did WPUK exist to designate a single event as being the one officially sanctioned WP event for the UK in 2014? To run an Olympic-style bidding process among candidate cities, as it had done in previous years (with, to be blunt, variable levels of success)?

Calling the vote came as a surprise. The fact that the group voted 6-4 in favour, even after the success of WordCamp London, was a genuine shock.

The group has decided that a bidding process, in which one event 'wins' and the others - no matter how viable in their own right - 'lose', is still the right way to go. I could not disagree more strongly.

I believe that it's now actively harmful to the development of sustainable ecosystems around the country. And I believe that it flies in the face of all available evidence.

So I did the only honourable thing, and resigned my position immediately.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 18.49.59

And as I've been writing this post, Siobhan McKeown has followed suit. I believe at least one other will be doing likewise, if he hasn't already done so. Those with the closest ties to the WordPress project are leaving the group. Make of that what you will.

I really hope things don't now turn nasty. Past evidence suggests they might.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Open source didn’t exist until 2011

Puffbox emerges briefly from retirement to bring you an extract from Computer Weekly's write-up of a somewhat confrontational appearance by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and DWP officials before the Commons Work And Pensions Committee, and a reported £40m write-off of IT work.

Universal Credit director general Howard Shiplee also revealed that the new system being developed will use open source, and he implied it will use cloud-based services.

“The digital approach is very different. It depends not on large amounts of tin. We will use open source and use mechanisms to store and access data in [an online] environment. It is much cheaper to operate and to build. We don’t have to pay such large licence fees,” he said.

When asked why that approach was not taken in the original plans for Universal Credit – where an agile development approach was adopted, then switched to waterfall when agile failed, Shiplee said, “Technology is moving ahead very rapidly. Such things were not available two-and-a-half years ago.”

Funny, that. Because...

  • The Cluetrain Manifesto was published in 2000, followed in 2001 by the Agile Manifesto for software development.
  • In 2004, the Office of Government Commerce said open source was 'a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software'.
  • In October 2008, Amazon EC2 came out of beta after two years of successful operation.
  • In 2009 there was a UK government policy statement which, I felt, explicitly tipped the scales in favour of open source.
  • In early 2010 that policy was further beefed up, requiring suppliers to show they had given 'fair consideration of open source solutions' - and if they hadn't, they faced being 'automatically delisted from the procurement'.
  • In July 2010, following the general election, the Cabinet Office specifically acknowledged that 'open source software offers government the opportunity of lower procurement prices, increased interoperability and easier integration'.
  • In March 2011, over two and half years ago, HMRC claimed to have 'transformed [its] website, which as you know is one of the largest websites in the UK if not in Europe, to actually become a completely open source technology.'

Mr Shiplee is the director general of a project designated as one of the government's 25 exemplars of digital transformation. His background, though, is in development of a more concrete kind: he was director of construction for the London Olympics. It's unfair to expect him to be an expert in government technology policy. But one is left wondering how he was briefed.

No matter what you may have been encouraged to believe, there was life before the creation of the Government Digital Service.

Friday 21 June 2013

US develops shared, centrally-managed WP platform for government

Can't help but mention the project being run by the US General Services Administration, offering 'a shared service to help agencies focus on creating great content rather than on building systems to deliver that content'. No charge initially, but looks likely in due course. And yes, of course it's running on WordPress.

By providing agencies with a content management tool that is up-to-date, supports open content, is secure, compliant and hosted, we can help government agencies meet the goals of the Digital Strategy: to enable the American people to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device. You concentrate on carrying-out your mission and engaging with citizens, we do the infrastructure lift.

Can't argue with that. Nor would you expect me to, having advocated precisely such an approach for at least four years.

Monday 17 June 2013

My work here is done… isn’t it?

I've been building websites for 18 years. Roughly half of that as a full-time civil servant; and a good chunk of the rest as a government specialist. I was Whitehall's full-time web worker; and for the first five years of my career, the management chain either didn't know or didn't care what I was doing. I took full advantage.

Over time, managers decided it was something they should probably take an interest in. So too did the management consultancies. Progress ground to a halt. These were the dark days of government web development. Getting things done from the inside was becoming impossible; so I moved outside, and soon found myself re-energised by the flourishing open source movement.

I began blogging in early 2006. I tried to offer opinions and insight on stuff I thought I knew a bit about - which, broadly speaking, was 'new media' (ha!) and its effect on the businesses of news and politics/government. I could see there was something genuinely exciting in this new technology, and this seemed as good a way as any for me to gain some experience with it.

By this point, I'd been in the web business for a decade. I had pretty clear ideas about what I thought worked, and what didn't. The blog wasn't intended as a campaign for cheaper, faster, better web development - but that's what I believed in, so it's no surprise to see it coming through time and again.

I wrote frankly about new government websites, new policy announcements and new staff appointments. And because nobody else was doing so, at all, my blog picked up a following. Some liked it: and I began to receive tip-offs, sometimes from remarkably senior levels of government. Some didn't like it: and well-meaning individuals would regularly take me aside for 'a quiet word', to say that so-and-so had read my piece about X and wasn't happy.

Of course, if that was meant to put me off, it had the opposite effect.

I began to feel an obligation to blog. Numerous times I found myself firing up the PC, well after midnight, to post about something I'd seen or heard. I owed it to - to what? My audience? The cause? It was academic. This was what I did. I monitored those RSS feeds, I crawled Hansard, I dug through lengthy PDFs so you didn't have to. Whoever you were.

I justified my occasional moaning from the sidelines - to myself at least - with the thought that I wasn't just highlighting problems; I was advocating a solution, based on transparency, engagement and open-source. But these were quite vague, nebulous concepts at the time... so I often chose, quite deliberately, to frame those principles in terms of one particular engagement channel (blogs) and one particular open-source project (WordPress). This absolutely wasn't to exclude other channels and other technologies: but I found that better and more useful conversations arose when we talked about specifics.

Now look where we are.

Government departments' profligate spending on websites has been eliminated. The main communication channel for this radical transformation of public services has been a blog - hosted on initially, soon to move to a centralised WordPress multisite install. It's all built on open source, using open standards, and all posted on Github. New code is pushed live daily.

So it's no wonder that the postings on have slowed to a trickle. Although I can't take much credit for it, this is pretty much where I hoped we'd get to. I don't really need to make the case for it any more.

Friday 8 February 2013

Facetious: CFTP’s Advanced Search plugin for WordPress


Out of the box: a Facetious widget in Twenty Ten

We're proud to announce that Facetious, a plugin we've been working on for quite some time, has now been released in the official WordPress repository. And we'd like to thank the UK taxpayer for his/her assistance in writing it.

We do a lot of work for government departments, and on several recent projects, there's been a requirement for an 'advanced' or 'faceted' search form. This allows you to search by post type, by keyword, by taxonomy, and by month - all together. You can see it on the Government Olympic Communication site, for example, where we let you search its video library (post type) by keyword, and/or theme, department, nation/region, video quality, or month of upload.

We did something similar for the Commission on Devolution in Wales; and it's a key feature of another site due to go live in the next month or so.

We're in good company, by the way: you'll see a very similar search form on GovUK's Inside Government pages, for example.

It became immediately obvious that we could write the code as a plugin, for instant reuse on any WordPress site. We called it Facetious, because it had the word 'facet' in it. And in keeping with our open source principles - not to mention the fact that the development work had been funded by government departments - we decided we would release it publicly in the official WordPress plugin repository.

Out of the box, it provides an enhanced 'search form' widget, which you can drop into any WordPress sidebar. If you want to add a customised form into your own post templates, we've made that easy too: it's all detailed in the plugin's readme file.

Facetious isn't a 'search engine' per se: it's just a simple way to construct complex multi-dimensional queries. The results are gathered using WordPress's built-in search function, which doesn't try to be anything too clever. If you're looking for smarter search results, you'll need a different plugin. (Maybe Relevanssi or something.)

Oh, there's one more thing.

Search URLs in WordPress are the platform's last unpretty 'permalink'. Nobody wants to see ?s=keyword in their address bar; and it isn't possible to cache query-string URLs using something like WP Super Cache. So we've created a new permalink structure for searches as part of Facetious, and your search URL now looks like /search/keyword/ - or /search/month/201302/keyword/whatever/category/uncategorized/. This will be applied to any search: not just those submitted via a Facetious form.

If you want to give it a try on your own WordPress site, just go to Plugins in the admin area, and search for it. If you're a developer, and you'd like to help us improve Facetious, it's also on Github. Pull requests welcome. ;)

My thanks to Nick H, Nick S and Sara P for letting us experiment on their sites over the past few months: and to John Blackbourn, for doing such a fantastic job turning my hacky code into a plugin to be proud of.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Puffbox, the Wales Office and the FOI request

Someone, somewhere is apparently interested in Puffbox's relationship with the Wales Office. Interested enough to dig beyond the lengthy blog posts I've written here on the subject. Interested enough to lodge an FOI request, asking for publication of all invoices and correspondence from May to December 2012.

The result was published this week on the Wales Office website - ironically enough, on the FOI Disclosure Log I built for them. It consists of 132 pages of painstakingly redacted emails - although given that Puffbox Ltd is one person, redaction doesn't exactly cover my tracks! - plus a single invoice, for £130 ex VAT, for a copywriting job.

Of course, I have no way of knowing who it was who lodged the request, or what he/she hoped to find. If you're reading this, please feel free to get in touch directly: I don't believe I have anything to hide.

Monday 3 December 2012

Failing to warm to the Kindle Fire

Pic from

There can be few more blatant symbols of internet-powered globalisation than the appearance of 'Black Friday' sales in the UK. Personally, I've never let concerns about cultural sustainability stop me saving a few quid. Two years ago I bought my first-generation iPad on Black Friday, saving £30 if I remember rightly: Apple are rarely generous with discounts, and it wasn't an opportunity I wanted to miss.

I've had a reluctant eye on Amazon's Kindle Fire for some time. I played with one in our local Tesco a while back, but wasn't immediately sold on its user interface. As time has gone on, it's become obvious that Amazon's market power would ensure it was a success. We're also starting to see it listed as a 'must work on' device in project briefs. But with Silk, its 'revolutionary cloud-accelerated web browser', it's yet another potential point of failure for your web design.

So when I saw it in a Black Friday sale for £99 as opposed to £129, I gave in and bought one on the company account. For testing purposes you understand. It arrived at the weekend.

The first thing to strike you isn't the size; it's the weight. Because it's that bit smaller than an iPad, you're expecting it to weigh a good bit less. But it doesn't. I haven't got the scales out, but it feels like it weighs the same as my iPad - and yet you're meant to hold it in one hand, not two. It's good and solid, though, and doesn't feel as plasticky as you fear it might, for (in my case) the sub-£100 price tag.

Instantly you're struck by the quality of the screen. It isn't jaw-dropping; but you can't help noticing that Amazon have chosen particularly lightweight fonts for the interface, showing off its increased resolution. The use of white-on-black doesn't do any harm there, either.

One of the Kindle's selling points is the fact that Amazon will configure it for you, before it arrives. I opted not to do that; I was intrigued to see the registration process, step by step. And it was a bit of a shock to be hit instantly by a screen demanding credit card details. Yes, it was possible to skip this step; but only until I went to the device's on-board App Store, and tried to download a (free) app. No go, until I signed up for one-click purchasing: which, of course, requires me to register a credit card. It felt aggressively commercial, probably too aggressive.

The App Store itself is a real disappointment. As an Android veteran, I knew the apps I wanted... and I found about half of them. I've managed to find the ones I really need: Twitter, Flipboard, TuneIn Radio, iPlayer, a couple of news apps. The remainder can probably be covered by the mobile interfaces of certain websites: but it's deeply frustrating when you know that Android-compatible apps are available, but you aren't permitted to have them.

And then there's Silk. All we ask from a web browser is that it renders HTML as you'd expect. Basics first, please, innovations later. But Silk has one glaring problem: web fonts. We've waited literally years for web browsers to catch up with font-face delivery of custom fonts; and just when you think it's safe to start using them, along comes the Kindle Fire.

It doesn't not handle web fonts: but it definitely seems to have a problem with fonts delivered from third-party sites such as Google Web Fonts or Typekit (confirmed in a tweet I received from the Typekit guys at the weekend). And whilst it might seem like a small thing, it can be enough to completely ruin a design you've painstakingly put together.

I think I expected something very different from the Kindle Fire. I thought I was buying an Android tablet, which happened to include an e-reader function. In fact, it's an e-reader which happens to run some tablet apps as a fortunate bi-product.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the main user interface. Turn on your Kindle Fire, and you're confronted not by an Android 'desktop', but an iTunes-esque coverflow interface which treats apps in the same way it treats books. As a usage metaphor, it's entirely reasonable for (the products formerly known as) albums or books, where in the offline world, you'd run your thumb along items on a shelf to find the one you want. But apps just don't work like that, never have, and never will.

It also lacks certain things that we'd probably expect a 'proper' tablet to include, such as a camera (or two). But the Kindle Fire just isn't a proper tablet... and it seems to go out of its way not to be. I've tried to use it as a 'proper' tablet like I've used my iPad for the past two years, and it's an unsatisfying experience. But maybe that's my mistake.

The Kindle Fire will succeed. For roughly a third the price of an iPad, you get a device that's maybe half as good, so it's not a bad deal. But it isn't great as a tablet; and although I'm no expert, I think I'd probably prefer to consume e-books on a 'proper' e-ink device, like a standard Kindle.

Someone close to me has asked for a tablet to call her own, as a Christmas present. It was nearly going to be a Kindle Fire. It won't be now.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Shifting sites: a new home for the Wales Office web presence

Regular readers will know the pivotal role played by the Wales Office in recent gov-web history. In 2007, they took the then-radical step of moving their corporate web presence into an open-source web publishing platform, namely WordPress. Nobody died. A point was proven. From there, to Downing Street, to Defra, to Transport, to Health... etc etc.

We started out with two completely separate 'single site' installs: WordPress MU didn't seem quite stable enough. But since 2010, they've been running a WordPress 3.x multisite - containing both their English and Welsh language sites, archived copies of their complete pre-2010 content, and more recently, the (bilingual) Commission on Devolution in Wales site. All fairly modest in traffic terms, but punching far above their weight (and pricetag) in terms of functionality.

For some time, we've been trying to perusade the Wales Office team to change hosting provider. Getting any serious systems admin work done - including, I'm ashamed to admit, WordPress upgrades - was almost impossible with the legacy hosting company. The market price for hosting had crashed, but their hosting bill hadn't. And to be quite blunt, they were getting a minimal level of service.

Our first step, early this summer, was to liberate the DNS. As with a lot of websites, the domain name info was held by the hosting company. Two eggs in the one basket. By taking the DNS to a third party, it gave us the freedom to move the sites at a time of our choosing - and the hosting company couldn't really do anything about it. Would they have been deliberately obstructive? Probably not, no moreso than usual. But 'usual' was precisely why we wanted to move.

Step two was to buy some new hosting space. And courtesy of GCloud (v1), this part was unexpectedly straightforward. In CatN, we found a hosting provider offering an appropriate level of service, with the kind of access and support we expected, for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Step three was migration. Assisted by regular partner-in-crime John Blackbourn, we did a number of dry runs, zipping up the entire WordPress installation - database and uploaded files - and transferring it to its new home. Not as straightforward as it probably sounds, given the relative inaccessibility of the incumbent server... but we found a way. One or two rules may have been broken, at least in spirit, along the way. And I'm very glad I'm on an unlimited broadband contract.

Today was step four. We implemented a content freeze at 9am, migrated everything one last time.... and by lunchtime, we had everything up and running at CatN. At 2.30pm, the DNS changes began - some by us, some done on our behalf. (Thanks again to you-know-who-you-are.) With some having very low TTLs, we could see the changes starting to kick in almost immediately. With others, we had to wait an hour or two. But by 4 o'clock, it was done. And with the freeze unfrozen, there was even time for a new press release before going-home time.

No downtime, and no loss of data. Massive performance improvements, at massive cost savings. At long last, a fully up-to-date install. And best of all? If we hadn't told them we were doing it, I doubt they'd even have noticed it happening.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

If you have any interest in the Directgov->GovUK transition, you are hereby ordered to make a cuppa and read this by veteran (sorry!) e-government blogger Alan Mather for a bit of historical perspective.

It's long but it's important. This isn't the first time a new unified government website has made big promises. Some things are different this time; much, though, isn't. 'Some will take what I say below as an attack on GDS,' he acknowledges; 'that's far from what it is, it's an attempt to look ahead and see what is coming that will trip it up and so allow action to be taken to avoid the trouble.'