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

 
 
Thursday 3 July 2014

Me on the WP Elevation podcast

I'm a huge fan of Troy Dean's WP Elevation podcast: he's the best interviewer in the WordPress space, and he has a knack of getting great people to spend an hour giving away their secrets.

So it was a real honour to be invited (courtesy of one Mike Little) to participate. We recorded the show via Skype - me at home, just back from the school run; him in south Australia, at a client's office at the end of the day - and it's gone up more or less unedited.

Watching it back just now was much more nerve-wracking than actually doing it! - but apart from getting the launch date of wordpress.com wrong by a mere ten years, I don't think I said anything too stupid.

Show notes etc on the WP Elevation website.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

How to watch the Salmond/Darling debate outside Scotland

If you really want to watch the Alex Salmond vs Alastair Darling TV debate on Scottish independence this evening, and you're outside Scotland, and you're determined to watch it on a large screen, but your broadband isn't up to watching it online, and you have a Sky Digital or Freesat satellite box... still with me? Then I have good news.

Your satellite set-top box knows where you live, and uses this to show you 'your' local BBC and ITV region. All the regional signals are available to your box; but it just decides which ones to offer you up-front. You can, however, add other regions manually.

Look around your setup menu for an 'Add Channel' option. (You may need to manually enable non-Freesat channels on a Freesat box.)

You'll end up on a screen asking you for some technical details of what signal frequency to search on. Enter the following:

  • Frequency: 10906
  • Polarisation: Vertical
  • Symbol rate: 22000
  • FEC: 5/6

You should now see a handful of channels, including (when I did it just now) several STV options. Select one of these, then save your changes. Now look for an 'Other channels' option: and you should now see STV listed.

If you want it in HD, you'll need different settings - which, I believe, are:

  • Frequency: 10994
  • Polarisation: Horizontal
  • Symbol rate: 22000
  • FEC: 5/6

Frequency data courtesy of a516digital and Wikipedia.

Thursday 24 July 2014

On the passing of Puffbox Ltd

Companies House Puffbox dissolution

Point of order: Puffbox Ltd, whose website this used to be, is no more. It's been dormant for near enough two years, with all my business activity being transferred to Code For The People Ltd. And now, having gone through the various formalities, it's been dissolved by Companies House. The blog will remain here for the foreseeable future though.

Friday 6 June 2014

Australia wants Drupal-based gov-wide CMS

Canberra is planning on doing a GOVUK: developing a single 'Whole-Of-Government Content Management System' for Australia. And they're very clear on what they want: 'The solution must use Drupal open-source software'.

Why Drupal? They've published a detailed report (PDF) on their decision. They had two key requirements: that it must be 'truly Open Source', and very much unlike GOVUK, that it 'must not be a .NET or Ruby based solution'. Well well well.

There were 18 options on a long-list:

Australian Gov CMS longlist

which they assessed using various criteria, and came up with the following scores:

au-gov-CMS-assessment

The top three were then considered in more depth, with Drupal actually coming out third of the three in most cases, and its user experience coming in for particular criticism. But in the end they've opted for Drupal primarily, it seems, because of the availability of extension modules and (local) developer resource.

Obviously it's more than a little disappointing to see WordPress ranking so low: but not entirely surprising. Nobody is currently tasked with representing the WordPress platform as, say, Acquia does for Drupal. (By the way - have a look at the list of open job vacancies at Acquia, including many in the UK. And compare that to the equivalent Automattic list. Quite a contrast in approaches.)

But it's a victory for Open Source nonetheless - and an explicit recognition of the value of the sizeable community behind the Drupal platform. It's exactly what I talked about in 2011, when I took GDS to task for building the GOVUK platform from scratch, ignoring the benefits (immediate and future) of working with an established external platform. And took a fair bit of flak for it.

It gets better: they've posted an explicit commitment to feed back into Drupal core. 'It was unclear whether GovCMS intends to give back to the community,' they admit: 'it was always a clear intention of GovCMS to do this, we have made the statement more direct, and the Draft Deed of Standing Offer document clarifies this requirement further.'

If you fancy the work, tender responses need to be in by the end of the month.

Friday 6 June 2014

Buzzfeed listicles have no place on GOVUK. Do I really need to write that?

Her Majesty's Government has made occasional forays into the world of Buzzfeed. I thought the Foreign Office's use of the platform to rebut claims by Russia Today was quite amusing, and entirely appropriate. A very serious message presented in an ultra digestible format.

Earlier this week, someone in UK central government (the Treasury?) put together a list of 12 things you could buy with the £1,400 that Scottish people are better off per capita by remaining in the UK... and posted it on Buzzfeed. Complete with photos of Lego scenes.

Now I have to say, I don't feel at all comfortable with Whitehall, the Civil Service, the organs of state taking a position on the Scottish referendum like this.

I agree entirely with the assertion (posted on a gov.uk explanatory page) that 'there is a demand for the provision of information which will enable voters to come to an informed decision'. If the conclusion arising from unbiased consideration is clearly in one direction rather than the other, they should say that.

But they should do so whilst standing clearly outside the fray. If the Yes campaign wins, Whitehall needs to negotiate a smooth exit from the Union, having been an active combatant on the opposite side. It means they would enter any such negotiations at an immediate and irretrievable disadvantage.

If they are going to take a stance, and campaign actively in its favour, they might as well articulate their conclusions in a digestible format (listicle), and post it in an appropriate place (Buzzfeed). Yes, it might create a few ripples in the Scottish media - and indeed it has: they probably wanted that anyway. But it's easy to shrug off. Sure, it's Buzzfeed. What do you expect?

But I think it's a huge mistake to bring that into the universally acclaimed gov.uk site, as they have now done. Steph Gray describes it beautifully in a post on his Postbureaucrat blog.

Library content answers questions... It has credibility, and a certain longevity, if maintained appropriately. These days, GOV.UK is the natural home for most library content in central government.

Café content is what you create to get people talking. (It) needs to exist in the context of a solid strategy, and often will point people to your library content where they can find out more, sign up for something, join a campaign or give you their feedback.

Keep the library and the cafe distinct spaces, and find out how best to make them work together.

He also points to the deeply troubling 'imaginable situation' of the civil service being instructed to campaign for exit from the EU. And I now wish he hadn't.

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 gov.uk 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 gov.uk

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 certuklive.wpengine.com.

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?

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 sites.usa.gov 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 wordpress.com 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 Puffbox.com 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.