An alliterative summary of Word Up Whitehall

There’s no point writing a session-by-session summary of last Wednesday’s Word Up Whitehall event, when Julia Chandler has done such a fine job of it already. So instead, here are my memories of the common themes which came out of the various sessions and fringe discussions. And picking up from one of the day’s presentations, they all begin with the letter ‘S’.

Speed. Almost every presentation referred to the speed with which a WordPress-based site could be cobbled together. Some had special theming code, to assist with this; others went with what was already out there. A few hours, and you would almost certainly have something up and running. What a different expectation, compared to the more traditional route of commissioning (conventional) external suppliers – or worse, contracted IT providers.

Specialism. But there was a gap – ‘gulf’ is perhaps too strong a word – between those instant templated sites, and the much more involved (infra)structures discussed by Simon Wheatley (re Defra) and Mike Little (re No10). It reinforced a sense I’ve had for some time, that no matter how advanced the internal skills base becomes, there will always be a role for the external experts.

Subversion. There’s definitely a skill – or is it an instinct? – in taking WordPress functionality meant for one thing, and using it for another. In his writeup, Steph mentioned the plans we’ve made with Defra, to use (unpublished) WP comments for user feedback. Mike had used WP’s foreign-language function to turn ‘I’m A Scientist’ into ‘I’m A Councillor’. Maybe it’s an early-adopter thing: we aren’t afraid of hacks and workarounds. But you’d need a certain degree of experience and expertise to understand how the functions work in the first place, before contemplating how you might subvert them.

Silos. Mark O’Neill’s presentation of Culture’s new transparency site encapsulated many of WP’s benefits: quick, cheap, multi-user, etc etc. Many departments would benefit from having such a service to call upon. And I’d argue, even where departments’ web platforms were up to the job, it’s beneficial for the user if departments were all using the same publication channel. This would have been a perfect opportunity for a Whitehall-wide WordPress project: a rare blank canvas. It didn’t happen, not this time anyway, and I think that’s a shame.

Sustainability. This is a tricky one to phrase appropriately. But the bottom line is this: government web development is in a much better place now than, say, two years ago – and that’s down to a small number of individuals and micro-agencies. We have developed solutions and strategies which allow government to save a fortune, doing things which would never previously have been possible or practical. We need to find balanced trading models which allow those small suppliers to keep earning decent livings: support contracts, packaged services, whatever.

Sequel. I think I can declare the event a success. Will we do it again? Yes, I hope so – as long as the ideas keep coming, and the sites keep developing. But it won’t be for quite a while. I dare say we’ll have a few WordPress-based sessions at January’s UKGovCamp, so that should keep things ticking over for a few months: maybe we’re looking at late spring, early summer for Word Up Whitehall II.