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.