The large corporation and the government consultation – no, not that one

In the week that the big news story is about a large corporation well used to allegations of monopolistic behaviour (like this one), and its attempts to build relationships with those formulating government policy, in areas where a certain decision could be to its distinct commercial advantage…

I draw your attention to a post on the GDS blog, describing itself as an ‘important update’, written this evening by Liam Maxwell.

On 4th April 2012, Dr Andy Hopkirk facilitated a roundtable on behalf of ICT Futures on Competition and European Interaction. […] At the time he was engaged to facilitate the Open Standards roundtable, while we were aware that he represented the National Computing Centre on the Microsoft Interoperability Executive Customer Council [..] he did not declare the fact that he was advising Microsoft directly on the Open Standards consultation.

This all appears to have been sparked by Mark Ballard’s report, declaring the event to have been a ‘triumph’ for the ‘proprietary lobby’, and some pretty heated debate in the ensuing comments. Ballard himself adds in the comment thread:

Hopkirk is himself a cohort of MutKoski, Parker, and Brown. They are all members of the OASIS Transformational Government Framework Technical Committee, an unusual policy lobby unit that is sponsored by Microsoft. All have been critical of either UK government policy or its objectives and have specifically opposed defining elements of the coalition government’s open standards policy.

Dr Hopkirk was given a right to reply, in which he declares:

I do have a longstanding relationship with Microsoft purely on the basis of my consistently neutral, pragmatic, end-user oriented and supplier-agnostic perspective. I have supported, and continue to support, open markets, open standards and free/open source software for their contributions to furthering interoperability and IT market competition. I have not been asked to publicly or privately support any client brief or position in the government consultation.

Regardless, Maxwell has done the right thing, by declaring that ‘any outcomes from the original roundtable discussion will be discounted in the consultation responses’. The session is to be re-run, and the consultation deadline extended.

Didn’t I tell you this stuff was dynamite?

[Disclosure: I have worked for both BSkyB and Microsoft in my past. I do not do so currently. I cancelled my Sky Sports subscription a year ago. My main computer these days is a Mac. I’m writing this on a Linux machine. My belief in open standards is well documented.]

Boris Johnson Twitter storm: no oversight, no grey area – and not his first such offence

You’ll remember the furore, just about a month ago, when London mayor Boris Johnson renamed his @mayoroflondon Twitter account @BorisJohnson – and in doing so, turned what had ostensibly (?) been an official account owned by the Mayor’s office into a campaigning platform for his re-election.

The decision to stop tweeting as Mayor was, unquestionably, correct. But by simply renaming the account, his (party political) campaign team had suddenly acquired an opt-in contact list of a quarter of a million people. Understandably, there was quite a backlash – and by bedtime, the account had been renamed @mayoroflondon, and mothballed.

Having spent almost my entire career walking that tightrope between ‘party political’ and ‘elected official’ communication – whether it be as a civil servant myself, or these days, running websites for MPs / ministers / candidates – I saw this as a fascinating case study. The @mayoroflondon account had been quoted on official Greater London Assembly communications for several years. But who actually owned it: Boris himself, or the office of Mayor? Had anyone ever asked that question?

So I lodged an FOI request. And they’ve just sent me their response.

I asked:

Can you please release copies of any correspondence to/from the Mayor’s private office, the Mayor’s press office or the GLA Public Liaison Unit relating to:

  • the decision to rename the account in 2009, adopting the name of the office of Mayor, with no indication of any direct personal attachment to the current incumbent;
  • the formal ownership of the account: whether it was considered Mr Johnson’s personal property, or whether it belonged to the office of Mayor;
  • requests to use the account for official purposes;
  • the decision to include references to the MayorOfLondon Twitter account in press releases and other official communications;
  • Mr Johnson’s move today (20 March) to rename the account and change its purpose into that of a platform for his re-election campaign, including references to the BackBoris2012.com website where there had previously been links to london.gov.uk

They have only been able to supply material in response to my final point. Which means, one would naturally assume, that the matter had never been raised beforehand. An regrettable oversight perhaps.

And so to 20 March 2012.

At 4.22pm, a good few hours after things had kicked off, head of media Samantha Hart sent an email to press office colleagues:

As you’re probably aware now, the @mayoroflondon twitter account has now been renamed  Boris Johnson and is being run by the campaign. If you have any links to @mayoroflondon on your email signature or anywhere else, please can remove it asap?

In other words: City Hall staff hadn’t been forewarned. And the account was now ‘being run by the campaign’ – where, one can reasonably infer, it wasn’t before. Half an hour later, Sam sends round a ‘line to take’, to help press officers deal with any enquiries.

Boris Johnson has decided it would not be appropriate during the pre-election period for him to be tweeting as Mayor of London. He has therefore made it clear to all his followers that he will now be tweeting under his own name outside of City Hall. Anyone who no longer wishes to follow his tweets will be reminded repeatedly that they can unsubscribe with one click of the mouse. @mayoroflondon can be revived by whoever is elected on May 3.

A resolution of sorts, then. The @mayoroflondon account is thus formally deemed to be the property of ‘whoever is elected’: meaning this won’t happen again next time. And a couple of hours later, at 6.25pm came further confirmation from Guto Harri – the former BBC journalist, now Boris’s Director of External Affairs:

The MayorOfLondon twitter feed has been mothballed until the 5th of May. Boris will update his long-standing followers about his non-campaigning activities under the a new feed called @Boris Johnson (…) The @MayorOfLondon feed can be revived on May 5th by whoever wins the election.

… although by midnight, the plan had changed again. The @BorisJohnson account too was mothballed, before a single tweet was sent; with all party-political tweeting through @backboris2012.

So, what do we learn from this silly little affair?

Ministers, Mayors and other elected representatives are multi-dimensional beings. They have an official status. They probably attained that official status by winning an election, on behalf of a political party. And they are (almost certainly) human beings too, with interests and relationships outside politics.

If we insist on maintaining a separation between all three dimensions – and there’s an argument that we should drop the pretence, as referenced by Jon Worth’s excellent blog post – then the Rules of Engagement for any ‘personal’ communication channel needs to be made clear. If you’re a social media manager, or Head of Digital Engagement, that’s your job. You need to lay down some ground rules on behalf of any ‘official’ communications channels… and see that they are enforced. Ask any difficult questions now, before it becomes an issue later.

Except – it had already been an issue.

Seeing Sam Hart’s request that all links to @mayoroflondon be removed, I naturally had to search the london.gov.uk website to see if that had happened. The answer? – yes and no. Certainly there aren’t many references to the account on london.gov.uk any more. But that made it all the easier for me to find this document from October 2009, relating to a complaint made against Mr Johnson by one Graham Parks.

He had complained that a tweet from the @mayoroflondon account on 30 September 2009 had apparently welcomed The Sun newspaper’s decision to back the Conservatives at the forthcoming general election. The matter went to the Assessment Sub-Committee of the GLA’s Standards Committee, who ruled:

it was clear that (the tweet) was written by or on behalf of the Mayor of London, as the hyperlink to the twitter account was found on the Mayor of London page on the GLA website.

In other words, the Sub-Committee had already, in effect, ruled that the @mayoroflondon account – by quoting a london.gov.uk URL – had declared itself to be the property of City Hall. They unanimously concluded:

Having regard to all the circumstances, the Assessment Sub-Committee concluded that, by writing in that manner, the Mayor of London could be seen to have breached paragraph 6(b) (ii) of the Authority’s Code of Conduct, as it appeared on the evidence presented that the Mayor of London was using GLA resources in seeking to affect party political support.

Having regards to all the facts and circumstances, the Assessment Sub-Committee considered that it was appropriate and proportionate for it to take a decision of “other action”, requiring the GLA’s Monitoring Officer to raise this with Mr Johnson, the Mayor of London, and give guidance to him about the use by him or his office of the Mayor of London twitter account.

In other words, the matter had been discussed: there was no oversight, and no grey area. The GLA had already asserted its ownership of the account. And Boris had already been sanctioned for abusing it.

Make of that what you will. And if you’re a Londoner, remember to cast your vote on 3 May.

Open source advocate is new gov Deputy CIO

 News today that Liam Maxwell has been appointed Deputy Government CIO, replacing Bill McCluggage.

Maxwell joined the Cabinet Office last summer, on an 11-month sabbatical from his job as Head of ICT at a Berkshire secondary school. Liam’s belief in open source is well documented, and it’s quite remarkable to have someone like that in such a senior position.

The Guardian says he will be retaining his responsibilities as Cabinet Office director of ICT Futures.

Departmental websites: gone by Xmas?

My attention has been drawn to the commitment on page 42 of yesterday’s Budget 2012 document.

from 2014, new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they themselves can use the service successfully

It’s so simple, it’s brilliant. And quite funny too.

But don’t overlook the non-highlighted bit which follows. It’s a commitment, the first I’m explicitly aware of, that:

all information is [to be] published on a single ’gov.uk’ domain name by the end of 2012

In other words, the Single Domain will at least be ‘dual running’ with all departmental websites within 9 months. But it’s surely more likely, given that efficiency is a key selling point of the Single Domain strategy, that we’ll see all departmental websites closed by then. There was no deadline mentioned in the Martha Lane Fox report of November 2010, or in last October’s ICT Implementation Plan.

Update: blogging on the GDS’s WordPress.com-based site, Mike Bracken adds some clarification:

We’re working with colleagues across Government to get all information for citizens and businesses (what’s currently covered by Directgov and Businesslink) published on GOV.UK by the end of this year and this gives us the hurry up. We’re also working towards migrating Departmental sites onto ‘Inside Government’ but that will take a little longer, with a more gradual transition as current contracting arrangements for individual Departments come to an end.

History lesson

My first workplace: photo from Wikipedia

I began my career at the Foreign Office, joining what was known as ‘Guidance Section’. Its job was to be the in-house newswire service for British embassies far and wide. The day started by editing down a daily news summary and press review, based on BBC World Service scripts; at the click of a button on a VT100 terminal (look it up), these were delivered to hundreds of British diplomatic missions by the best means available. Could be fax, could be telex, could be telegram, one or two had something called E-Mail. Cutting edge stuff for 1995, believe me.

We would spend the rest of the day gathering news items from around Whitehall – press releases, transcripts of speeches, whatever. We’d edit these down to the essential, decide which embassies would be likely to receive media enquiries on the subject, and send it out to them. Then, at lunchtime and 5pm, we’d produce a ‘shopping list’ from which embassies could request anything they were interested in, but hadn’t already received.

Departments were generally more than happy to work with us: often we’d get significant announcements ahead of delivery, so that Our Man In Wherever could have a head-start. The one massive exception was the Treasury, on Budget Day.

They would send an official on the short walk up Horse Guards Avenue to our office in the Old Admiralty Building, just by the Arch. He or she (usually he) would have the Chancellor’s speech on a floppy disk. He would sit stony-faced in our office, one of few in the building to have a TV, whilst we all listened to the speech. When the Chancellor’s bottom touched the front bench, the speech having been delivered to the House, he would hand over the floppy disk. And finally, we could begin the work of reformatting the text file, editing out the party-political bits, double-checking it, then sending it out.

Today, any Embassy press officer who’s interested will be reading the same advance press coverage we all are. He/she will watch the speech live – CNN, BBC World, streamed online, whatever – before hitting the Treasury website. And he probably won’t get a single call asking for a copy of the speech.

‘Inside Government’ opens for testing

The next phase of the gov.uk beta programme was opened last night: a six-week public testing phase for the ‘Whitehall’ information, now renamed ‘Inside Government‘ (complete with tautological URL). Ten departments are covered initially, including all the obvious online big-hitters such as Health, BIS, Defra, FCO and DFID.

It looks very much like the rest of the gov.uk platform – as you’d expect, with a Global Experience Language – so it feels more like an extension than an enhancement. This is most striking with the individual department ‘subsites’: a unique ‘spot colour’ aside, and with an unexpected exception made for the MOD crest, all look identical and carry the same navigation. Departments aren’t going to recognise these as ‘their’ sites – but that’s kind of the point.

It’s far too early to make definitive judgments about the presentation, not least because the team admit it’s much more unfinished than previous previews. It’s hard, therefore, to decide what’s deliberately minimalist, and what’s just ‘not done yet’ – and therefore, hard to offer helpful criticism. A lot of the pages feel very plain, probably too plain. In particular, I’m not fond of the very ‘boxy’ presentation of many pages: see the main News or Publications pages as good examples. I just don’t find my eye being guided anywhere, and I don’t get any sense of significance. But maybe they just haven’t been ‘done’ yet.

Writing on the GDS blog, Neil Williams describes the ‘custom publishing engine properly tuned to the needs of multiple users and publishers across Whitehall, and built specifically for the kinds of things governments produce. … On average, publishing to GOV.UK was 2.5 minutes faster than WordPress and 11 minutes faster than Directgov,’ he claims: I’ve already taken him to task on that one. 🙂

As a website, it’s what they said it would be, and it looks like we knew it would look. So it doesn’t feel like much of a leap forward, and could actually be quite a tough sell around Whitehall. But this part of the gov.uk project isn’t about a website. It’s about redefining how government departments see themselves, present themselves, and talk about what they do. And that’s w-a-y more difficult than building a website.

Bilingual maps with a WordPress custom post type

Puffbox’s longest-standing working relationship in Whitehall is with the Wales Office; it was there, don’t forget, that the whole WordPress-in-government thing started back in late 2007. We moved them on to a multisite setup just before the 2010 general election; and we’re seeing the benefits, through sites like the one we launched in November for the Commission for Devolution in Wales.

They’re about to start a round of public engagement events, and they asked us if we could add a Google Map to the site… which, of course, is bilingual, English and Welsh. It’s not rocket science these days, but it’s probably the smoothest implementation I’ve done, and I thought it might be worth sharing.

We’ve defined ‘event’ as a custom post type, non-hierarchical (ie more like posts than pages), with a full set of fields. It gives the ‘more info’ pages a nice URL, and keeps them nicely self-contained, with benefits for both admin interface and template access.

We’ve then added a ‘metabox’ to the ‘edit’ screen, for the various elements which define an event: basically date, time and location. When you click into the ‘Event date’ box, you should get a popup jQuery-based calendar – but if you don’t for some reason, or if you’re a keyboard wizard, you can still enter it manually. We’ve left the ‘time’ field freeform: we didn’t plan to do anything too clever with the event times, and besides, times are often rather vague.

I’m quite pleased with how we’re doing the location. We ultimately want two things: a text-based name, which should make sense to humans rather than computers; and an exact geolocation, ideally latitude and longitude, for the machines. So, looking down the page, first thing you come to is a text search box. If you know the address, particularly if you have a postcode, you can enter it here; then click ‘find on map’. This sends the query to Google, and makes a best-guess for the precise location, indicated by the crosshair hovering over the centre.

Google’s guesses are usually pretty good, as you’d expect. But you can fine-tune them by dragging the map around – even to the specific building. And every time the map moves, whether via the search or via dragging, the coordinates update automatically.

The text name and the coordinates are saved separately – which means, once you’ve pinpointed your venue, you can then go back and edit the text-based name, to make it less of a search query, and more of a human-friendly description.

That gives us enough data to put the markers on the map – with accuracy down to a few metres if you’re so inclined! – and to generate some meaningful text content too, in the form of a table and stand-alone page. And yes, we’ve got all the info in both English and Welsh – although this site predates our work on Babble, so it uses WPML. (I say ‘all’: it turns out, Google Maps doesn’t do Welsh.)

Finally – and you’ll have to take my word on this, for the moment – as time passes, and events take place, they start to appear ‘greyed out’ on the map. We’re using the Google Chart API to generate the map markers, and it’s dead easy to change the base colour in the javascript. (The rows in the table get ‘greyed out’ too.)

Like I say, it’s not rocket science. But it’s always a joy when you can hand what is actually quite complex functionality over to a client, and it just works*.

Open standards consultation now, er, open

I came away from this year’s UKGovCamp with an uncomfortable sense of there being an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.

The day opened with Dave Briggs declaring the event was different because, among various examples he quoted, it didn’t have a keynote address. The day concluded with a keynote address by a senior Cabinet Office civil servant, who proceeded to tell us what his team of hired specialists were going to do.

But the ‘us and them’ was even more apparent in the first session I attended, led by the Cabinet Office’s Liam Maxwell, on the subject of open standards. The substance of the presentation was:

  • we think open standards are very important;
  • we’re doing lots of very important things, none of which we can talk about;
  • but we’d value your input when the time comes.

I voiced a certain amount of frustration in the questions which followed, so it won’t surprise Liam if I say it all felt thoroughly unsatisfying.

Having said that, I did – and do – have some sympathy. Open standards are commercial dynamite: software lock-in is worth £££millions to the big vendors. Enough for those vendors to put up a hell of a fight, in defence of an unsustainable and #unacceptable status quo. And to extend my metaphor just one step further, Liam and his colleagues were keeping their powder dry.

The aforementioned time for our input has now come: the Cabinet Office has opened its consultation process, with Liam asking for ‘as much feedback from the IT community as possible… There’s a lot of strong opinion on this subject,’ he says, ‘so I’m urging people to take this opportunity and let us know what they think.’

The consultation ‘document’ is online, and it’s been done on WordPress. 😉

The interactive part of the site comes in three pages of questions, two of them very long and very scary, powered by a bespoke plugin (by the look of it). At the very top, it declares:

which may not be quite what they meant. Based on the error message displayed following a blank submission, it looks like only name and email address are actually required, plus an answer to at least one question. And if there’s an asterisk anywhere, I’ve yet to find it.

The exercise itself is all rather semantic, and the language inevitably technical. It goes way over my head, to be perfectly honest. But my feelings on open standards are easily summarised:

As open as possible, as standardised as possible, as soon as possible.

Based on my experience in the Civil Service, it’s that final point which is probably most important. I’ve been scarred by past experiences – notably around the Government Category List and eGMS, which both took several years, went through numerous iterations, and yet seemed to deliver no tangible benefits. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

This time round, hopefully, things are different. The ‘cloud computing’ narrative has been widely accepted; and implicit in that is the belief that government’s needs are not unique. Government should be looking to embrace standards that are already being widely adopted – and where there are any (perceived) deficiencies, it should play a part in their development.

Exactly how it does that, frankly, is up to smarter people than me.

Going in 60 seconds

In a single sentence, Stephen Hale’s latest blog post encapsulates the sheer joy of moving from a classic old-style CMS to WordPress.

By switching out Stellent for WordPress as our primary content management tool, we changed the processes by which web content was created and published. Editors no longer needed the same in-depth knowledge of the CMS to publish content, it was possible to publish more quickly, and it was much easier for us to devolve the act of publishing. The day-long CMS training course for new editors was replaced with a 1 minute (I timed it) session showing staff how to click on “add new” and type in a box.

From what I hear, the GDS training course for those publishing on the new unified platform is going to take a _little_ longer than that.

Saul’s gov.uk plugin now on Github; anyone know Ruby?

Saul's plugin: 24 hours later

I blogged earlier today about Saul Cozens and his ‘v0.1 alpha’ WordPress plugin for embedding gov.uk content via WordPress shortcode.

The great news is, Saul has uploaded it to a public repo at Github, meaning it’s now:

  • dead easy for you to download, and keep up to date
  • possible for you to fix, enhance and generally improve it

Saul has very foolishly kindly given me commit privileges on it, and I’ve done a bit of work on it this evening – a bit of error handling / prevention, adding basic parsing of gov.uk’s multi-page ‘guide’ content (including any videos!), and general housekeeping.

In other words, it’s now less likely to simply fail on your page. It’s likely to fail in more complicated ways instead. 🙂

There’s one substantial catch: and this is an appeal for help.

The platform’s content is marked up, so it turns out, using an extension of the Markdown language, which they’re calling govspeak.

It adds a number of extra formatting options, to create things like information and warning ‘callout’ boxes. And whilst there are PHP based libraries for Markdown, which we can bolt on easily, there’s nothing instantly WordPress-friendly for this new govspeak.

Yet. If you know a bit of ruby, if you’ve got a bit of spare time, and if you want to help expand the reach of govuk’s content to charities, community groups, local government, etc etc… now’s your chance.

If you fancied one of those £73,000pa developer jobs, I bet it would look great on your application. 😉