Petitions: credit where it's due

Last month, the GDS blog published details of the traffic levels experienced by the new government e-petitions service in its first 100 days:

At what price? Well, that came out soon afterwards, in a PQ to the Leader of the House.

The Government’s e-petition site was designed and created by the Government Digital Service, in conjunction with the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, at a cost of £80,700. The projected technical running cost for the first three years of operation is £32,000 per annum.

– which works out, very roughly, at just over around 1p per ‘transaction’ (ie petition signature). The traffic numbers were impressive in and of themselves, but it’s this calculation which matters more. A hearty ‘well done’ to the GDS team. Now, it’s over to the politicians to do something meaningful with the petitions…?

WordPress comes 'home': France holds its first WordCamp

It seemed like fun. A quick jaunt over to Paris, to attend their first WordCamp proper. A chance to put my French to its toughest test in 17 years. A chance to attend a WordCamp as an ordinary punter, rather than as an organiser. And a good opportunity to check up on the neighbours.

The venue: the cinema-esque Studio Raspail

Paris has a well-established barcamp-style event each year, and will continue to do so, but was (according to host Amaury Balmer) the only country in the world not to have a formal WordCamp. And as if to underline the increasing professionalisation of WordPress, they decided to hold it on a Friday, starting at 9:00am. Or effectively, if your brain has only just got off the Eurostar, 08:00am. Thankfully, black coffee was provided.
First speaker of the day, appropriately enough, was Michel Valdrighi – you’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s the Frenchman who ultimately gave WordPress to the world.
Michel Valdrighi, the absent father of WordPress

Michel was an early convert to the joys of blogging, but couldn’t find a platform which ticked all his boxes. A month after he wrote his first lines of PHP code, to create a dictionary of the Corsican language, he started on his own blogging platform – Blogger 2, or b2. A version 1.0 release was written, but never released; then came unemployment and a bout of depression, and he walked away from it all. Which led to a conversation between this guy and this guy, which led to… well, you can probably pick the story up from here yourself.
And then – ironically – having set the day’s wheels in motion, Michel more or less disappeared. A shame, as I was dying to hear more. (I believe he returned for the social side later, but I’d gone by then.)
'I stammered, forgot half what I wanted to say, improvised the rest. Stress.'

Francis Chouquet was up next: a web designer who also has a premium themes business (Peaxl), and has written a book on WordPress development. He talked about the market for premium themes, where apparently 2/3 of purchases are by resellers; and why he had ultimately opted to build a team to create premium themes, and a custom platform from which to sell them.
Francis Chouquet

His key point was that a theme shop needed distinct skills: creative, technical, marketing and support. You had to have a fighting spirit to make it work, he explained; but it was important not to lose the pleasure which made you do it in the first place.
Julio Potier

He was followed by Julio Potier, who gave a very assured talk on theme and plugin vulnerabilities, and how not to get caught by them. He listed the various well-known plugins he’d found issues in, even certain security plugins! – and described the various levels of interest shown by the original developers. Some were grateful for the tipoff, some were hostile, some simply weren’t bothered. Cautionary tales a-plenty.
With each slot lasting a full hour – not something I’m planning to recommend for future UK events, we were already nearing lunchtime. Next up was the youthful Aurélien Denis, who runs French-language tutorial site, talking about recent WordPress enhancements which made it more of a CMS. People were wrong to say WordPress was a system conceived for managing blogs, he concluded; in fact, it was much more than that.
Aurélien Denis

I very nearly spoke up at that point; personally, I think the fact that it was conceived for blogs is precisely what makes WordPress what it is, and we should be embracing that fact, rather than trying to argue it away. A normal CMS is designed to be managed by a trained sysadmin, and built by experienced developers. (cf Drupal) WordPress assumes you’re on your own, and you just want to get on with writing something. Which is almost always the case, even in large organisations like government departments.
We broke a little early for lunch, and given the (frankly unforgivable) lack of wifi at the venue, I went in search of free connectivity and good food. I couldn’t find anywhere visibly offering both in the immediate vicinity; probably just as well, as I really fancied a moules-frites, and it wouldn’t have gone well with my iPad.
Benjamin Lupu

First after the restart was Benjamin Lupu, who runs the WordPress-based digital operations of a publishing company targeting the public sector. In his excellent talk, he reviewed their work to integrate WordPress with their various other systems: subscriptions, email marketing and so on. There was initial reluctance at the thought of using a blogging platform, but the work came in under budget, handled the huge traffic levels, did everything they wanted, and provided a much more journalist-friendly experience than what had gone before. His only complaint was the lack of a built-in search engine in WordPress core; but it’s not as if there aren’t better, more focused open source solutions which could be easily bolted on.
And so to our gold sponsor for the day: Microsoft. Yes, yet another WordCamp sponsored by Microsoft. Things didn’t start well, with Pierre Couzy failing to get his PowerPoint slides to project properly, unlike earlier Mac and Google Docs-based presentations. (Sorry, a cheap shot, I know.) And although he had a lot to say about Microsoft’s efforts to engage with the product and the community, you just knew he would get a hard time when it came to questions.
Pierre Couzy

I’ve heard the ‘we love open source really’ speech from numerous Microsoft people over the past couple of years. (Usually followed by ‘And we hate IE6 as much as you.’) I’m not as hostile to it as I once was. They now have numerous free downloads and services to help make WordPress work on Windows; and whilst you mightn’t choose to use Microsoft’s products in your WordPress project, sometimes it’s forced upon you. At least they’re helping… although you sense it’s with at least half an eye of monetisation in future, probably based on cloud hosting services.
Benjamin and Nicolas from beAPI

Final presentation of the day was a double header: Nicolas and Benjamin from WordPress specialists beAPI (Amaury’s consultancy), talking about ways to improve WordPress performance. I thought I’d have heard it all before, but they came it at from unexpected angles, and I still picked up a few new tips.

The day finished with a ’round table’ Q&A, featuring all the day’s speakers (apart from Michel). The questions seemed rather negative, fearful, suspicious. Was the growth of Tumblr a cause for concern? Did the panel think ‘they’ would ever make WordPress paid-for? Why do ‘they’ bundle a paid-for plugin like Akismet with the free core product? It rather confirmed a feeling I’d had throughout the day, that the community in France felt distant from the core WordPress effort, in a way which we in the UK just don’t. Perhaps it’s the common language; perhaps we’re just that little bit longer-established, and more confident as a result.
It proved to be a fascinating day, not least for the cultural differences. With so much of the jargon being in English, the presentations sometimes felt like they were being delivered simultaneously bilingually: and it took me a little while to tune into the Frenchified pronunciation of English terms. (It took me ages to work out what ‘Apash’ was.) And then there are the English terms which don’t match the terms we use: le back-office, for one.

Félicitations to Amaury and Xavier for such a well-run event; and merci for the steady supply of coffee and cakes. Here’s hoping the event inspires an even stronger, more confident WordPress community on the other side of la Manche.

Chant's warning to multinationals and client-side IT

Video from
Chris Chant has given an interview to, expanding on the shift to a product-centric, off-the-shelf model for government IT. SMEs, he says, are ‘absolutely front and centre to what we need… and it’s that market we’re really encouraging.’ It will be a bit challenging, he concedes – probably more than SMEs would like; but says they’re trying to make it as easy as possible.
Are we ready for ‘cloud’? ‘No, I don’t think we are at all. I think we’re quite a way away from that, and that’s something that we need to apply ourselves to. I think we are very well positioned to operate in a world where our IT is delivered by large multinationals, but that’s the way things have been. Now it’s a very different world. For a lot of what government does, it’s about commodity products, and we need to get people in who know how to handle that.’
‘We must bear in mind that we’re here for the citizens,’ he declares, ‘not starting from a departmental or systems standpoint. It comes to a very different model, and that means we’ll need to change the way we do things, we’ll need some new people I suspect, and we’ll need to do a lot of retraining. But above all, we’ll need a lot fewer people working on the client side of government IT than we’ve seen in the past.’
Inevitably, he’s asked about the recent ‘unacceptable’ speech. ‘IT is supposed to be an enabler,’ he says, ‘and quite often, in my experience in government, it’s actually a barrier to getting things done. And that’s no way to use IT. IT is supposed to support what we’re doing; we’re getting more dependent on it every day. And there’s no excuse to do anything other than get that right.’

Paris go! Off to France's first WordCamp

France’s first ‘proper’ WordCamp takes place in Paris in a couple of weeks: and I’ve just bought my ticket.
I did French as part of my degree – although that was nearly two decades ago, and only a tiny part of it was ever computer-related. So I’m placing a lot of confidence in 1) my memory of the language, and 2) the likelihood of the most difficult words being derived from English anyway. 🙂
There’s a reassuring familiarity to the day’s provisional programme: the themes business, scale, security, optimisation, and so on.
But the star attraction, for me anyway, will be the appearance of Michel Valdrighi – the man who created the b2/cafelog blogging platform, and whose sudden disappearance led to a discussion between a kid from Texas and a bloke in Stockport, which ultimately led to… 😉
Also worth noting is the gold-level sponsorship offered by Microsoft. Yes, yet another one.
Alors… est-ce qu’il y en a parmi les lecteurs de ce blogue qui voudraient me rejoindre à Paris? Tickets are a very reasonable €25, and there are still plenty left. Come on, let’s help the neighbours build some momentum.

When WordPress gets boring, things get interesting

[Thanks to @JonAkwue for suggesting a vastly improved headline for this piece…]
The big moment of this year’s Word Up Whitehall came in the second presentation of the day: Gavin Dispain from the Department for Transport, telling the story of their hasty migration to WordPress.
It was already clear that we were in very different territory from last year’s inaugural event: Stephen and Francis from Health had opened with a presentation featuring the kind of technical architecture diagrams you just don’t see at WordCamps. We weren’t just talking about the potential for government departments to use WordPress, or sharing examples of little microsites they’d built: no, this was real corporate-sized heavy-duty stuff. And there, at the heart of it, increasingly so in fact, was WordPress.
Then came Gavin, and that slide. He didn’t really make a big deal of it. I think we all knew about the potential to generate massive savings. But there it was, in black and white: hundreds of thousands of real pounds, not notional pounds, saved at a stroke. With further savings to come, as more arms-length agencies come on-board. (Defra are a bit further down that track already, as David Pearson related later in the day.)

Technical architecture diagrams. PowerPoint slides with incomprehensibly large numbers on them. Weren’t these precisely the things which drove me out of ‘proper’ IT, and into the world of WordPress? What the hell were these doing at a WordPress event? For a moment I could feel myself switching off, as I’d done in countless meetings over the years.
And that’s when it all suddenly fell into place.
I’d reacted against such things in the past, because they were visions of the future – and for the most part, futures that never quite arrived. But something was different here. People weren’t talking about how they could or would do it. They were demonstrating how they had done it. Health had built that structure, and it was working. Transport had left behind one set of contracts costing £X, and were now in a new arrangement costing £Y.
To be frank, systems admin and accountancy can be a bit boring. But it’s a mark of the success of the WordPress mission1, and the potential it has unlocked, that we’re now into that business-as-usual territory. When you’re getting stuck into the ‘boring’ bits, that’s when change is really happening.
And it turns out, I don’t actually hate technical architecture diagrams and budget forecasts after all.
1 When I first drafted this, I wasn’t sure about using the word ‘mission’. But then, by sheer coincidence, Seth Godin posts a few lines on his blog, and I feel a whole lot better about it.

Coming up in WordPress 3.3

The next version of WordPress, version 3.3 is on the horizon: a second beta release came out a couple of weeks back, and a first release candidate is due in the next couple of days.
So what is there to look forward to? I’ll hand you over to Andrew Nacin, one of the core developers, and the presentation he gave at a recent New York meetup.

There are quite a few incremental improvements to the admin interface, but nothing to stop you in your tracks. The left-hand menu is now based on ‘fly-out’ submenus, more or less as the compressed view has always done, albeit with a nicer animation. There are tweaks to the Admin Bar (including pointy notifications), the ‘Help’ area, and the ‘welcome’ screen you see on an initial install. The file uploader is no longer Flash-dependent, favouring HTML5 where available, and adds drag-and-drop functionality.
Lots of little things, none of which sounds like much; but I’m told that once you’ve been using 3.3 for a while, going back to 3.2 feels rather dated.
Final release is currently scheduled for the end of November.

Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable

Even a few days after their initial publication, I’m still slightly stunned to read the comments of Puffbox’s best pal Chris Chant, now back in his role as Programme Director for the G-Cloud initiative, at the Institute for Government earlier this month.

It is unacceptable at this point in time to not know the true cost of a service and the real exit costs from those services: the costs commercially, technically and from a business de-integration standpoint. So, how do we untangle our way out of a particular product or service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the discussion that says, we need to get away from that, and we can’t because of the complexity of getting out from where we are, and of all the things that are hanging on to that particular service, that we can’t disentangle ourselves from.
I think it’s completely unacceptable at this point in time to enter into contracts for longer than 12 months. I can’t see how we can sit in a world of IT, and acknowledge the arrival of the iPad in the last two years, and yet somehow imagine that we can predict what we’re going to need to be doing in two or three or five or seven or ten years time. It’s complete nonsense.
I think it’s unacceptable, not to know how many staff that we have in government working on the client side of IT. I’ve not yet met anybody who knows what that figure is. People know about small areas, but overall, we don’t know what that figure is.
And equally, it’s unacceptable that we don’t know what those people do. So we don’t have any idea of the breakdown of that number that we don’t know either, surprisingly, and I think that’s outrageous in this climate – and actually, in any climate.
It’s completely unacceptable not to know what systems we own, how much they cost and how much or even if they are used. I know there are organisations that have turned off tens of thousands of desktop services, merely to discover if they’re used any more. And when they do that, they discover maybe 1% of those are still being used. That’s completely unacceptable.
It’s unacceptable not to know when users give up on an online service. And it is unacceptable not to know why they give up. Of course it’s unacceptable that they have to give up, because the service doesn’t fulfil their needs.
And it’s unacceptable to have a successful online service that sends out reminders to use that service through the post. OK? It goes on. Millions of times. And linked to that, it’s completely unacceptable not to be able to communicate with customers securely, electronically, when technology clearly allows that to happen.
It is unacceptable not to be able to do our work from any device we choose. That’s possible, and has been for some time, and it’s outrageous we can’t do that.
It is unacceptable to pay, and these figures are PAC figures, up to £3,500 per person per year for a desktop service.
It is unacceptable for your corporate desktop to take 10 minutes to boot up, and the same amount of time to close down. But that’s the truth of what goes on every day in government IT, and I suspect public sector [sic] too.
It’s unacceptable for staff to be unable to access Twitter or YouTube when they use those services for what they do; and it’s unacceptable for call centre staff not able to access the very service they are supporting in the call centre. These all sound funny, but when you think of the consequences of that, it’s truly dreadful.
And I think it’s unacceptable in this day and age to ensure people are working by restricting their access to the Internet. If truly we can’t measure people by outputs, where on earth are we?
It is unacceptable that 80% of government IT is controlled by five corporations. It is unacceptable that some organisations outsource their IT strategy in government.
And it’s unacceptable that, to change one line of code, in one application, can cost up to £50,000.
It is unacceptable to wait 12 weeks to get a server commissioned for use. And that’s pretty commonplace. When you think in terms of using a service like Amazon, the most problematic thing on the critical path is the time it takes you to get your credit card out of your wallet and enter the details on-screen.
And above all, and at the heart of a lot of this, it is unacceptable not to engage directly with the most agile, forward thinking suppliers that are in the SME market today, and not in the suppliers that we’ve been using.
Things have changed, and we haven’t.

Did he really say all that? Yes, he did. Alan Mather got a rough transcript up last week – which I’ve used a basis for the above. I wanted to get a searchable, indexable record of the exact words used. And I’m glad I did: it turns out, Chris used the words ‘outrageous’ and ‘completely unacceptable’ much more than Alan had recorded.
And now, for the removal of any doubt, courtesy of the Cabinet Office’s own digital engagement blog, here’s definitive audio proof.

Matt WordPress vs Dries Drupal

If you have any interest in WordPress and/or Drupal as a technology, or open source more generally, I urge you to find (at least) half an hour to watch this video from a conference in Houston, Texas a couple of weeks back: it’s Dries Buytaert, the project lead for Drupal and Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress sharing a platform for the first time ever.
If you’re hoping for fisticuffs, you’ll be somewhat disappointed. But it’s fascinating to hear the two luminaries explaining their perspectives – the many things which unite them, and the few aspects on which they diverge. It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the differing philosophies, structures, businesses and approaches behind the two world-leading platforms… and the strength of the open-source model in general.
There are some audio problems at the start of the recording, but do please bear with it. You won’t regret it.

Word Up Whitehall II: bookings now [SOLD OUT]

Last week, I announced plans to host a second Word Up Whitehall event, for civil servants and their most friendly external developers to spend a day talking about WordPress. The event will take place on Monday 7 November, and will be hosted by the good folks at the Department of Health.
Last year, all the spaces were claimed within 24 hours, which I have to confess, came as quite a shock. So this year, we gave you a week’s notice, to decide who to send along. That week has now passed… so it’s time to sign up.

Remember, we ask departments to send along a maximum of 3 people: it’s not a huge space, and we’d like as many departments as possible to be represented.

Announcing Word Up Whitehall II

Pic: Julia Chandler

This time last year, we organised an event called Word Up Whitehall: a day-long seminar for people working in UK central government, who were either already using WordPress or seriously considering doing so. An opportunity to take time out, listen to people’s experiences, share some ideas, and hopefully come away inspired – or certainly, better informed.
I managed to persuade a bunch of people to stand up at the front, and share their ideas and experiences: some from inside government, but also some from the private sector, under strict instructions not to promote any commercial interests. (Well, not directly anyway.) BIS very kindly provided a venue, and numerous people generously chipped in a few quid to cover the few costs. Large quantities of donuts were ordered.
When I announced the event, the reaction was startling, and instant. All the places were snapped up within 24 hours. A waiting list began to form. People started sending me begging emails.
As for the day itself – yeah, it seemed to go pretty well, judging by the day’s tweets anyway. It was recently described by one attendee as ‘the most useful and, dare I say it, exciting (!) conference I’ve attended’. It provided ‘a moment of epiphany’ for one Whitehall department in particular, leading to them adopting WordPress as their principal online publishing platform. And even though I was worried we’d over-ordered on donuts, they all disappeared.
So – who’s up for doing it all again?
WordPress itself has moved on considerably in the last year; and departments’ use of it is becoming deeper and more sophisticated. Defra, Health and Transport are all now running their main departmental web presences on WordPress, using multisite arrangements of varying complexity. The Cabinet Office team have taken to WordPress with some gusto, with projects including the Red Tape Challenge and a reskin of the Number10 site. And in the next few weeks, we’ll be seeing another of the larger departments adopting WordPress in a big way.
But of course, the biggest news in the last twelve months has been Alphagov and the adoption of the ‘single domain’ strategy, including a ‘shared corporate publishing platform aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments’. With that work now getting properly underway, now seems like the right time to talk about where WordPress could or should fit into that picture.
Get your diary out.
Stephen Hale’s team at the Department of Health have kindly agreed to host a second Word Up Whitehall event, to take place at their Skipton House offices (Elephant & Castle) on Monday 7 November 2011.
It’ll be the exact same rules of engagement as last time:

  • We’ll start at about 10am, and finish at 4pm – giving people a bit of time to call by the office, before or after. Lunch will be provided. (As will donuts, but don’t tell DH’s five-a-day people.)
  • Space is limited, so it’s only open to central government people, and please, only two people (or three at a push) from any one department. We had this same rule last time, and people respected it beautifully.
  • If your department has done something interesting with WordPress this year, and you think other people might benefit from hearing about it, this is your moment. I will be approaching certain obvious candidates in advance, but don’t let that stop you volunteering first. It might even guarantee you a ticket.
  • Private sector people, contact me directly if you’d like to attend – terms and conditions will be applied.

I’ll be opening the ticket booking facility on Wednesday next week, 28 September. That gives you some time to think about who’s most appropriate to come along from your department. And if you’ve got something you’d like to present, let me know: the sooner the better.