The run-up to the Olympic Games starts in earnest today, with the arrival of the flame on British shores - and Whitehall is opening up its dedicated Government Olympic Communication operation, providing 'a single point of contact for London 2012-related media enquiries ... until the end of the Paralympic Games on 9 September.' There's a dedicated press team, drawn from across Government - and a dedicated website, which I'm genuinely proud to say we built.
DCMS asked us for a site which could draw together the many streams of information - text, photo and audio - already being produced in government, and make them easy for journalists to explore. Many departments were issuing press briefings, or posting fantastic material on Flickr or YouTube, but there was no easy way to browse through it, or conduct targeted searches.
Cue some WordPress-powered magic.
A trained eye will spot our heavy use of custom post types. Some, like 'backgrounder' were fairly straightforward, identical to posts or pages, but separated out for convenience. Others, like 'theme' and 'region' were more complex - and were also sync'ed up to custom taxonomies, allowing us to 'tag' other post types as being relevant to a given theme/region. We then interfere with WordPress's default selection of display templates, to show collated results pages: editorial on one side, search results on the other.
Here's an example: a 'theme' page, showing relevant results from the other post types.
There are specific custom post types for photos - specifically Flickr; and videos - specifically YouTube. (Why these two? Because pretty much every department is already using them.) And in both cases, we've written custom code to interface directly with the host sites' APIs, making the process of adding new material a breeze.
Let's take YouTube, for example. Editors simply click 'Add New', then paste the URL of a YouTube clip's page into a clearly labelled box. We extract the clip's unique ID, then query the YouTube API to get its thumbnail, which we save as the WP post's featured image; and the YouTube-recommended embed code. Couldn't be easier.
Then, when you view the clip's page on the site, the video gets embedded automatically - and we display the YouTube embed code, for journalists or bloggers to take away to their own sites.
We let the journalists and bloggers customise the embed's dimensions via an ajax call back to YouTube; so if you need a clip to be a certain size, we'll recalculate the width and height accordingly. We store your preference using a cookie - meaning that now, every time you look at a video page, the embed code is pre-customised for you.
Then there's the multi-dimensional search function. Each post type has a number of taxonomies associated with it: theme, region, originating department, and so on. So when you're browsing, say, the photo archives, you can specify that you want photos on a given theme... or from a given region... or by a given department... or in a given month. Individually, or in combination.
It's the first time we've tackled this kind of 'advanced searching' functionality, and it probably doesn't sound all that complicated: but I can assure you, it is.
It's also the first time we've delivered a responsive design on a client site. We originally planned three versions: phone, tablet and desktop. But a late change of code base, and (to be honest) questions over its real value, led us to drop the tablet view. For the most part, it's just been a case of un-floating the various blocks in the layout grid - but a few elements, like the primary navigation and homepage carousel, needed a bit more work. Give it a try if you've got a smartphone handy; or resize your (non-IE) browser to a really narrow size. It should kick in at 480px width.
Behind the scenes, working with our very good friends at CatN Hosting, we've added a Varnish cache - just in case there's a sudden huge leap in traffic. Hopefully it won't ever be required. But for the same reason they're putting missiles on top of east London tower blocks, we're planning for a worst-case scenario.
My thanks to Nick at DCMS/GOC for commissioning us, and protecting us from the internal wrangling. To Joe at CatN, for leaping into action when called upon, and for very kindly volunteering to help with Varnish. And to the G-Cloud process, directly and indirectly, for its help in buying Joe's services. To the other clients who, knowingly or not, contributed ideas and code to the site's development. But most of all, to designer Laura Kalbag, who developed the visuals and did the bulk of the front-end functionality. You're all wonderful.
Let the Games begin.
This has been a Code For The People production.
There's a new website in the civilservice.gov.uk domain - but because it's at a subdomain, of course, it doesn't count as a 'new' site. (That's an observation, not a criticism; I'm as guilty of doing this as anyone.)
Created by DWP 'in their role as leaders of Govt agile adoption on the ICT Strategy CIO Delivery Board', it's a community site which sets out to provide a space for 'people in the public and private sectors to discuss, share and get advice and answers on adopting agile in UK Government projects'. As such, it ticks a box from the ICT Strategy Implementation Plan.
Naturally I'm delighted to see they've built it using BuddyPress. It looks like a fairly 'vanilla' installation for the moment, running using the free BuddyPress Corporate theme, with minimal customisation. I've also spotted the Q&A premium plugin in there too. The IP address reveals it's the handiwork of Harry Metcalfe's DXW crew.
They're doing the right thing by just charging headlong into it; it seems like all the Facebook-esque functionality - personal profiles, groups, forums (?), friending, etc - has been enabled. Some of it will work, some won't. But since it's all in there already, you may as well give it a try.
I'd also endorse the decision to work with a ready-made theme: I recently looked into developing a BuddyPress theme from scratch, and soon gave up on the idea. It's terrifying. If you really want to customise the look & feel, do it as a Child Theme.
The fate of any BuddyPress is dictated by the momentum it builds (or fails to build). The site, or more accurately its membership, needs to provide good enough reason for people to come back regularly, and contribute while they're there. I wish them well.
We've got a BuddyPress-based government project of our own in the works; the development work is close to completion, but we're facing a few bureaucratic hurdles. I'm hoping for progress in the next couple of weeks; naturally, I'll blog about it in due course.
This year's big UK WordCamp will be in Edinburgh; tickets are due to go on sale in the next few days. It's a beautiful city, and the venue looks magnificent. But obviously, it poses a few logistical problems for those of us based in south-east England.
So I was thinking... does anyone fancy taking the Caledonian Sleeper service overnight from London Euston? Tickets for that weekend are now on sale; at the time of writing, it'll come to £100 return. However, if we can get a group of 10 together, we can probably get a decent discount... not to mention the benefit of each other's fine company. (And the prospect of being the world's first Mobile WordCamp!)
If you're interested, add a comment to this blog post (or send me an email via the contact form). Obviously, we can't do anything about it until tickets actually go on sale, but it would be a good idea to get a feel for possible numbers.
Just to close off the story from a couple of weeks ago... as you'll almost certainly know already, Boris Johnson won the London mayoral election. And as pledged, he has now returned to tweeting as @MayorOfLondon - an account which, we have now confirmed, belongs to the Office of Mayor, and not Boris personally.
I'm putting jobs & economic growth at the heart of my mayoralty for a more successful & prosperous city bit.ly/IAwmrg
— Boris Johnson (@MayorofLondon) May 8, 2012
Consistency of government departments' visual identity has been on the cards for quite some time. In such austere times it's increasingly indefensible not to; it's how the citizen sees it anyway; and there's evidence, from home and abroad, that it can be beneficial. I blogged back in 2010 that, with a new government taking power, it was an idea whose time had come; and the Single Government Domain project was always likely to be the trigger.
A couple of months back, I received a tipoff that the new logo style had been agreed; and that departments were starting to factor it into future comms plans - but I didn't want to blog about it until the details were made public. Looking through the GDS Github account this morning, I came across a publicly accessible PDF file entitled 'HMG Identity System', carrying Cabinet Office branding, dated January 2012, and uploaded in the last fortnight. It confirms the tipoffs I had received.
If you've been following the evolution of the gov.uk project, it won't come as much surprise to learn that each department gets a single identifying colour. (Health get two - one of which is NHS Blue.) For the most part, the colours will be broadly familiar from existing departmental palettes: Education's orange is the most striking exception. Departments' sub-agencies will also fall into the same system, and will inherit the colour of their parent department.
All logos are to be dropped in favour of a digital-friendly Royal Coat of Arms, except for those departments whose current identities use a particular 'heraldic badge or crest' - the Home Office and MoD are noted specifically, but I assume the Wales and Scotland Offices would be covered by this too. (NIO's use of a crest seems somewhat half-hearted, so I guess they'll use the common one.)
There will also be 'auxiliary icons' for use in certain circumstances: the crown as seen already atop gov.uk, and a somewhat unpleasantly squared-off Union Jack.
The document says it can be used in either portrait or landscape orientation, but there's no indication of how it will handle extra-long names such as Defra's.
It's very simple, surprisingly so in fact. The choice of typeface - Helvetica Neue, I assume? - doesn't immediately say British, in the way that Gill Sans might have done. It'll be very easy to forge; and, I fear, very easy for arms-length bodies to get wrong. But purely subjectively, I do quite like it.
Update, 11 May:
The 'new look' is in fact already 'out there', if you know where to look. I've had it confirmed by the Dept for Education that they've been using it on their website since 'the start of April', making them the first dept to do so. However, implementation is patchy: the 'old' DfE identity is still in evidence: I'm seeing an old logo as their website's favicon; on their Facebook page; and despite their claims to have changed it, as their Twitter icon and profile background.
There's also photographic evidence of the new style in use by the Teaching Agency, a DfE executive agency.
I haven't yet found evidence of any other departments using it yet. If you have, do please leave a comment.
A bit of extra background for anyone who's interested:
- The Dutch government rebranded all ministries with a consistent (royal crest) logo and typeface in late 2007. The work was led by design agency Studio Dumbar. (Warning: Flash heavy.)
- Canada and Germany have had consistent departmental identities for ages. France adopted a common logo (Marianne) in 1999, but its application is somewhat variable.
- The introduction of a consistent NHS identity was exemplary: 95% of people now recognise it spontaneously. This website explains what they did, and why.
- The departments of the Northern Ireland Executive share a common visual identity (hexagon-based logo and typeface): but the website about it seems to have been rationalised. The Scottish government doesn't appear to have any kind of identity for its Directorates... which I guess is consistency of another kind.
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.]
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.
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.
It came as quite a shock a few weeks ago, when I realised Puffbox Ltd was fast approaching its fifth birthday - specifically, the fifth anniversary of its incorporation at Companies House. Perhaps because I'm a parent of two young girls, five years feels like a significant milestone: it's the age at which a child starts 'proper' schooling, and begins the journey down the long road to adulthood. It also marks the longest time I've ever stayed in a job.
Over those five years, I've learned to go with the flow. When I started Puffbox, the plan was to offer advisory services to government and/or large corporate clients. But I soon realised that people weren't short of advice: what they needed were people who could actually be trusted to make stuff. And you may find this hard to believe, but I didn't start out with an attachment to any particular technology platform either.
I've also learned that I'm good at spotting the currents within that flow. Looking back, I've done pretty well at picking out the technologies - and just as importantly, the people - who were going to have real, lasting impact in my field. Occasionally I find myself trawling back through my blog archives, nervously checking to see if I dismissed something (or someone) which went on to be huge... and to my great relief, finding very few examples thereof.
A couple of years ago, I could see that people's perception of me was changing. I used to be a government person who happened to know a bit about WordPress. I'm now a WordPress person who happens to know a bit about government. Perhaps that's inevitable, given that it's six or seven years since I was last a Civil Servant. Maybe it's pure coincidence that it coincides (broadly) with the 2010 general election, and the ushering-in of the new order. Maybe it's a mark of the growing maturity of my chosen technology platform, and the community around it.
And so, once again, it's time to let the flow take me somewhere new.
I first met Simon Wheatley at the first UK WordCamp, back in 2008. His presentation on WordPress plugin development was truly fantastic: it was the first time anyone had explained the process in terms I could understand. His code wasn't bad either. I started to bring him in to help on projects which were beyond my own technical capability - like DFID's blogs site, launched three and half years ago, and still going strong.
As many of you will know, for the last couple of years, we've been working as a partnership in all but name. Nearly every large-scale job has been a joint effort. We speak the same language; in a lot of areas, our skills and experience complement each other beautifully; and he's very understanding, when I commit heinous crimes against web development.
So last summer, after much beating around the bush, we agreed it was time to formally merge our operations, into a new and explictly WordPress-centric business. Our projects are reaching a scale where they need more than a 'one man band' to support them. It will be more reassuring to clients - and indeed to ourselves! - if the two of us are legally bound together, and it gives us a platform upon which to build a proper company, whatever that means.
On 25 January this year - a date we chose deliberately - Simon and I formed that new company: Code For The People Ltd. And with the start of the new tax year, and the closure of several public sector projects, now is the time to activate it.
The name is deliberately provocative. It's a statement of our confidence in the open source business model, and our belief in building websites to suit the people who will use them - and indeed, those who will run them - rather than the technology. It's also a commitment to keep giving back to the community of which we're a part: you'll note, for example, that Mr Wheatley's name features once again on the Credits for the forthcoming WordPress v3.4 release.
What does this mean in practice? At least to begin with - and who knows what'll happen after? - things will continue as they always have done. It'll be me, Simon and a handful of hand-picked contacts, doing the same basic things, in the same basic way. Any projects or contracts which were started under the Puffbox name will be completed in the Puffbox name, and will be invoiced as Puffbox. However, any new work will be in the name of Code For The People. Once all our current contracts reach completion, Puffbox Ltd will bow out gracefully.
I’ve spoken in the past about retiring from the front line: I just can’t see myself coding into my 40s, and with various new things coming along - responsive design, HTML5, LESS - now seems like a good time. The new company obviously gives me a path towards that exit, but I doubt it’ll be happening any time soon.
We'll still play our part in the 'gov geek' community. We're already quietly working on a couple of big government jobs, for delivery in the next couple of months. And yes, puffbox.com will continue as my personal blog, with a particular focus on government and politics. But we're doing more and more work outside government these days; and for the moment at least, I don't feel government needs us in the way it did a year or two back. (And to be quite frank, it told us as much at this year's UKGovCamp.) Mission accomplished? - maybe, maybe.
To all those who have inspired, supported, contributed to and done business with Puffbox Ltd over the last five years - from the bottom of my heart, thank you.