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.
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.
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.
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.
Much consternation in certain political circles this afternoon, as Boris Johnson renames his Twitter account... and takes a quarter of a million people's details over to his election campaign HQ.
Johnson was elected on 4 May 2008. His first tweet came on 8 May 2008 ('Setting up social marketing accounts!') - although it's not entirely clear what username the account used when it was created. In January 2009, though, he changed that username to MayorOfLondon. And the account has been quoted since at least May 2009 in official City Hall press releases, as his official account. Or in the case of that May 2009 press release, 'the Mayor's Twitter site'.
Before today's change, the URL associated with the account was http://www.london.gov.uk/ - and the biography read:
City Government for Greater London under the auspices of the Mayor of London
Could it have sounded more official?
(Something similar has happened to his Facebook account too; facebook.com/borisjohnson is now adorned with BackBoris2012 logos, and contains no history prior to 17 March 2012. And yes, that Facebook URL has similarly been promoted in the past as his official presence.)
In response, there's a statement on the BackBoris website:
As some of you may have noticed, earlier today Boris changed the name of his Twitter account from @MayorofLondon to @BorisJohnson. While the name of the account may have changed, rest assured that the account is still - and has always been - controlled by Boris.
No City Hall resources will be used to update or maintain the account - that would be against the rules. Given we're now in the official election period, this change is being made so there can be no question of Boris using official resources to campaign.
Of course, those who no longer wish to follow the account are welcome to "unfollow" at any time.
Of course, it's not the fact that future City Hall resources will be used; it's that past City Hall resources have already been used to build up a significant following. And the last line is somewhat ill-advised, in my opinion.
I'd be very interested to find out from people at City Hall - or indeed, from HM Government's Deputy Director of Digital Engagement, Emer Coleman who used to be City Hall's head of digital projects - as to whether City Hall thought it 'owned' the account on behalf of the office of Mayor.
If the account was always personal, Boris should have used his personal name. By using the name of his elected office, the natural assumption is unquestionably that you are following the individual in his/her elected capacity - as was the case with the Prime Ministerial Twitter account.
Here's a tip. If you're working in a government web team, I strongly advise you get something in writing to confirm who exactly owns any Ministerial accounts - rapidly.
Update: a climbdown of sorts. Boris has tweeted:
To be clear- @borisjohnson will only be used for discussing mayoral duties. To follow me on the campaign trail, follow @backboris2012
'As he entered the campaign he was determined to ensure there was no confusion between him as Mayor and him as a candidate and therefore changed the name of his Twitter account.
‘He did not expect this openness and honesty to have created such hysteria.
‘So in case there is even one Londoner who has a problem with what he did, he will not use that account for the campaign and instead can be followed from the political front on @BackBoris2012.’
Has he reverted back to being @MayorOfLondon? No. But the username hasn't been abandoned - someone, and you have to hope it's someone close to Boris and/or City Hall, has bagged it. Hopefully for safe keeping. We don't want this happening again, do we.
Updated update: Somewhat inevitably, Boris has - pardon the pun - backed down. He's now reverted to using @MayorOfLondon as his account name, and the BorisJohnson account has gone blank again.
I've just started work on a project to build a first-ever intranet for a small UK government entity. I've been waiting for ages for an opportunity to put BuddyPress, the semi-official WordPress add-on which promises a 'social network in a box' experience, to the test... and this is it.
It's still early days in the thought process - but the plan is to make heavy use of BuddyPress 'groups', to generate a personalised real-time view of activity in the areas in which you have a specific personal interest. Each team or department would be a group. Each cross-departmental project would be a group. There might also be groups based on physical location, social activity, union membership and so on. Some would be mandatory (eg 'all staff'); some would be open for anyone to join; some would be invite-only, or totally hidden.
The BuddyPress 'activity stream' filters itself automatically according to each signed-in user's group memberships; so your homepage (tbc) view would consist only of updates - news, forum discussions, events, document uploads, new members etc - from the groups you belong to. No two users' views would be identical. It's easy to see how powerful this could be; and in a post-Facebook world, it shouldn't be an unfamiliar concept.
Anyway... I started preparing wireframes yesterday, and hit an immediate question. What should go in the 'logo' space, reserved by convention in the top left corner?
Most intranets I've had the misfortune to use in the past have had names. But I wondered, did people actually use those names when referring to them? When asked 'where can I find that document?', would people generally answer: 'On the intranet.' or 'On [insert name here].'? Personally, I'd instinctively say the former myself; but after 17 years in this business, I'm used to the fact that I'm not 'normal'.
So I asked Twitter. And to be honest, I was surprised by the response.
Almost without exception, people responded that yes, their intranet did have a name... ranging from the fairly dull ('Cabweb' at the Cabinet Office) to the fantastic ('Narnia' at the National Archives!) to the quite unfathomable (one digital agency chose, er, 'Agnes'). And yes, people used the name in common parlance.
One or two people reported failed attempts to name their intranet: but the names they mentioned - '[organisation name] Online', or 'The Hub' - seemed very generic. It's almost as if people will make an effort to use the name, if you've clearly made an effort to make one up. If the name seems half-heartedly conceived, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the staff don't buy into it.
I'm not claiming any scientific validity for these results; but I'm left in no doubt that I'm going to have to think up a name.
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.