Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

GDS defends bespoke approach

I seemed to cause a bit of a stir a couple of weeks back, when I challenged the decision to develop a new Government [web publishing] Machine from scratch, rather than basing it on an existing third-party platform. My blog post got quite a few comments; and there were some interesting exchanges on Twitter too. And now, to the Government Digital Service team's great credit, they've written a post on their own blog, responding to the challenge.

James Stewart's piece opens on a rather sour note, choosing to reference the Americans' adoption of Drupal first, before acknowledging the UK's primarily WordPress-based initiatives. The fact is, for once, Britain led the way on this. Perhaps if we'd had a high-profile champion like Tim Berners-Lee or Martha Lane Fox, we might have had greater, wider recognition. Instead, we just got on with it, delivering projects quickly, cheaply and quietly.

The choice of WordPress-based projects to namecheck in that opening paragraph is also a little odd. James is of course correct to observe that it powers 'numerous central government sites'; some traditional blogs, some more complex. But he doesn't mention the four central government departments who are already using WordPress to power their core departmental publishing - Defra, Transport, Health and the Wales Office. Nor is there a mention for the Cabinet Office's use of Drupal. Altogether a slightly odd omission in the context.

James proceeds to list the reasons why they took a bespoke approach, but each time, concedes that yes, they probably could have used WordPress or Drupal.

We’ve got a very strong focus on opening up APIs. While both Drupal and WordPress can be used to offer APIs... adding the range of APIs we’re aspiring to would require significant development work, and to make them perform as we’d like we’d need to work around the overheads introduced by WordPress and Drupal.

[On metrics:] Again, that’s certainly possible with both Drupal and WordPress, but to do it effectively we’d be writing a considerable amount of custom code.

Perhaps most compelling for me is our focus on admin systems... Here too we could customise any open source content management system to do the job, but it’s highly likely we’d either have to make significant changes to core code or develop a parallel admin system at which point much of the advantage of starting with the base system would be lost.

Or if I might paraphrase, somewhat provocatively: they're writing lots of custom code because otherwise, they'd have to write lots of custom code.

So on some level at least, it boils down to a comparison on the basis of cost and complexity. 'We’re choosing to start by assembling components rather than customising a package,' James writes in summary - implying a conclusion that their bespoke approach will work out easier / quicker / cheaper / more sustainable. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. So much of it boils down to the individuals you hire, and their varying levels of experience with various components.

James concludes with a pledge that 'we’ll be contributing code back to the wider community (whether in the form of new components or patches to existing ones) as we go along.' And of course, that's to be welcomed. Reuse of code is good. But this doesn't really tackle the point I tried to make about maximising reuse of the code: a point subsequently made, rather more forcefully, by Matt Jukes.

I think the work happening in GDS will have a real impact on web teams throughout the public sector but it will take a long time for it to leak through to those of us out in the NDPBs and I think I’ll switch to treating the work they are doing there as something as different to my job as that of a Silicon Valley start-up.

Ultimately then, it's a question of trust. Trust our judgement; trust our assessment of the relative levels of effort; trust our staff and project management skills; trust that the (back end) benefits will trickle down eventually. And looking at the CVs of those hired to do the work, there's certainly ample reason to put your trust in them.

Will they succeed where others have failed previously? We'll find out in due course. And genuinely, sincerely, I wish them well. We may disagree on the approach: but we all want to reach the same destination.

Friday 30 September 2011

Word Up Whitehall II: another 24 hour sellout

Just as with last year's inaugural event, all the available places at Word Up Whitehall II were snapped up within 24 hours.

We'll have representatives from a dozen government departments (depending on how you count the various No10/Cabinet Office connections): and once again, my thanks to everyone for obeying the informal 'maximum three per department' rule.

I do still have a couple of places held back, just in case anyone has missed out. But you will have to approach me directly, and make a case for why you need one of them.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

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.


Tuesday 20 September 2011

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.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

UKTI’s TechCityUK site: 100 WordPress pages, £53k is a website produced by UK Trade & Investment to promote the 'entrepreneurial cluster' of technology startups in the Shoreditch / Old Street area of east London. Judging by its blog, it launched on 19 July this year. Google currently reckons it has 89 pages. And according to an FOI response published this morning, it has already cost £53,351.

The FOI enquiry, by Milo Yiannopoulos, revealed the following breakdown:

  • £37,000 for website development and hosting
  • £9,595 for content and
  • £6,756 for security and penetration testing

The site is built on WordPress, and runs as a child theme of Twenty Eleven. On the face of it, it's a very high figure for a fairly straightforward WordPress build - but it's a pity the costs haven't been broken down a bit further. Without a better breakdown, I'm reluctant to join the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the headline figure; although you'll find plenty of that on Twitter. But I will say it poses some interesting questions, at the very least.

The stylesheet reveals that it was built by a company called Creativeworks, who list a couple of previous UKTI projects in their portfolio - but conspicuously little online work. (Good spot, Harry.) A traceroute shows it's currently hosted at Zen Internet, seemingly on a dedicated box (according to a myipneighbors check).

Interestingly, the domain name was registered in March 2011, but was not listed among the three new websites approved by the Cabinet Office in the past year. Presumably because it uses a .com domain name. See, there it is again: the mismatch between 'new website' and 'new domain'. The Cabinet Office press release of last June was quite clear:

As part of the Government’s efficiency drive, all of the existing 820 government funded websites will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better.  No new websites will be permitted except for those that pass through a stringent exceptions process for special cases, and are cleared by the Efficiency board which is co-chaired by Mr Maude and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Note: 'no new websites'. Not 'no new domain names'. So did the Cabinet Office approve it, and forget to mention it? Or did UKTI not seek permission? Or does that ministerial commitment not actually go any further than new domain names? - and if not, perhaps the press release could be corrected?

The one cost which is broken down sufficiently is the £6,756 spent on security and penetration testing. Or to put it another way, two weeks' full-time work by a specialist consultant. It's possible, I suppose, although a bit over-the-top for a fairly basic site containing (as far as I can tell) no personal or confidential information.

I wonder what they did, apart from remove the 'generator' line from the page header, and activate SSL on wp-admin? Would it be useful to other departments running their own WordPress installs?

Or is it - finally - time for government to step up, and provide a centrally-managed (and centrally-secured) WordPress multisite installation for such small-scale uses? The £6k security spend wouldn't have been necessary; and I wonder how much of the £37k could have been saved, too. It's not that government can't afford to do this; it can't afford not to.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Cabinet Office approves only 3 new domains since election

In an answer (ahem) to a PQ from Tom Watson today, Francis Maude announces that only three requests for new domains have been granted since the new government took office in May 2010. These were:

  • (which you might have heard of)
  • (replacing
  • (replacing, reflecting the Department's change of name)

OK, but strictly, that's not what Tom asked: the question was about 'requests for the creation of new websites', not new domain name registrations. What an unfortunate mix-up! - which I think we all saw coming. And yes, for the record, the remit of the Efficiency and Reform Group was for 'new websites', not new domains, as this press release from June 2010 makes quite clear.

Even so, the response still fails to quote a total number of requests (for whatever you choose to define as a 'new website') made to the ERG, citing - guess what? - 'disproportionate cost'. Really? Doesn't sounds like their filing system is tremendously efficient, does it.

[Historical footnote: I think it was Alan Mather who came up with the first Big Scary Number of government websites - this blog post from 2003 quoted a count of 2,643 domains, which was frequently - and wrongly - cited as being 2,643 websites. But even in that same post, I see Alan uses the words 'domains' and 'sites' interchangeably.]

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Mike Bracken on GDS structure and the power of precedents

Computer Weekly have posted an interview with Mike Bracken: a fairly chatty (and somewhat predictable) getting-to-know-you piece, but with a few interesting snippets.

He reflects on the problems with the e-petitions relaunch:

For example, with e-petitions, no-one could predict just how fast that demand would go up. Consequently we learnt a lot about scaling and applications within the government estate. We reacted literally within an hour to sort out [the site crashing]. If someone else is doing that for you, you don't learn. Managing a contract is a distinct skill but actually managing the service is different.

Was it really so unpredictable? Ah well, never mind. There's also some detail about the structure of the nascent Government Digital Service:

The five areas of GDS will include DirectGov, which will be the most prominent constituent; identity assurance, which will identify people consuming government services; BetaGov, headed up by Tom Loosemore and formerly known as the AlphaGov team building a prototype for a single government website; digital engagement; and the innovation team.

Total headcount within the GDS will be 'up to 200', but the budget across those five areas has 'yet to be finalised'. (Incidentally: it was confirmed in a PQ issued today that the GDS budget for 2011-12 would be £22.3 million.)

Mike also makes a point about the need to set precedents, a point I've made here numerous times in the past:

Launching successful products and pointing at them as examples of what can be done will be key. One can do lots of formal learning, but the simple way to build that culture of expertise is take people on a journey with you, which also means failing and learning on the way.

I've learned from my own experience that this is really the only way to take organisations with you. Find a modestly-sized but reasonably high-profile project, whose manager buys into the need for change. Make a success of that one, whatever it takes; then sell everything else you're planning on the back of it.

The argument of 'well, it was good enough for X' is pretty primitive; but it works better than anything else I've ever tried. I've found few teams who really cared about 'the journey': most are only really interested in knowing the (approximate) destination, and seeing some evidence that you know the route.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

How we could all benefit from Betagov’s accessibility work

Accessibility is the subject of the latest post on the Government Digital Service blog: having had their fingers burned in the 'alphagov' phase of work, by consciously ignoring the subject, it's clear they want to be seen to make it a priority into the beta phase.

Léonie Watson writes:

Tom Loosemore has said: “… we want to make the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been”. Those of you who know something about web development on this scale will understand what a challenge that is. Those of you who know me will also recognise it’s a goal I thoroughly believe in. So, what are we doing to achieve that goal? Simply put, we’re planning accessibility in from the outset and documenting the accessibility steps we take throughout the website’s lifetime.

I've posted a comment on her article, which I'll reproduce here for the record. You'll instantly note a common theme with my recent inflammatory post about departmental publishing.

As you’ve noted, accessibility is very hard to get right: you’re conceding that you might not even score a 'perfect 10', even though you’re 'planning [it] in from the outset'. And as [previous commenter] Keith says, for small organisations, it’s prohibitively expensive to even buy the rulebook, before you even begin to implement the rules.

If government is hiring experts, consulting widely with users, and (hopefully) delivering exemplary results, it seems like a tragic waste for the benefits to be locked into a single website.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if one of the outputs from your work were to be a reusable, customisable front-end theme for an open-source, widely-used publishing platform, like WordPress or Drupal? You could enforce certain ‘must have’ accessibility practices in the page templates, whilst still giving people plenty of scope to make it look and feel like their own site – via a parent/child theme arrangement, or a ‘theme options’ screen.

You could then release that theme publicly – giving web developers everywhere a robust base on which to build their sites. Imagine all those common accessibility headaches being solved, before the first line of custom code is written.

(I’m not suggesting this would solve all problems instantly, of course. And there’s still plenty of scope to cause all sorts of new problems in, say, a child theme’s CSS. But you’d certainly be giving people one heck of a head start.)

The fact is, very few organisations have any real motivation to get accessibility right. But Government has a moral obligation to do so. And you’re spending our taxes to do it… so I’d argue we all have a right to enjoy the fruits of that labour. Central and local government, public and private sector.

Issuing a list of rules seems a very old-fashioned way to encourage / enforce good practice. You have an opportunity here, to do something much smarter than that.


Monday 5 September 2011

BBC’s study of Whitehall open source use yields little

By their own admission, it doesn't unveil any shocking secrets: but I suppose it's worth noting the BBC's attempt to investigate Whitehall's use of open source software, or lack thereof. In truth, it really only highlights that the picture is rather chaotic, with little centralised control. I can also guarantee it's less than comprehensive. But would you expect anything else?

The answers are rather vague; but then again, so was the question. What exactly does it mean, to 'acquire' an open source product?

By way of illustration: the Beeb's list - (initially) published, without a hint of irony, as an Excel file - tells me that there is precisely one copy of Firefox inside DCMS, plus an unspecified number in DH, MOD and DFID... but none, apparently, in DfT. Clearly that's ridiculous. But even if Firefox appeared on everyone's list, what exactly would that tell us? That there's a copy which the web team use for occasional testing? That it's available as an option on every desktop? Or that it's the department's default, or even its exclusive browser?

And anyway, where does open source start and finish? What about the open source code in your website? your network hardware? mobile phones? satnavs? Macs? inside Windows, even (albeit accidental)?

Puffbox, if you hadn't already spotted it, is very big on open source as a principle. But I've taken a very specific approach to the subject: concentrating on one specific product, for one specific purpose. Why? Because it's much easier to frame the question that way. And because that particular product is a pretty good case study for open source done right.

The plan is, we set a precedent. Prove to people that the open source model can produce first-class results. Show how an open source basis can stimulate smarter and faster innovation. Then it becomes easier to take the next step, and the next, and the next...

Sunday 4 September 2011

Bang goes our 100% record

It's with some regret that we note the end of Puffbox's winning streak, as regards web work for political candidates.

Thus far, every client who has stood for election to a political office of some kind has been successful. But our run came to an end on Friday night, with the announcement that Mike Tuffrey had fallen just short in his bid to win the Lib Dems' nomination for London Mayor. Brian Paddick came top on first preferences by just 57 votes; in the head-to-head second round, after transfers, Paddick took it by 91. (In case you're wondering, Lembit Opik finished bottom of the poll, with just 8% of first preference votes.)

It's a bit of a shame, as we had some really nice enhancements ready to go on Mike's website tomorrow morning: think MailChimp plus Gravity Forms plus a custom post type and taxonomy, with a bit of ajax magic on top. Some nice design work from my regular collaborator, Matt Budd. (Oh, there was also talk of a weather-sensitive homepage; but we ran out of time.) But whilst they won't ever go live as we envisaged last week, I'm sure they will appear online in some form or other, in projects to come.

Well, maybe not the weather-sensitive homepage.

It's been a fun project to work on, and has taken me into areas I hadn't previously explored in much depth. Many thanks to Mike for having us on board; and for giving us so much creative freedom throughout.

Now... I wonder what technology is running on? ;)