Foreign Office finally switches to WordPress

Earlier this week, the Foreign Office rebuilt its blogs.fco.gov.uk site. It doesn’t look much different. But the screenshot above isn’t the significant one. The one below is.

Yes, after some gentle encouragement on the pages of this blog, it’s great to see the Foreign Office moving off the Apache Roller blogging platform – What, you’ve never heard of it? Exactly. – and on to the blogging platform of choice, WordPress.

Like a lot of government projects, the brief has clearly been to keep the visuals almost exactly as-was. But Steph Gray has rebuilt the site using an HTML5-based theme, deployed on a multisite setup at Bytemark (by the look of it), and has managed to migrate 50+ blogs’ worth of content too.

I can see a few things we’d have done differently – notably around non-English content. But as Word Up Whitehall attendees will have heard, Simon Wheatley and I have been concentrating on precisely that subject for most of the past few months, so we’re probably deeper into it than most.

And so the highest-profile blogging platform in Whitehall comes over to WordPress, joining similar efforts at DFID (launched Oct 2008), Health, DECC and BIS. Well done to Ross & co for doing the right thing. You know it makes sense. That really only leaves the MOD

The return of e-petitions; a new home for the Govt Digital Service; and an ironic footnote

Two site launches today worth noting: the return of e-petitions, and the ‘new’ Government Digital Service blog.

E-petitions used to belong to Downing Street; now it’s moved over to Directgov, and thence to individual departments, rather than landing everything on the PM’s desk. There’s very little to see just now: just a submission form, and a few information pages. We won’t be able to see or ‘sign’ other people’s petitions for another week or so.

It’s been built by the Skunkworks team, now under the more full-time management of Mark O’Neill – or to be more specific:

#epetitions was put together by an onsite agile team of 3 devs, 1 PM, 1 customer + 1 part-time analyst, over three iterations. RoR stack.
tweet by @chrismdp

… and so far, (update: nearly) everyone’s been jolly nice about it, particularly as there’s so little to see. Maybe they’ve seen what else is coming.

The e-petition’s previous incarnation became notorious when 1.8 million people signed to protest against road pricing proposals. Its successor won’t have to wait long to face a similar challenge: the Guido Fawkes blog has already lodged a petition calling for the restoration of the death penalty for child and cop killers, and is planning a special campaign to reach the magic 100,000 signature barrier, (potentially) triggering a debate in the Commons. Good luck to whoever’s desk that lands on.

One slight downer for me is that fact that it’s been redeveloped from scratch, using Ruby on Rails, rather than extending the existing MySociety-built platform (now being taken up by dozens of councils throughout the land). Tom Loosemore tells us: ‘ if [the new] code base isn’t open sourced, it won’t be for lack of will or encouragement!’ – but I just can’t see that being enough to see the application being reused more widely, particularly at local councils. Mark assures me that they did look at using WordPress, which would have guaranteed a high degree of reuse; I’m looking forward to reading his blog post about why they opted for the alternative approach.

Speaking of which… the Government Digital Service has a ‘new’ blog, or rather, it has consolidated various previous efforts (including Alphagov and the Cabinet Office Digital Engagement blog) into a new home, located at wordpress.com (where it joins, among others, UKTI and both the Army and Navy).

They’re using the premium Linen theme, costing them $68, with a bit of graphic customisation; and a mapped domain for a further $17/year. And as it’s on wordpress.com, that’s pretty much all it’s cost them. (And purely because I’ve already been asked the question: no, I didn’t have any part in its creation. Well, apart from several years of ruthless evangelism.)

Meanwhile, with more than a little irony… the Cabinet Office has also published its list of the 444 government websites still in operation, 243 of which are marked for closure. Neither of these sites is mentioned.

No10 proposal to replace press offices with a blog

The FT is getting all excited by apparent ‘proposals’ by Downing Street’s shaven-headed, shoeless strategy director Steve Hilton to abolish maternity leave and suspend consumer protection laws, in the interests of kick-starting the economy. Personally, I can’t believe either was suggested seriously: sounds more like the start of a brainstorming session.

But I can’t help smiling at one of his other reported ideas: ‘replacing hundreds of government press officers with a single person in each department who would convey all necessary information via a blog.’ – an idea which Guido Fawkes calls ‘half decent‘. I’d go further.

The fact is, it’s the logical conclusion to a process which is kinda happening already – and which started three and a half years ago. We already have Downing Street plus three Cabinet-level departments running their websites, their main public-facing presence, on (what used to be) a blogging platform, namely WordPress.

And frankly, any department which isn’t already running its News section using a blogging platform is missing a trick. I guarantee it would be easier to use, and would provide a much better service to the customer, than whatever Big Ugly Corporate CMS they’re using.

I’ve argued for a decade plus that the web would ultimately destroy press office work as we have known it: specifically, the day-to-day mechanical stuff, and most of the mundane telephone enquiries. I don’t think that means sacking every press officer: but it would certainly redefine the role of those press officers who remained, to become ‘press relations’ people. (Or is that the role fulfilled primarily – and arguably, correctly – by Special Advisors?)

Take a look at the website for COI’s News Distribution Service – and tell me why this shouldn’t be a WordPress multisite. With COI’s demise imminent, now would be the perfect time to rebuild it. And if it needs to do stuff that isn’t available ‘out of the box’ – that’s where people like Puffbox come in. The answer is almost certainly, yes it can. And yes, we’d be delighted.

If it’s true that ‘three-quarters of [Hilton’s] ideas fail to get off the drawing board’, this is one which – in some shape or form – definitely will. In fact, it already has.

BIS gets a blog

A fairly soft launch today for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s new corporate blog: built by Steph Gray (obviously), using WordPress (naturally).

Taking a quick whizz round the Cabinet table, the departments now running formal, properly-designated corporate ‘blogs’ are:

Additionally, of course, there are a few corporate sites which are actually running on blog technology, but choose not to present themselves as blogs – notably Number10, Defra, and the Wales Office; plus various blogs for teams and projects, too many to list here, and occasional Ministerial contributions to the Tories’ Blue Blog.

Paul Waugh takes his audience with him to PoliticsHome

Evening Standard deputy political editor Paul Waugh starts his new job this morning, as editor of (increasingly paywalled) website PoliticsHome.com. Mildly interesting in itself, as evidence of the still-growing influence of online in the political space, although far from the first time a ‘proper’ journalist has gone over to the blogs’ side.

What’s quite interesting is the mechanics of the move itself. His final post on the Standard’s (Typepad-powered) blog gave full details of his new job, and where you’d be able to follow him – including direct links to his new home page. I find it very hard to imagine any other media outlet being so relaxed about a star reporter or columnist ‘taking his readers / audience with him’.

Equally intriguing is the fact that his (personal) Twitter account has just kept going as it always did.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/paulwaugh/status/593819410112512″]

Despite the on-page linking and the background wallpaper – Standard last week, PolHome this morning – Waugh ‘owns’ this particular channel of communication… and its almost 10,000 followers. He isn’t dependent on his employer’s infrastructure, or brand, to talk to his audience.

Former BBC man James Cridland, now a ‘radio futurologist’ (?), wrote an excellent piece about this issue 18 months ago, in the context of radio presenters moving jobs. His rather draconian-sounding conclusion was this – although it’s worth noting the dissent, some from known names in the industry, in the ensuing comments:

Give your presenters official Twitter feeds for your station, and make it clear that they can only promote these. XFM is doing the right thing here, since it has a set of them – @daveberry_xfm is Dave Berry, for example – but this is clearly part of the station’s output. Ensure that -you- retain the password, and ensure that you actively monitor what they say (just like you monitor what they say on-air.) That way, when you part company with that presenter, you can communicate this fact to their followers your way – and, crucially, you stay in control.

[Over the next couple of days, James also offered opinions on promoting personal websites (in short: no) and email addresses (likewise), stirring similar levels of controversy.]

So whether he realises it or not, Paul is offering an interesting case study in what constitutes ‘brand’ in the world of third-party online services. When communications infrastructure was difficult, employers could keep control. When we’re all just a few seconds away from creating our own Twitter / Facebook accounts, the employer is left with little more than guidelines. And perhaps a rather weak argument about using company resources for personal purposes.

I really enjoy Paul’s stuff: and I’d happily be subscribing to his new blog right now… except that somehow, the website – running on a bespoke platform which happily ‘ingests’ other people’s RSS feeds –  can’t offer an RSS feed of its own, although one is promised ‘soon’. (FYI: it’s two months since prominent blogger Waugh’s move was announced.)

Oh, and by the way, PoliticsHome – disabling the ability to right-click on your pages… really?

Minister (not) warned for (not) tweeting at 1am

For the last week or two, I’ve been trying to draw together some thoughts on Ministers and blogging / tweeting, particularly as regards former Opposition figures now finding themselves in government, and a coalition government at that. Truth be told, I still don’t have a great conclusion to share, only that it’s a bit complicated.

One MP who hasn’t let the transition to Ministerial office stop her blogging is Lynne Featherstone. She’s been as prolific as ever, with posts on constituency matters, party affairs and her new Home Office equalities portfolio. This caught the attention of the Daily Mail, who published a story at the weekend entitled: ‘Minister warned over 1am tweets‘.

There were only two problems with that headline:

  • The tweets weren’t at 1am. As Mark Pack explained at Lib Dem Voice, the default timezone when you look at Twitter.com is San Francisco: so those ‘1am tweets’ would actually have been 9am UK time… if that even matters.
  • I’ve been in touch with Lynne directly, and she confirms to me: ‘no [Home Office] mandarins have told me off at all!’ And the next bit won’t come as any surprise: ‘Nor did the Mail check any details with me.’

The extent of the warning appears to have been a proactive call to the Home Office press office, with a ‘spokesman’ being quoted: ‘The Minister is well aware of her responsibilities under the Ministerial Code.’ You could call that a warning; I’d call it a statement of fact.

It’s a pathetic character assassination piece, with so many holes in it that I can’t face picking it to pieces. Even a blog post highly complimentary of her ‘boss’ at the Home Office, Conservative minister Theresa May was depicted as a controversial expression of her doubts. So it’s not a bit of wonder that the ensuing comments react with horror at how someone so divisive and clearly deranged should be a government minister. Even if the Mail were to correct or withdraw the piece – which, so far, it shows no sign of doing – it’s too late; the damage, such as it is, is done.

But at least the ‘proper’ newspapers wouldn’t print something so shameful, would they? Sadly, they did. Later the same day, the Telegraph basically re-wrote and re-published the Mail piece, minus (to give them a tiny amount of credit) the embarrassing timezone thing. The Sun did pretty much the same thing, the next day.

You know, you’d almost think they’re more interested in inventing controversy than reporting facts.

New Cabinet’s online footprint

I make it seven members of the new Coalition cabinet with Twitter accounts: although of course, some have been more personal than others:

It’s worth noting that only Hague and Pickles have been active since polling day; and judging by one recent tweet, Pickles seems intent on maintaining pre-poll levels of activity. I wonder how many others will restart… has Twitter served its purpose, now they’ve been re-elected?

We also have a few bloggers:

Some of the senior Tories have made frequent contributions to the Conservatives.com site’s Blue Blog – among them David Cameron and Eric Pickles.

The case of Sir George Young is worthy of special mention: his ‘on a lighter note’ writing goes back as far as 1999. And whilst it wouldn’t really meet the definition of a ‘blog’ – no feed, no commenting, etc – he surely deserves some credit for getting started so early. And indeed, for publishing his full constituency diary, ribbon-cutting by ribbon-cutting!

Update: Although not strictly Cabinet, it’s also worth noting reports that the Conservatives’ head of press, Henry Macrory is to take ‘the same role at Downing Street’ (although his Twitter biog hasn’t yet been updated). Henry has been a prolific tweeter, and as you might expect from someone in his position, they’ve usually been rather partisan in nature. Can’t quite see that continuing somehow, especially not the anti-Clegg stuff.

Telegraph moves its blogs to WordPress

It’s a sign of how far WordPress has come, that I find myself noting the Telegraph’s transfer of its blogging platform to WordPress purely because I feel I should… and not because it’s especially exciting. I mean, if you were going to set up a large-scale public blogging community, why on earth wouldn’t you use the world-leading, zero-price tag product?

The newspaper media group’s new blogs editor, Damian Thompson is buzzing with excitement at the potential which this move opens up. Among the ‘immediate benefits’ he highlights: faster operation, easier commenting, better integration with the wider site, even a Twitter element. (I’d add a few others myself, all available instantly with a bit of URL hacking.) But he’s right to recognise that the switch won’t be immediately popular – and guess what, the majority of the 200+ comments on his introduction post aren’t positive. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Most of the work, I understand, was done by the Telegraph’s in-house team, with some assistance from my fellow WordCampers (and technically, I suppose, competitors) InterconnectIT. The firm’s director, Dave Coveney says they’re already working with another newspaper group and a magazine publisher. He’s clearly seeing the same momentum I am; there’s certainly no shortage of interest in WordPress just now.

DFID redesigned

DFID redesign, Dec 08

This week saw the next phase in the incremental redesign of the Department For International Development‘s website. It’s a much airier, brighter look than before, and with a YouTube video front and centre, plus all those drop shadows, rounded corners and various JQuery effects, it feels bang up to date. There’s a new ‘top layer’ of public-friendly information, Fighting Poverty, which is very easy on the eye, without getting in the way of the more mundane operational stuff. They’ve struck an excellent balance, I think.

The changes to the parent site meant we had to revisit certain elements of the DFID Bloggers site, built and launched by Puffbox just a couple of months back; partly for visual consistency, but also because we’re feeding off the same CSS stylesheet. Everything’s more or less where it was before, but the colours have been brightened up a bit, and taking a lead from the parent site, we’re now optimised for 1024px-wide screens. We’ve also tweaked a few other things, but I doubt you’ll notice them.

(The parent site has repaid the compliment by giving front-page space to the Bloggers site – but before anyone mentions it: no, it isn’t automatically taking the latest item via RSS, they’re choosing which items they want to promote.)

On the Bloggers site at least, the switch on the night was remarkably pain-free: just a simple matter of changing from one WordPress theme to another, literally a single click and it’s done. I’ve always seen this as one of WordPress’s hidden strengths – and I’ve talked to one or two clients about making deliberate use of it. You can imagine a scenario where there are several versions of the same basic design, all stored as separate WP themes, for different situations and circumstances – as a crude example, a black-tinged ‘national mourning’ version. Deploying it would take seconds. Hey, can your big ugly CMS do that, I wonder?

The DFID team are taking an incremental approach to their web development – and good on them for it. There are further ‘structural changes and technical improvements’ planned for 2009, plus – all being well – some cool new functionality in the Bloggers site. Stay tuned.

An MP’s guide to blogs

Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn has apparently ‘been stripped of a Parliamentary allowance for making fun of other MPs on his blog‘, if you read today’s BBC piece on the subject. Flynn himself tells the story slightly differently, on said blog.

I’ve had a similar run-in with my own MP, Newbury’s Richard Benyon (Con). Back in September, the first posting on his new blog made some undeniably party-political comments: he talked about Labour being in a state of ‘desperation’, and his boss David Cameron ‘[continuing] to look like a Prime Minister in waiting’.

Good old political knockabout, nothing wrong with that… except his website proudly declared on every page that it is ‘paid for from his Communications Allowance’, which is explicitly not to be used ‘to promote, criticise or campaign for or against anyone seeking election’. To his credit, he made swift if superficial amends: I don’t see from a technical viewpoint how it’s possible for www.richardbenyon.com/blog ‘not [to be] connected to www.richardbenyon.com’.

The point is this: as both Flynn and Benyon have said, playing by the Parliamentary allowance’s rules would have meant a ‘totally non-political, fence sitting and boring’ blog. With the cost of setting up a basic blog being so low, indeed zero in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to take a chance with the ‘Byzantine complexity of the House of Commons rules’ (to quote Mr Benyon, although frankly I’m not buying that; the rules couldn’t be much clearer).

If you’re an MP, and you want to start a blog, here are the facts:

  • Most political blogs live on Blogger.com, a hosted service owned by Google, and free of charge. It’s not the most sophisticated platform in the world, but it does allow you total freedom to customise your pages… if you so wish. It’s good enough for Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale, generally seen as the #1 and #2 in the UK; they’ve gone to considerable lengths to design their sites. Others, like Lynne Featherstone, John Pugh, David Jones or Andy Love really haven’t.
  • Personally, I find WordPress.com a better blogging tool; but in its free, hosted incarnation, it’s limited in its scope for (full-on) customisation. See Tom Harris‘s top-rated blog, or the Lords Of The Blog group effort.
  • But there are other free alternatives. Adrian Sanders runs his blog on MySpace – hey, why not? Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has a blog on the Telegraph‘s website; and whilst his is technically on the ‘columnists’ side of the fence, rather than the ‘public’ my.telegraph.co.uk service, there’s nothing to stop you doing that either. It’s not ideal, but maybe it suits you and your situation.
  • If you want extra functionality, extra control or extra customisation, you’re looking at spending some money – but frankly, it needn’t be more than the price of a (very modest) dinner for two. Typepad used to be the service of choice for those who wanted to take things more seriously; their ‘pro’ service costs £75 a year, and gives you all the customisation and room for expansion you’re likely to need. Paul Flynn‘s site lives there, as does ConservativeHome, and the blogs of lobby journalists Benedict Brogan and Paul Waugh (among others).
  • These days, the (generally) preferred option – certainly in these parts! – is to download and run your own copy of WordPress. It’s free, and it’s the best; but you’ll need to pay a few quid to put it somewhere – say £22.99 a year from Eukhost; and running it yourself does take some effort. Tom Watson, John Redwood and Richard Benyon use it, as does the remarkably popular PoliticalBetting.com; but for a simple blog, it’s probably overkill. When you want to do something more, though, it’s perfect: ask Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and Jim Murphy.

There’s absolutely no shame in using the free options; and if you decide you need more, for whatever reason, you’re looking at a couple of hundred quid, tops… with most of that going to the friendly geek who sets it up for you. I dare say many MPs could find that kind of sum down the back of their sofa.

Spending a portion of your Communications Allowance on a blog is just The Wrong Thing To Do. And frankly it calls into question the purpose of the ‘totally non-political, fence sitting and boring’ Allowance in the first place. £10,000 times 646 MPs, times 4 years in a typical Parliament equals… no, don’t, it’s a terrifying answer.

PS: By sheer coincidence, I note that the British Computer Society held its MP Website Awards today: winners were Derek Wyatt, John Hutton, Alan Johnson and  Kerry McCarthy. All Labour, for the record.