Civil Service website moves to WordPress (at least for a bit)

I’m grateful to the GDS blog for pointing out something I’d missed last week: the relaunch of the main Civil Service corporate website, on none other than WordPress… albeit as an interim measure.

the coincidence of impending changes to Civil Service recruitment processes and the end of the existing hosting contract for the site provided us an opportunity to revisit the site’s content, design and function. We needed to make sure that it is providing a stable, value for money interim option until it can be encompassed into the ongoing Single Government Domain project.

The site was produced by the in-house team within six weeks, helped in no small measure by their use of an off-the-shelf theme which ‘fitted what [they] needed with a little customisation.’ The theme in question is called Striking, offered for sale on ThemeForest for the princely sum of $40 (or just over £25).

The post helpfully includes their rationale for selecting WordPress:

We chose to use WordPress as it offers a simple, quick (with such a short development window) and flexible open source solution to a site primarily designed for publishing content. As such it is easy to use for a wide range of content editors and, of course, provides significant cost savings for maintenance and development.

I can’t tell you how nice it is to read that paragraph on a .gov.uk-domained site. The same site, of course, which earlier in the week defended its decision to code the new departmental publishing machine from scratch. But I promised to let that lie, didn’t I.

WordPress isn’t powering what is arguably the most meaningful Civil Service web content: jobs. That’s a separate platform, outsourced to someone called World Careers Network plc – ‘commissioned by the MOD and now led by HMRC’. There’s a link to their website on that jobs homepage, but you won’t see it:

Hidden text? Spammer tactics

It’s a rather dated-looking system, with a basic search facility based on a number of ‘select multiple’ form fields. It’s at its weakest when, as most people will do, you try to find a job near you. It offers an eclectic choice of 1688 city, town and village names, but not – as it happens – the respectably-sized town where I live. And there’s no intelligence to the geography: a search for jobs in Camberley just now gave me zero results, rather than recommending jobs it does have in nearby Sandhurst. There’s no facility to search by distance from a given postcode, and no map.

When I say 'nearby'...

Add to that the apparent lack of an API, or RSS feeds, and it feels like something of a backwards step, compared to the optimism around the 2009 site. But it does offer email alerts, and the application process (end to end) can be done online.

Quick update: I’ve done some investigating re the former jobs API. It used to reside at api.civilservice.gov.uk – but that address isn’t responding. To mourn what we’ve lost, have a look back at Google’s cache.

Civil service managers’ salary details delayed

The coalition’s Programme for Government stated that, as part of the government-wide transparency and open data initiatives: ‘We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale’ – namely £58,200.

In a letter to all government departments on 31 May, David Cameron stated that these should be ‘published from September 2010‘. Well, we’re now into October, and said data hasn’t emerged.

I’m not entirely surprised to hear from well-placed sources that whilst the mechanics of releasing such data are fairly straightforward, the practicalities haven’t been. It would be very, very easy indeed to pinpoint exactly how much even relatively modestly-ranked individuals earn – so it’s no surprise that it has caused some, ahem, ripples. (It’s still happening though, as I understand it.)

Building Britain’s Future revisited

Spotted in Francis Maude’s article on Comment Is Free yesterday (8 Feb 2010):

Then came the first instance of Labour breaching the impartiality of government’s communications; we discovered that “Building Britain’s Future”, a brand conceived and promoted by the civil service, is used extensively on the Labour party’s website.

From PR Week article dated 29 October 2009:

Whitehall comms experts have denied any revolt. Permanent secretary for government communications Matt Tee insisted Building Britain’s Future was a government brand, and said he would ensure it was not used by the Labour Party… ‘I am clear that Building Britain’s Future is a government brand – if we reached a position when someone else used it, I’d have to consider the risk that citizens could be confused about where the messages are coming from.’

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) director of comms Russell Grossman said: ‘All civil servants are keen to ensure the line isn’t crossed into political sloganeering. This slogan doesn’t cross that line at all – The Labour Party hasn’t used this.’

And finally, on Puffbox.com in July 2009:

Earlier this week, I saw this… the front page of the Labour Party website. And there it is, right up front – ‘Building Britain’s Future’ in large letters, the same logo in the corner.

Sorry Mr Maude. Sorry PR Week. Sorry Mr Grossman. Sorry Mr Tee.

It’s still there, by the way.

Did we just win?

We’ve all learned to be cynical about government announcements – but I’m reading through today’s ‘Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government’ paper, and I can’t help smiling. We certainly aren’t in a position where the PM can make a policy declaration, and it all falls into place by lunchtime; there are some vicious battles ahead. But there can’t be much doubt, surely, that the tide has now turned in favour of open data, accountability, transparency, third-party innovation, and technology which is both smarter and cheaper.

The paper’s ‘action points’ list looks like an agreement to do many, if not all the things we as a ‘gov 2.0’ community were asking for. A few highlights:

  • Establish common protocols for public services to exchange information
  • Consult on and release valuable public sector datasets – including mapping and postcode, Public Weather Service, detailed government expenditure, various transport and health datasets
  • Enable a single point of access for government held data through data.gov.uk (to launch Jan 2010)
  • Launch a public consultation index through Directgov (although we’ve had this before)
  • During 2010: Ensure public consultations have online tools for interactive dialogue (er, WordPress I guess?)
  • During 2010: Ensure the majority of government-held data published in reusable form
  • By 2011: Publish all comparative data on www.data.gov.uk and ensure that it is sufficiently consistent to enable cost comparisons to be made across services
  • For the longer term: Reduce consultancy spend by 50%, and communication and marketing spend by 25%

And there’s plenty more, deeper into the report: prototype building, ONS data into data.gov.uk, ‘direct’ involvement for users in service design, local breakdowns of stimulus spending, a whole section on ‘Harnessing the power of comparative data’, and a pledge for ‘the majority of government-published information to be reusable, linked data by June 2011’. In fact, I’m struggling to think of anything on the wishlist which hasn’t been ticked off.

It’s important to see this in the widest possible context. This is just Whitehall accepting the reality many of us recognised long ago. This is a Labour government looking for causes around which to build its general election campaign; and of course, trying to steal something of a march on their rivals and likely successors: see Cameron’s pledges of June this year.

And it’s reliant on existing institutions, contract-holders and vested interests coming round to the new way of thinking. Like forcing Ordnance Survey to surrender their data. Escaping the restrictions of costly outsourcing arrangements. And embracing the tools and methods of the new ways of thinking, just as much as the mindset. Past performance doesn’t give much cause for optimism, perhaps: but at least there’s evidence of a desire to take the fight to people like OS.

The naming of the document is intriguing: having been known as the ‘Smarter Government’ paper for some time now, it emerges with the classically anodyne (and ultimately meaningless) title of ‘Putting the Frontline First’. Clearly, they were too nervous about presenting their vision as too technologically-driven – understandable, I suppose. But that’s precisely what it is.

Who exactly owns ‘Building Britain’s Future’?

BBF website

If you take any interest whatsoever in stuff the government puts out, you’ll have seen the Building Britain’s Future logo a lot lately – it’s even replaced the big 10 on the Number10 website‘s header. It’s a cross-department brand intended to show the government has a positive programme of work in these negative times.

It’s a risky strategy, given that we’re less than a year away from a general election – inviting potentially unhelpful use of the word ‘manifesto’ (eg Guardian). And yes of course, it’s sailing close to the wind, like all governments do on occasions. But in and of itself, I don’t have an inherent problem with government packaging its plans for the next year (and beyond) under a pretty logo.

Then earlier this week, I saw this:

Labour Party homepage, Jul09

That’s the front page of the Labour Party website. And there it is, right up front – ‘Building Britain’s Future’ in large letters, the same logo in the corner.

Now look, I’m not naive. Of course ‘Building Britain’s Future’ is an attempt to reinvigorate the Labour administration. Of course a governing party will always have one eye on its electoral chances, all the more in the final year of the Parliament, all the more when they’re badly behind in the polls. But this is pushing their luck too far.

The BBF website links to the Cabinet Office terms and conditions, which state quite clearly:

Copying our logos or any other third party logos from this website is not permitted without approval from the relevant copyright owner.

So is this an infringement of copyright by the Labour Party? Or a breach of the Civil Service Code, clause 14 – using official resources, specifically graphic design, for overtly party political purposes? Was permission sought to re-use the logo, and was permission granted? (I’ve emailed the Cabinet Office to ask, and will let you know if/how they reply.)

It’s fundamentally wrong that these questions should even have to be asked. Labour should do the decent thing, and get the logo off the website immediately. The Civil Service should think carefully about political impartiality, and stand up in its defence if necessary.

Update, 30 July: I’ve received the following response from the Cabinet Office: ‘We are happy for another website to highlight government initiatives, provided that it is clear that they are government initiatives. The Building Britain’s Future story has been carried by a number of third party organisations in this way.’

That doesn’t quite answer the question I posed, as to whether Labour ever asked permission. And if there’s a page explaining these different usage rules for the Building Britain’s Future logo, exempting it from the standard T&Cs, I haven’t found it.

Govt depts in no rush to upgrade from IE6

Former e-government minister Tom Watson has tabled a string of Parliamentary Questions, asking various government departments what plans they have to upgrade their default web browser from Internet Explorer v6. The answers are starting to come in, and they aren’t pretty.

… no plans to change …

… in the process of reviewing the options…  no decision as to which web browser the Department will update to or when any update might take place …

… currently reviewing our options …

… the upgrade to IE is planned to be completed prior to Microsoft ceasing to support IE6 …

But the most depressing response so far comes from the Ministry of Defence:

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) is currently implementing the Defence Information Infrastructure (Future) (DII(F)). DII(F) will, once delivered in full, incorporate around 140,000 terminals supporting some 300,000 users at over 2,000 defence sites worldwide, including on ships and deployed operations. DII currently uses Internet Explorer 6 and at the current time does not have a requirement to move to an updated version.

So maybe it’s worth running through precisely why it’s such a bad thing that government departments aren’t being systematically moved off IE6. It’s partly technical, partly design – but mostly, I think, it’s the symbolism of departments refusing to move forward.

On the technical front, IE6 has security holes that just aren’t being fixed. Analysts Secunia say there have been 10 security alerts in the last year; and that there are 21 unresolved problems. Now to be honest, day-to-day, this probably doesn’t amount to much more than a theoretical risk, but it’s a risk nonetheless.

It’s also slow: IE8 is twice as fast at running Javascript, whilst the latest versions of Firefox and Google’s Chrome are at least 4x faster. This hasn’t mattered much until the explosive growth of Ajax techniques in the last year or two. But now, a lot of the revolutionary ‘web 2.0’ sites simply aren’t usable on IE6. And with more and more stuff happening in the web browser (‘G-Cloud’?), it’s only going to get worse.

Then there’s the design issues. Most web design these days is (or should be) based entirely on CSS, Cascading Style Sheets. And frankly, IE6’s handling of CSS is appalling. Ask any web designer, they’ll tell you the same story:

From GraphJam

If you follow the W3C rules, designs will generally work perfectly (ish) first time on Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and in all fairness, IE8. Then you hold your breath, and test it in IE6… and goodness knows how it’ll come out. Things might be the wrong size, or in the wrong place, or might not be visible at all. The layout you spent weeks crafting could be a complete mess. You then have to spend ages bastardising your code, often breaking those W3C rules – and sometimes defying all logic! – to make it come out right, or near enough, in IE6. It takes time, it costs clients money, and it makes designers sad.

In reality, everyone in the industry knows this. We’ve been living with it for long enough, and we’ve all got our various workarounds. We factor the IE6 delay into our timescales. We know not to be too ambitious sometimes, ‘because it’ll never work in IE6’.

But the reason it’s such a sore point for us government hangers-on is that IE7 (released in October 2006) is free of charge, and Microsoft’s formally recommended course of action is to upgrade. Dammit, that’s what HM Government itself tells people to do. Yet departments are quite happily burying their heads in the sand – ignoring the sound technical, financial and qualitative reasons for upgrading.

They think doing nothing is the safe option. They’re wrong.

McBride: a scandal for the internet age

So Damian McBride appears to have been taken down by the blogger he was considering trying to emulate.

It’s being reported that McBride’s emails were sent from his official Downing Street email account. If so, that’s a naive error to have made: partly because it leaves him open to (valid) accusations of misusing public resources, and partly because it exposes him to the risk of exposure via FOI. Guido republished an email he had sent to McBride requesting ‘copies of all emails referring to either myself or my publication, “the Guido Fawkes Blog”… under the provisions of the Data Protection Act (1998).’ (Mind you, Derek Draper told Sky News tonight that his private email had been ‘hacked into’.)

It would have been an ugly and unpleasant story if he’d been a Labour Party employee discussing such tactics; or even if McBride had sent the emails in his own time, from his own email account. But it wouldn’t have been quite so explosive. And let’s face it, it probably wouldn’t have come to light. (Frankly, I assume such conversations happen all the time inside most political parties.)

So let’s clear up the technicalities. Someone created a new blog at wordpress.com, under the ID ‘aredrag’ at 4:24pm GMT on Tuesday 4 November – a free service with a minimally intrusive registration form. On the same day, before or after, someone using the pseudonym Ollie Cromwell registered the domain name ‘theredrag.co.uk’ – a tenner for two years through easily.co.uk. They then paid wordpress.com the $15/year fee to run a wordpress.com-hosted site under a different domain name. The site itself consists of a standard Kubrick template, with only the default ‘Hello world!’ post visible. It has a (very rough) custom header graphic, but beyond that, it’s as ‘out of the box’ as it could be. To me, it suggests someone who knows what they’re doing online; and in the right hands, it could have taken only a few minutes. It doesn’t necessarily imply a coordinated, organised, resourced smear campaign.

At its heart, this is a story about the thin line between politics and government – a subject often mused upon in these pages. Now of course, it’s not a new riddle. But it’s the fact that any individual, with no great financing or technical skill, can become a journalist and publisher in minutes that adds a new dimension. It allows McBride and/or Draper to contemplate setting up such a scurrilous website in the first place. And equally, it has brought mavericks like Guido Fawkes into the mix: independent, and with nothing to lose.

Numerous times, we’ve tried to draw lines separating party politics and public duties – MPs’ communications allowances, civil servants in quite obviously politically-focussed positions, Ministers blogging their political views, whatever. In this culture of constant communication, I’m wondering if that’s still possible.

  • Does the Prime Minister have to be the ‘leader’ of his/her party? On reflection, Blair and Prescott did a fairly good double-act, with one being the head of government, the other being the party chief.
  • And does the PM’s spokesman actually have to be a civil servant? Should we accept that Downing Street is a special case, exempt from the same neutrality requirement of front-line, service-delivery Whitehall departments? We can’t play out our West Wing fantasies with politically neutral civil servants.

There’s a long way to go on this one. A very long way.

Departmental blog platforms

When you think of ‘official’ blogging platforms inside government, the obvious example is the Foreign Office blogs site – headed of course by David Miliband, but featuring some truly remarkable contributions from various global ‘hotspots’ (Beijing, Kosovo, Zimbabwe). But it’s not the only one out there, and it’ll soon be joined by others.

One which rarely gets a mention is the Royal Navy’s Jack Speak – which, before you ask, is the Navy jargon term for Navy jargon – launched nearly a year ago, and based on WordPress. 🙂 Like the FCO’s site, it features personal contributions from an eclectic selection of ‘ordinary staff’. The content doesn’t flow as naturally as the FCO site, but then again, maybe that’s too much to expect with such subject matter. And perhaps as a result, despite prominent promotion on the Navy’s front page, it doesn’t seem to attract much in the way of comments: just three in the whole of July, for example.

There’s been an equally quiet launch for the NHS Expert Blogs pilot. So far, there are half a dozen active blogs, based around themes rather than individual bloggers: diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and so on. The site feels very impersonal, which seems at odds with the often extremely personal accounts you might read; there’s next to no detail on who the people actually are. As you might expect, given the NHS Choices tie-up with Microsoft, it’s running on Community Server.

Meanwhile, Puffbox is working on a similar blogging platform for another central government department (which I won’t name just yet). It’ll be a similar proposition: personal stories from half a dozen front-line staff in interesting situations, to give a flavour of the organisation’s work. The schedule is pretty aggressive, measured in weeks rather than months; but I’m quite excited at the chance to see what we can do.

As you might expect, it’ll be WordPress-based; but the plan is to use the ‘single user’ version rather than MU. I don’t think we need the full power of MU, there’s always the question of plugin compatibility, HQ understandably want to keep their hands on the controls – and besides, we can do a lot with the WordPress Template Hierarchy to make it feel like each writer has a separate blog.

At the same time, I’m seeing one of my longer-term projects evolving into what looks like a proper ‘project blog’ platform. Several teams have seen the existing WordPress-powered site, and want to be able to contribute to it. Whether they’ll come across as ‘blogs’ per se, I don’t know. But it’ll certainly be a step closer to what I imagine will be the end game here: ‘project blogs’, where teams write in their official capacities, and seek feedback from their stakeholders. More details to follow.

Ben Hammersley prototyping at Foreign Office

Things are happening at the Foreign Office. About a month ago, they registered a new dot-com domain, with the apparent intention of hosting a series of prototype web builds. But since the only link I’ve yet seen to the domain has now been removed by its (well-connected) author, I won’t provide a link to it here.

First to emerge is an ‘online collaboration space’ to be used for ‘work on projects with partners outside government’, running on the same wiki platform as Wikipedia. Unlike previous wiki efforts at Miliband-led government departments, it will be invite-only: all users will be ‘verified’, following nomination by an FCO officer. (It’s probably just as well.) There’s also a WordPress blog installation 🙂 – although it’s currently empty.

The site confirms a rumour I’d heard, that all-round Renaissance Man Ben Hammersley (geek, journalist, photographer, ultra-marathon runner, kilt-wearer) is working for the Foreign Office… even going so far as to have a gov.uk email address. With one single appointment, the credibility of e-government efforts takes quite a leap… although I note Ben doesn’t appear to be shouting too loudly about his move into the civil service.

It’s good to see the Miliband Effect finally kicking in. I was a bit underwhelmed by the FCO website’s £1.47m relaunch back in March, although I know that site had been in preparation long before Miliband arrived at King Charles Street. FCO is right to recognise that such ‘skunk works‘ operations are the best – and arguably, the only – way to fire innovation.

Mind you, that was a lesson they should have learned more than a decade ago, when they gave a fresh-faced 22 year old more-or-less free rein to design, build and run Whitehall’s first ‘real time’ website, with groundbreaking and award-winning results. Have I ever told you that story? 🙂

Civil servants cleared to blog

Not before time, the official Civil Service guidance on ‘participation online’ has been published – and whilst it’s not quite the upbeat, positive encouragement that I was lobbying for, it does at least make clear that (a) you’re allowed to do it, and (b) you should say you’re a civil servant (where that’s relevant).

Brevity has clearly been a priority in the final draft. I had hoped we’d get something a bit longer, actively encouraging civil servants to get involved (along the lines of the BBC’s excellent guidance, especially this bit). But Jeremy notes that more substantial stuff may be following later.

Picking out the important things, either said or implied in the text:

  • You are definitely allowed to get involved in ‘2.0’, like blogs and discussion forums.
  • You absolutely should give your job title. You shouldn’t disclose your phone number or home address. Names and email addresses aren’t mentioned, so I guess that’s considered OK.
  • You should explicitly point out that you’re speaking as a civil servant.
  • You should engage in communication: in fact, you should encourage it.
  • ‘You should not disclose information, make commitments or engage in activities on behalf of Government unless you are authorised to do so’ – but if you have that authority, then you can.
  • You should be nice. Well, they say ‘cordial’, but you know what they mean.

This is a big step indeed. And it shows the benefit of having a blog-literate Minister for e-Government. I’m just glad I registered govblogs.co.uk earlier in the week… for purposes which will soon become apparent. 🙂

Update: A few extracts from Tom Watson’s comments in the Commons this morning:

Our next challenge for the Power of Information Taskforce is to develop more detailed guidelines to encourage civil servants to take the first steps to engage with online social networks.

There are an incredibly large number of digital pioneers across the civil service – young people who may be junior in status – and one of my jobs is to try to join them all up so that they can enlighten their older counterparts in more senior positions.

The challenge for the power of information taskforce is to get our civil servants to engage in online communities in an appropriate manner. Clearly, one of the things that underpins our hard-working public servants is the notion of common sense, and I hope that they will apply that in their online activities as much as their offline activities.

See it in all its glory on theyworkforyou in the morning.

Another update: here’s the video of the announcement in the Commons. First thing I’ve video-tagged on TheyWorkForYou… and a wonderfully easy process.