DCSF joins WordPress trend

DCSFchildrenplanIt’s now two years since DCSF published their Children’s Plan – I know – and Ed Balls wants to know what impact it has had on you. They’ve published a progress report, and launched a commentable website… based on, guess what, WordPress. Not the first time they’ve gone down the open source route: a year ago they launched their National Strategies website on Drupal. But I think this is their first WordPress-based site.

Hold on a second though. What’s going on with that URL: gscdevelopment.com/wpsample? Well, gscdevelopment.com is simply an account at Bluehost – a very low-cost shared hosting provider. Nothing wrong with that at all; I use them myself for experimental hosting space, although I’m not sure I’d host a government site there. Google has literally nothing about a web development agency called GSC Development. And that’s a bit of a problem. It may look like a DCSF website: but without a gov.uk address, and no way to trace who exactly is its source, how would you know it isn’t some kind of elaborate phishing scam?

Update, 16/12/09: It looks like they’ve now moved it to a .dcsf.gov.uk address, and to a different hosting provider (Every City, by the look of it); which makes me wonder why they jumped the gun?

Ironically, it was a period consulting at DfES that convinced me it was time to escape the Whitehall machine, and embrace the WordPress community. So it’s great to see them coming on board; and I’m all in favour of departments experimenting with WordPress, whether inside or outside the firewall. There are things I’d certainly have done (very) differently: I wouldn’t have used a directory name ‘wpsample’ for a start, and I’d have tried to fix some of the 112 153 validation errors. It also looks as if they’ve overwritten the ‘default’ WordPress theme, which isn’t wise. And it’s always advisable to use pretty permalinks if you possibly can, rather than number-based query strings. But it’s another step in the right direction, and is therefore to be welcomed.

BBC anger at DCSF data formats

BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann is not happy. In previous years, the Beeb site has carried full school league table data, as soon as the embargo is lifted at 09:30am. But not this year.

‘This is because the government has tightened up on the media’s pre-release access to official statistics,’ he explains. ‘In the past, we have generally got the official results a week in advance, under embargo, to compile and check tables. This time, we will have had sight of the data for just 24 hours.’

But, in fact, it’s not specifically the reduced lead time that’s the problem here. More accurately, it’s the reduced lead time to deal with what DCSF chucks at them.

The school results that are supplied to the news media are not in a readily accessible form. In the case of the secondary schools, there are two large spreadsheets, each with a number of pages… Each sheet has dozens of columns, and a row for each school and college. Formatting the essential benchmarks from all this for publication, using computer scripts to interrogate the data, compiling and then proofreading them, takes hours of work.

In other words, DCSF are unable – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment – to supply the data in a format which assists the end users (in this case, the entire national media) to do their jobs.

And it’s led to an official letter of complaint – signed jointly by the BBC, Press Association and national newspapers – to the DCSF’s chief statistician. ‘With less than 24 hours’ preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors,’ they write. ‘The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations – to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters – will be thwarted.’

Statistical release procedures are a touchy subject; and school league tables are even touchier. Statisticians don’t like issuing them, because people insist on doing nasty things like – imagine! – ranking them in order. Many schools don’t like them either. But I can tell you for a fact, parents absolutely lap them up.

If DCSF, at whatever level, believes in the publication of this data, they need to make it easy for the major communication channels – the newspapers, and the BBC website – to republish it to their huge readerships. That clearly isn’t happening.

DCSF’s new Drupal site

Hooray for another high-profile UK government website based on an open source┬ácontent management system: the new National Strategies website from DCSF, built on Drupal. It’s big, bright, bold, and once you’ve registered – a remarkably painless process for a government site, without any apparent checks on your membership of the target audience – it offers significant social functionality: commenting on articles, bookmarking pages to your own personal homepages, group discussion, page rating, sending links to Delicious and the like. Nothing exceptional for a Drupal site, perhaps, but pretty impressive for HMG.

There’s particular significance to this particular launch, though. The National Strategies, and much of this ‘2.0’ functionality, were due to be part of Schoolsweb, the ambitious plan to rationalise all schools-related sites into a single mega-portal, to be built on the same Stellent-based infrastructure as Directgov (known as ‘The Club’). It was initially scheduled to launch in late 2005, with eight-figure budgets quoted; the last public reference I’m aware of was in February 2008, when Jim Knight responded in a PQ: Work is currently being taken forward to bring these sites into a single new website for schools – ‘SchoolsWeb’. (Note the present tense.) And as I noted some time ago, the guys who did the visual design work for Schoolsweb are still quoting it in their online portfolio, with the caveat: ‘We are currently supporting the project through a challenging build phase pending the full launch of the website shortly.’

To paper over the cracks, a temporary signposting website was launched at www.schoolsweb.gov.uk, labelled ‘Schoolsweb Locate’ – but even that has been taken away now, replaced by a slightly clumsy redirect to the long-established ‘Standards Site’.

On this evidence, one would have to assume that Schoolsweb, as initially conceived at least, is dead. In its place, we have a feature-rich online community built on open-source tools, and making use of pre-existing functionality – either in its core platform, or via plugins. My understanding is that the Drupal site came together in a matter of months, and seems to offer most (if not all) the functionality envisaged for Schoolsweb.

Somewhere in there lies a great case study just waiting to be written.

Subliminal consultation

Consultation is something government puts huge amounts of effort into, without (often? ever?) getting it right. The latest major attempt, to encourage discussion around the Draft Legislative Programme, takes you to a five-question web form with questions so vague and high-level, couched in parliamentary language, that I wouldn’t know where to start. Will we improve on last year’s embarrassing 71 responses, many of which had ‘little, if any, relevance’? I’m not convinced.

So full marks (unexpectedly?!) to DCSF for trying something quite different. Playspace is intended to canvas the opinions of younger children about playgrounds. It presents itself as a kind of Sim City affair, letting you drag play equipment into an empty space to create your own playground. But the clever bit is that you’re actually spending ‘credits’ to choose the equipment, and you earn extra credits by answering questions.

It’s consultation for the attention-deficit generation: a handful of questions, with the reward of play after. A dozen multi-choice questions, and you’re done. Meanwhile, behind the scenes – I assume – it’s capturing the answers to the questions, as well as an indication of what types of equipment kids actually prefer.

It’s not without its problems. Like, for example, spelling DCSF wrong; and failing to link to its privacy statement, which is pretty essential for what must be a data-capture process behind the scenes. (Thankfully these glitches have now been fixed after I raised them… although I’m not convinced the site’s generic privacy statement goes quite as far as I’d like for this application.) But it shows a willingness to explore more effective means of sounding out public opinion… and I bet it results in a much richer collection of real data then any ‘normal’ consultation process.

It’s good to see an e-comms good news story coming out of DCSF’s e-efforts. You don’t have to dig too deeply into their website to find crushing legacy problems dating back a decade. And that’s before we even mention Schoolsweb.