Congratulations @downingstreet

1000000
It doesn’t matter how they got there, and it doesn’t matter if a significant proportion are spammy. The @downingstreet Twitter account hit one million followers on Sunday afternoon – making it surely the biggest e-government hit in a couple of years at least. At zero setup cost. And zero marketing spend.
The question is – still – what do we do with them all?
For anyone needing background, here’s an easy link to all the posts I’ve written on the subject. To anyone I met WordCamp who’s reading this: check out the URL construction. Did you know you could do that??

Downing St reopens its email function

no10mailbox wide
Rejoice, bloggers! Downing Street has started the rollout of its (apparently?) much-missed function to send an email to the Prime Minister.
There’s been plenty of commentary on the function’s disappearance last summer, from Tim Ireland to Francis Maude, much of it coming from the slightly naive position of ‘how hard can it be to set up an email account’? Of course, that part’s dead easy. But what do you do when that account receives hundreds or thousands of messages daily?
I’ve spoken to the Downing Street team about this in the past; the problems with the old ‘just an inbox’ system went beyond sheer volumes. And unfortunately, the classic corporate response – ignore the lot of them (and yes, it does happen) – isn’t an option when there’s the considerable risk of missing something tremendously sensitive: an email, let’s say, from a soldier’s widow.
It’s based on a web-to-email form rather than a plain email address: no shame in that, it’s what Obama does. However, unlike most (including Obama, by the way), it’s done over https, giving an extra layer of security for those messages whilst in transit.
Before you get to that form, though, you’re shown a list of subjects you might be emailing about: and if one of these is relevant, it directs you to somewhere more suitable. Isn’t this obstructive? Yes, of course it is. But it stops you before you waste your time typing a message which won’t get the reply you want. That’s got to be a good thing overall.
Once over that hurdle, the email form is perhaps surprisingly short: all it asks, in terms of personal information, is a name, postcode and email address. Enough for you to get a reply (if they choose to send one), and enough for them to see if any subjects are particularly hot in certain areas. The message is limited to 1000 characters: too tight for Dizzy, but at least there’s a live character count on the screen.
Before your message is properly submitted, you get an automated email asking you to verify your address. Again, perfectly normal online behaviour, with benefits to both sides: it filters out the anonymous rants, and double-checks the recipient’s address in the event of No10 wanting to reply.
Then, behind the scenes, I hear there are a few tools to help them cope better with the volumes: the ability to group emails by common subjects, workflow management, and so on.
A lot of the commentary, it must be said, has been purely a hook on which to hang wider criticism: ‘a beleaguered prime minister retreating to his bunker,’ to quote Francis Maude. It didn’t take any account of whether the former function was actually working. For anyone.
The new system – built outside WordPress, incidentally – provides added security, greater efficiency and reliability, But most importantly, it provides a much better likelihood of your email actually getting a decent response. Which is the whole point of having such a service in the first place.

Our top story: government web video

No10 video on BBC News
It isn’t every evening that a video clip from a government website features prominently on the main evening news. Except this week.
Last night, it was the Treasury’s YouTube clip of Alastair Darling preparing for tomorrow’s Budget: nothing too spectacular, nice visual wallpaper for the story. Tonight, the PM’s announcement of changes to MPs’ expenses – presented first on the Number10 website – didn’t just pop up on the 10 O’Clock News; it was the basis of the lead package.
It’s another curious piece to camera by the PM. When he talks straight into the camera, he actually comes across as quite sincere. But then he ruins it with that unnatural smile, which isn’t convincing anyone. He actually looks like he’s going to burst out laughing when he mentions Harriet Harman. (Insert your own punchline in the comments, please.) Clearly I’ve missed the inherent humour in the words ‘detailed written statement’.
Prime Minister – please, stop putting it on. Remind me, who was it who uttered these words six months ago? ‘So I’m not going to try to be something I’m not. And if people say I’m too serious, quite honestly there’s a lot to be serious about – I’m serious about doing a serious job for all the people of this country.’ Exactly. No more forced grins, eh.
PS Is it pedantic of me to point out that Nick Robinson’s oh-very-clever line about ‘a U-turn on YouTube‘ isn’t strictly accurate? The Number10 video player is powered by Brightcove, and the clip isn’t among those uploaded to Downing Street’s YouTube account. There, I’m glad I got that off my chest.
PPS Jemima Kiss at the Guardian has a nice roundup of views from ‘the web community’ (ie the usual suspects), reaching a similar conclusion. But please, before anyone else declares it the Worst Video Ever, let’s remember the Countdown one.

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.

No10's Twitter status worth $250,000?

By getting involved early and enthusiastically in the whole Twitter thing, has DowningStreet earned itself $250,000 of free digital engagement? Well-known internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis (number of followers: 63,000) has offered Twitter a cool quarter of a million bucks – as I believe our American friends would describe it – to secure himself a two-year stay on their list of people you might like to follow when you open a new account. This is, of course, the same list which has done so much to boost DowningStreet’s follower count, now standing at 276,000.
There’s breathless excitement in a piece on TechCrunch:

[Calacanis] wants to lock in the price now because he thinks it is a great marketing opportunity. It is not unusual for people on the suggested list to gain 10,000 new followers every day. That comes to 3.6 million a year, and even if half unsubscribe, that is still a direct channel to more than a million potential customers. Those are customers who feel a connection with you because of the personal nature of Twitter messages.

There’s additional detail in John Naughton’s piece from yesterday’s Observer:

“I was only half-bluffing with this move,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter. “I was 90% sure Twitter wouldn’t take the money and I wouldn’t have to pony up …. However, if they did call my bluff … I would have gotten what I wanted: two to 10 million Twitter followers and the ability to drive one to two million visits to Mahalo a month from Twitter.”

This is a serious entrepreneur, a guy who has made serious money from the internet, reckoning that $120,000 for one year, or $250,000 to cover himself for the likely price rise in year two, was good value to buy something which 10 Downing Street already owns. One wonders, then, whether Francis Maude might want to reconsider his comments about No10’s experimentation with ‘the latest digital gimmicks’?

Civil servants are people too

rednoseday@no10
Nice to see Downing Street getting into the spirit of Red Nose Day… Well done to those responsible, I know who you are. 😉
I’ve never quite decided whether or not it’s appropriate for government sites to do things like putting up ‘Christmas decorations’; I think I’m OK with it, as long as it’s professionally done. Opinions, anyone?
And while we’re on the subject of Comic Relief… full marks for opportunism go to DFID blogger Emily Poskett: her post about meeting the various celebs climbing Kilimanjiro has made for record traffic levels on the site. The page in question is coming very high up the Google search rankings for several obvious queries. Is there anything wrong with using a popular culture hook for a story about government aid activity? – no, not in my book.

Real Help Now: a national picture

Real Help Now
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working with the Downing Street team to put together Real Help Now –  a fairly modest website, for now anyway, to introduce and demonstrate the practical help available to families and businesses during the recession.
Fundamentally, in this initial build, it’s a news aggregation site – pulling together material not just from national sources, but regional and local too. The aim is to complement the citizen- and business-facing stuff, at Directgov and BusinessLink respectively, by showing what’s actually happening on the ground, well away from Whitehall and the City.
What CMS are we using? Brace yourself – for once, it’s not WordPress. Not yet.
The news content is being managed through a Delicious account. When we spot a new item of interest, we tag it with the relevant region; then, when you click a region on the map, we call the relevant RSS feed in (via Google’s excellent feed API). The feeds give us everything we need; the Delicious tagging tools are excellent; and, of course, it also means Delicious users can interact directly with the account, if they so desire. The ‘latest video’ box works off RSS feeds too: we’re aggregating YouTube feeds from several government accounts, plus relevant material from Downing Street’s Number10TV (which uses Brightcove).
I could bang on about the intricacy of the HTML layering, or the gorgeous JQuery fades on the video box; but you may as well have a look for yourselves. My only disappointment comes from the animation effects I had to ditch late on, when I couldn’t make them work satisfactorily in IE6. (The majority getting a lesser service due to the minority’s refusal to make a free upgrade? – discuss.)
We aren’t making any great claims for this site: it is what it is, a pretty front end, courtesy of regular collaborator Jonathan Harris, pointing to other people’s material, plus a (first person) message from the Prime Minister. But if it can establish itself, there’s naturally plenty of scope to extend and expand into something more communicative and interactive.

@downingst hits 100k Twitter fans

Entirely predictably, the Downing Street Twitter channel broke new ground at some time on Friday night, registering its 100,000th follower. To put this extraordinary growth in some perspective: one month ago, they had just 12,000. And just one week ago, they had 50,000. In relative terms, for now at least, they’re now comfortably settled into Twitterholic’s top 30 – ahead of MC Hammer, ahead of Philip Schofield, far ahead of Chris Moyles, and far, far ahead of Russell Brand (sorry Guido).
There seem to be two streams of criticism of Twitter, in terms of ‘serious’ usage: one, there’s no evidence of any tangible benefit (see Thomas Gensemer in the Guardian this week); and two, there’s no evidence of a Twitter business model. (Yet and yet, of course.)
Personally, I take a more positive view. Very few MPs have serious numbers of followers – there are only two political offices in the world with any kind of substantial Twitter following: Barack Obama and 10 Downing Street. The former didn’t do too badly out of it, did he? – although if you look back at the Obama tweeting, it’s frankly a bit rubbish. My guess is, it helped further his image as being hip to this sort of thing, and that was enough. Number10, meanwhile, do a surprising amount at a micro level – you might be surprised how many replies they send to ordinary punters, to their surprise and (often) delight.
And you know what? Even if there’s no future business model, we’re looking at a phenomenal opportunity here, today. The fact it may not be here tomorrow shouldn’t stop us exploiting it while it’s there. 100,000 people have signed up – actively, voluntarily – to hear from the heart of UK government. Now they’re actually listening, what should we be saying to them?

David Lammy, Twitter expert

Lammy meets Brandreth
It came as a bit of a shock this evening, when BBC1’s The One Show started talking about Twitter, that reporter Gyles Brandreth’s first port of call was Kingsgate House on Victoria Street, home of DIUS and minister David Lammy. With traffic up by a factor of three this year already, Twitter’s certainly a hot topic at the moment – with the BBC in particular facing accusations of going overboard; but where does David Lammy come into all this?
To be entirely fair, Lammy did talk (some of) the talk:

For me, it’s almost a broadcast means of people knowing what I’m up to during the course of the day. It is about finding ways in which people can be clearer about what government ministers are up to.

OK, so it would have been nice if he’d described it as a two-way thing – and of course, he may well have done, but that wasn’t the soundbite we heard. But nice to get the potential for political transparency on the record.
The only niggle is that Lammy has been a member of the Twitter family since mid-December. He hasn’t even reached three figures for the number of tweets. Indeed, he’s only been using it with any head of steam for a month. One can’t help feeling it was a nice ‘soft’ primetime TV appearance for a politician with ambition: the caption read ‘Minister, Dept for Innovation’, and it can’t have done any harm to put a government minister in a story about something ‘cutting edge’ and ‘cool’.
Speaking of Twitter: I see @downingstreet has now reached the Twitterholic Top 50, and looks like going even higher – they’ve already passed the MarsPhoenix Lander, one of Twitter’s iconic accounts. Between you and me, I’m told they have MC Hammer in their sights.

No10 leaps into Twitter's top 100

Twitterholic data shows No10's explosive growth in the last fortnight
Twitterholic data shows No10's explosive growth in the last fortnight

One of the biggest successes in e-government this past year, and arguably one of the most surprising, is Downing Street’s use of Twitter. And thanks to a remarkable couple of weeks, the Prime Minister’s Office now finds itself in the Top 100 of the most followed Twitter accounts worldwide, as ranked (fairly reliably) by Twitterholic.com.
It’s been a model of social media usage. The account was first publicised (here, by me) almost exactly ten months ago: the initial tweets were, as with a lot of corporates, automated via the Twitterfeed service. But within a week, they were beginning to talk like ‘proper’ users; nowadays, of course, it’s perfectly normal for them to reply to comments and queries from other users – who seem genuinely stunned that someone at No1o is listening. It’s often been quoted as an example of best practice – and this week, I’ve seen several people (eg the influential Mashable blog) suggesting the Obama White House should use it as its model.
Growth in the number of followers has been steady rather than spectacular – until earlier this month, when things went into overdrive. Just ten days ago, they had just over 8,000 followers; the Twitterholic number quoted for today is more than double that… putting them at #96 in the world. But as I write this, the @downingstreet Twitter page reports a follower count in excess of 19,000 – enough to put them even higher in the rankings tomorrow, leaping ahead of internet ‘big names’ like Loic Le Meur, Dave Winer and Zefrank. (And even, dare i even say it, @wordpress!) Any higher, and you’re into serious celebrity territory.
When you see a chart looking like that, you’re inevitably trying to think what could possibly be causing it. I’m not aware of any rational explanation myself… and a quick scan of recent followers doesn’t suggest an influx of spam accounts. (Well, no more than usual.)
I can only offer a couple of suggestions:

  • The Obama effect. There’s been a lot of speculation about what Team O might do with whitehouse.gov – and maybe that’s stimulated interest in what’s happening elsewhere. (I have to say though, the Canadian and Australian PMs haven’t seen anything like the same growth.)
  • In the wake of Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and John Cleese – Brits are waking up to Twitter. Hitwise published data last week claiming Twitter’s UK-based website traffic (never mind other usage methods) was up 10-fold in a year, with – by the look of it – a further acceleration in the last few weeks. I guess the PM’s Office has made it into that category of Famous UK People You Should Follow When You Join: certainly if you look at the most recent followers, a lot of them are new Twitter users, and @downingstreet is among their first handful of follows. 

It’s truly an amazing success story: and the secret is simple – it’s playing by the (evolving) rules of the medium. The No10 web team post a range of stuff: what they described earlier this week as ‘information mixed with colour‘ – same as every good Twitterer does. Sometimes it’s important government stuff; sometimes it’s the ‘what I had for breakfast’ of Twitter stereotyping. They ask for feedback; they respond to questions, where they can. There’s no lengthy clearance process; they trust the guys to be sensible, and it’s a policy that has worked. The fact that it’s all kept anonymous, and the fact that it isn’t actually the PM himself (and they make no secret of that), have not hindered things.
Now, with all those people listening, what would you do with them?