Should Labour share the NHS love?

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I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan since he was a writer on Irish music (etc) magazine Hot Press. On Wednesday, he stuck a message up on Twitter reacting angrily against ‘rightwing wackjobs in the US lying about the NHS’. He starts using the hashtag #welovethenhs and asks celebrity chums to help spread the word. Soon it’s one of the hot hashtags on Twitter. And two days later, it still is.

All of which puts the Labour Party in a slightly tricky position. They tried – and largely failed – to stir up similar levels of pride in the NHS for its 60th anniversary. Things have unquestionably got better since they re-took power in 1997 (at a price, admittedly). Should they get involved in this spontaneous ‘grassroots’ explosion?

Initially, naturally, the involvement was as ordinary Twitter users; then yesterday, showing commendable responsiveness at least, a big splash on the Labour homepage, easy ‘tweet now!’ links to keep the momentum, plus a Facebook widget. But there have been a few expressions of concern that the Party shouldn’t be seen to hijack a grassroots thing like this.

Personally, I think they’re handling it pretty well. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often; as the cross-party support for the hashtag demonstrates, there aren’t many opportunities to get angry about the NHS in UK politics – and if any party can claim the NHS as ‘theirs’, it’s Labour. So they’re entirely within their rights to make something of it. For the most part, they’re keeping it within Twitter, where it belongs. And to be fair, in bringing it over to labour.org.uk, the treatment is relatively neutral – no Labour branding on the embeddable Flash widget, for example.

I’m already looking forward to hearing how the party leaders explain hashtags in their big conference speeches. 🙂

£10m/year for government web innovation

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Pic by a.drian, found at Flickr.com. Creative Commons licence.

I’m not going to say much here about the Power Of Information Taskforce report: the best place to do that is on the site itself. But I will pick up one point which stopped me in my tracks. The report notes that:

Successful leading high tech businesses will spend at least 10% of their budget on innovation… DirectGov, BusinessLink and NHS Choices should create an combined innovation pot of 10% of their budgets, focussed on improving the public experience of government websites, through outside-in innovation not internal requirements. Annual plans on how this £10m innovation pool is to be deployed should be published and agreed by a new Head of Digital Engagement.

Now let’s be clear: £10m is a heck of a lot of money, particularly in a world where the price of the tools is almost negligible. By my rough calculation, that’s more or less equivalent to a team of 36 consultants on a day rate of £1000 ex VAT, working full time. Even allowing a big chunk for ‘overheads’, which you’d normally look to minimise anyway, you’re still talking about maybe 20 full time people earning absolutely top-whack salaries.

(Note: I’m not saying anyone’s worth £1000 a day; just noting that many in government would consider that ‘the going rate’. It explains why people keep telling me I should put Puffbox’s rates up.)

It’s too big a sum for the Big Ugly Consultancies to ignore, and that’s what worries me. If we’re serious about getting serious innovation, we need to treat this as a venture capital fund, and start getting the cash out to dozens of small-scale, agile, hungry operations.

The big boys are getting enough cash out of the public purse already – and will continue to take the lion’s share of the remaining 90%. If they want to innovate, they already have plenty of opportunity – and arguably, have had it for long enough.

New head of govt comms

PR Week is reporting that Matt Tee, currently chief executive of NHS Direct, has been appointed the new Permanent Secretary of Government Communications; a formal decision is apparently due later today.

It’s an intriguing appointment: Tee’s background is very different to that of his predecessor, Howell James. He came into government (proper) from a business development role at health information company Dr Foster, which already had close links with the NHS. He’s a former head of news at DTI, and was acting director of comms at the Department of Health in 2006 and 2007, whilst Sian Jarvis was on maternity leave. He joined NHS Direct in July 2007; and in the last couple of weeks said he was ‘disappointed’ at having to shelve plans for foundation status.

He’s well connected, judging by his Facebook friends anyway – among them his predecessor in the job, Mike Grannatt, and Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne. And it’ll certainly be good to have someone with hands-on experience of online: Dr Foster ran NHS Choices (until recently), and DH was steadily moving to its new platform during his tenure. Plus, if memory serves, he’s a fellow Arsenal fan? I certainly remember a Matt Tee contributing to the Arsenal mailing list and Arseweb website in the early/mid 1990s.

But I’ll also note that Health has come in for particular criticism in evidence to the House of Lords Comms committee over the summer: there’s quite emotive language in Computer Weekly editor Tony Collins’s write-up of his appearance; whilst Times health editor Nigel Hawkes saying relations were ‘not particularly good’:

They are even discouraging you from developing a relationship of trust with an individual press officer. … Very often big announcements will be so extensively trailed that by the time the report actually appears I cannot persuade my news desk it is of the slightest importance. That leads to bad reporting. … I find [the DH press office] are just useful for getting the line; I would not use them for anything else.

There have been big improvements in communications with the public through websites and participation events and so on. Big efforts have been made there but there is still an understandable reluctance to acknowledge that sometimes policies are not working. If there were more willingness to acknowledge a policy did not work so they will do something else, then they could build a bit of credibility with journalists and be taken a bit more seriously by them.

Update: appointment now confirmed by the Cabinet Office. Interestingly they’ve used the same pic I used… and if you look at the source code of this page, you’ll see exactly where I found it. 😉

Speaking at ScotWeb2

I spoke last Friday at ScotWeb2, organised by (now former) civil servant Alex Stobart to talk about Scotland and web 2.0, open source, engagement, all that good stuff – with a particular, but not exclusive, focus on public sector activity. There isn’t yet (so I’m told) much of a critical mass for this stuff north of the border, and this was an effort to kick-start things.

It’s a story I’ve told many times before: how open source software and free services can be a match (or more) for mega-expensive content management solutions; how the rock-bottom cost of development should make us reconsider the meaning of ‘failure’; and the fact that whatever you want to do online, you could probably now do it. As ever, it turned into a WordPress evangelism session, and I think I’ve encouraged a few people to look at it for their more modest online projects. It’s becoming a very easy ‘sell’.

James Munro from Patient Opinion was up before me. His starting point was that people would share their views of NHS services, whether you provided a mechanism or not – but I didn’t expect him to quote Flickr or YouTube as the platforms people might use. Having initially been funded by the Department of Health, 50 NHS organisations are now paying for ‘value added’ services on the Patient Opinion site… and with the NHS in Scotland being a separate entity, James talked about looking to expand northwards.

If I’m honest, I was a little distracted during the afternoon’s proceeding; having got my Googlephone on launch day, I hadn’t had the chance to play with it. (Er, I mean, configure it properly.) But there were – inevitably – some interesting discussions in the pub afterwards – concentrating most notably on also-ran Scottish football. By which, of course, I mean all of it apart from Rangers and Celtic.

The event took place at Edinburgh University‘s education faculty (?), a few doors up from the Scottish Parliament, but I was struck by the event’s very different atmosphere compared to, let’s say, a similar seminar in Westminster. Much more relaxed, with no problem interrupting speakers’ presentations, and with people on all sides of the political game happy to chat. I’d never been to the Parliament building – and it’s reassuringly, remarkably ordinary. If that’s what comes of devolution, let’s have more of it.

Hi to some of the guys I met on the day: LibDem PPC Stephen Glenn, ex-Green MSP Mark Ballard, blogger Duncan Stephen and Stewart from w00tonomy… and thanks to Alex for making it happen.

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.

Capita to take over NHS Choices

I see today that Capita has been named as the preferred bidder for the £60m+ contract to run the NHS Choices website for the next 3 years – ahead of the incumbent, the Dr Foster Intelligence public-private partnership, as well as IBM, Serco and TATA.

According to Capita’s own press release:

Capita will be responsible for the hosting, technical and content development of the NHS online presence and related digital services. A key focus will be on ensuring innovative engagement with citizens and clinicians to support a healthier nation.

As many as 70 companies expressed an interest when the procurement exercise kicked off late last year. The current contract is due to expire next month.

It’s clearly a big deal, and although I’ve done quite a bit of work lately for the Department of Health and NHS, I don’t know what the implications of a change would be. Anyone care to enlighten us all?

Health minister now blogging, courtesy of Puffbox

Today sees the launch of version 2 of the website I designed and built for Lord Darzi’s national review of the NHS. V1 was built in double-quick time during the summer, and for reasons of cost and speed, used the Typepad blogging platform. Over the last month or so, Typepad’s limitations have become more and more apparent… so it was time to migrate to WordPress. Which, of course, is what I’d always wanted.

All the juicy new stuff hangs off the homepage. ‘Latest news’ is (as you’d expect) a listing of the top news updates, using a special ‘homepage’ category to give the authors total control. ‘Lord Darzi’s blog’ is the latest blog to be written by a government minister, but unlike some, we’re positively encouraging comments. Finally, there’s the ‘latest video’: the review team is producing quite a lot of video content, so we’re sticking it on YouTube, and using YouTube’s little-known RSS feed functionality (with a bit of string manipulation) to pump it back into the site.

The primary navigation is a mix of blog categories and static ‘pages’: hey, if you dig deep enough, there’s even an old-school image map! How long is it since I did one of those? We haven’t made any distinction between the two; I’m not sure it really matters to the punters.

As it’s WordPress, we’ve got full comment functionality if we want it. The plan is that blog posts should generally have comments enabled, but news posts won’t. However, if we fancy it, we can. To draw attention to the items where comments are ‘on’, there’s a little speech bubble icon which appears against the relevant headlines. A minor thing, but it catches the eye really well.

Overall, it’s taken less than a week to recode the templates, develop the new functionality, and import the content. Importing from Typepad was relatively painless: the initial process took seconds, but then you’ve got the hassle of setting summaries for each item, identifying and repointing all the manual inline links, etc etc. I’m glad there wasn’t too much content to worry about. DNS changes and server reconfiguration took about a day and a half, which was a real disappointment, but at least it’s done now.

I’m really pleased with it; the initial site was OK, particularly given the laughably short timeframe, but I knew we could do better. I’m afraid the exercise has put me off using Typepad, though: although it does have some pseudo-CMS functionality, my feeling was that it’s too tied to the concept of blogging.

Next steps? We’re thinking of a photo gallery, and maybe even some delegated authoring responsibility. But that’s all for another day. My next WordPress-in-government project is looming, and is likely to be even bigger. 😉