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.

WordPress to power new Press Assoc network?

The Press Association is the engine which powers the UK news machine. In effect it’s a cooperative owned by the UK’s regional and national newspapers. It has noticed that, as funds get tighter, its members have stopped reporting on local democracy – council meetings and the like. And it’s working on a proposal to fill that gap in the information provision market by providing the content itself, free of charge online… if the public purse cares to pay them £15-18 million to do so.

It’s a very interesting notion, and – considering the potential public benefit – a not inconceivable price-tag. But the line in Robert Andrews’s piece at PaidContent which really caught my eye was this:

It will probably be delivered initially through a WordPress (blog) site, but it will be delivered with RSS feeds spinning off it and not as a primary site of interest.” Johnston showed a mock-up of PA content in a blog wearing an out-of-the-box default WordPress theme.

In fact, it’s a concept I’ve proven myself. A couple of years ago, I did some work with a small business information consultancy to move their (relatively tiny-scale) news publishing mechanism over to WordPress. Stories were being written in an existing workflow management app: but when it came to distributing these stories, we simply dropped them into a WordPress build – and let WP’s remarkably flexible RSS functionality do the rest. Stories were tagged according to subject area and clients; feeds were generated; and content got syndicated to wherever it needed to be, in an easily-republishable format. There was no front-end website at all: just the feeds coming off it.

So yes, I can heartily endorse this proposal. If it’s an open-access site, requiring easy authoring and easy syndication, WordPress should be perfect. And since it already does all the feed stuff, out-of-the-box, the project could be up and running as quickly as the reporters can be recruited.

But still, it’s a startling moment to be receiving the endorsement from the biggest player in UK news distribution. And it’s yet another reason, as if we needed it, for anyone working in news to look at what WordPress could do for them. If we could get every government press office on WordPress, for a start…

Birmingham council: not all bad

BirminghamNewsroom

Last week, I shared the general sense of shock around the blogs at news about Birmingham council’s new website: 3.5 years late, and costing £2.8 million. But last night, to my great surprise, I came across BirminghamNewsroom.com – a WordPress-powered website for the council’s press office, launched a couple of months back.

It’s based on iCompany – a ‘premium’ theme costing $80, with only minimal customisation; and by sheer virtue of choosing WordPress, it comes with a remarkably rich feature set, not least its offering of RSS feeds (and email alerting via S2). And that’s before we get on to its integration of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube/Vodpod, etc etc.

The domain was registered in March this year, and the site is hosted by justhost.com – who appear to charge a jawdropping £2.95/month for unlimited disk space / bandwidth / MySQL / domains, cPanel based, plus a free domain name. In other words, the perfect antidote to an over-running, over-spending web project. And with no immediate evidence of Big Consultancy involvement.

There are a few odd things in the build; I’ve written previously about why I don’t like using off-the-shelf themes; and if I wanted to be exceptionally cynical, I’d be concerned that the Press Office had felt the need to go out and build this site: what, the £2.8m site can’t match WordPress? But instead, I’m going to say ‘well done Birmingham press office’. I’ve always said WordPress would make the ideal platform for a press office, and this kinda proves it.

RSS usage on Whitehall’s websites

How many central government websites offer RSS feeds these days? The good news is that of the 20 departments represented in the Cabinet, I could only find one that didn’t. But it was a bit of a surprise to see how few offered ‘full text’ feeds, as opposed to ‘summary only’.

I visited each of the 20 departments listed on the Parliament web page – the top result in Google for ‘UK cabinet ministers’, looking for a main RSS news feed. Here’s what I found:

  • There are explicit references to RSS feeds on 18 of the 20 sites: the exceptions are the Scotland Office and Defra. There is a Defra feed if you know where to look (namely COI); but how many would know to look there? That leaves the Scotland Office as the only department completely lacking an RSS feed for departmental news. (Its Secretary of State, Jim Murphy does have a blog, but I’m not counting that here.)
  • Five of the 20 fall back on the feeds produced by COI’s News Distribution Service. That leaves 14 of the 20 producing their own feeds – in most cases, in addition to the feeds at COI.
  • Only one, FCO, directs people through Google’s Feedburner service.
  • Only 3 of the 20 provide ‘full text’ RSS feeds – allowing people to read the full press release (etc) instantly, and opening up the possibilities for easy information re-use (ie ‘mashups’). The rest require people to ‘click through’ to a page on the originating website. This is common in commercial publishing, where on-page advertising is a key driver.
  • Of the 3 offering ‘full text’, 2 are running on WordPress: Number10 and the Wales Office, both of which I admittedly had some involvement in. The other one is DECC.
  • The Department of Health’s RSS feeds aren’t valid: the ‘link’ element quoted in the feed doesn’t include www.dh.gov.uk. A curious problem to have caused yourself, and a trivial one to fix. I’ve mentioned this before, in the context of Directgov; and of course, the two share a publishing platform. A broken one, in this case.
  • It was a pleasant surprise to see the majority of sites have ‘autodiscovery tags‘ in the header of their homepages – a behind-the-scenes way of indicating that a site has an RSS feed, which can (for example) light up an icon in the browser interface. But 8 don’t. I’m looking at you FCO, Home Office, Defra, DFID, Cabinet Office, Defence, Transport, and DCMS. Some of them have the appropriate tags deeper into the site, to be fair… but it’s a free and instant win those sites are missing out on.

The thing is, it’s so easy to get RSS right. Ask any blogger: when executed properly, RSS feeds should be an automatic, never-even-think-about-it thing. Each time a new item becomes available on a site, it should just drop into the RSS feed, notifying people – and importantly, mechanical services – of its availability.

And the easiest way to get RSS right is to build your news website on WordPress. Out of the box, you get valid RSS feeds for virtually any view of your site’s news content. Feeds by category / press office desk / minister? By keyword tag… or combinations of keyword tags? How about infinitely customisable feeds, based on search queries? Yes, to all of those. Probably within a couple of days, if you get the right people in. (Hint hint.)

A lot of government websites are going to need a rethink following the next election. It’s the ideal opportunity to upgrade the news area, by moving to a system that’s been explicitly designed around the timely publication of short text articles, generally presented in chronological order. By which I mean, a blogging system. And specifically, WordPress.

UK GovCamp 09: a sense of progress

UK GovCamp 09
Pic by Neil Williams: that's the back of my head next to Tom Steinberg

I felt a very different atmosphere at the second annual UK Government Barcamp (aka UKGC09), held at the Ministry of Justice’s offices in central London yesterday. Last year’s event buzzed with potential; all the talk was of things that we could or should do. This time, certainly the sessions I attended anyway, the talk was mainly of things that were starting to happen – or even better, things that had happened.

It’s impossible to write up any kind of authoritative account of the day: like last year, I came away wishing I’d been able to sit in on more sessions than I actually had. Some suggested there was an argument for a longer event, or maybe several shorter events – but I quite like the intensity of the single day approach, and surely it’s good to leave people hungry for more?

Paul Clarke
Paul Clarke

I started at the Directgov session led by Paul Clarke and Brian Hoadley, formally (?) launching the Directgov | Innovate programme – which they describe on their new WordPress-powered 🙂 website as: ‘to inform the greater developer community about available resources, to provide a platform to connect with one another, and to showcase new ideas with the aim of supporting and encouraging innovation.’ I’ve pressed for a Directgov blog for a long time, so it’s genuinely great to see this happening. Anything which opens the doors to ‘the community’ out there is a good thing.

Paul was frank that he couldn’t specify what would come out of the programme, but he expected that its first year would see: availability of data sets, a few experimental applications, and some hosting. The room seemed most excited by the prospect of data access – which kinda confuses me. If it’s just data they want, there’s masses of it out there – admittedly, in spreadsheets and CSV files rather than a web-friendly API. Look at the National Statistics site for starters.

Personally, I’m most excited by the prospect of a ‘sandbox’ hosting service – again, something I’ve been pushing for ages. For all the cool stuff we could do, and all the cool things people actually want to do, we need somewhere safe to put it. If nobody’s prepared to offer that, it’s no surprise to see departments buying cheap web hosting accounts left, right and centre. I’ve long argued for someone to step up to provide a service, ideally free of charge, with the kinds of guarantees government needs. It looks like this might actually be it.

jennybee
Jenny Brown

Next was Jenny and Lloyd on their work with the Ministry of Justice press office. I’ve always had press offices in my sights: they should be ideally placed to see real benefits from all this online stuff.

Jenny’s been developing a ‘press office dashboard’ concept – and if they’re really saying ‘how did we ever cope without it’, you know we’re getting somewhere. It’s nothing too clever, to be honest: a customised iGoogle homepage, a bunch of Google News search feeds, a ‘starred items’ list, and a daily Feedburner ‘digest’ email. But it’s giving them things they’ve never had before – most notably, Jenny said, breadth of awareness; and there have been a few specific wins, particularly in the regional media. The next step was to go beyond the conventional media, and open their eyes to the blogosphere; but that sounded like it might be much harder work.

(It’s not the only such initiative: Steph has used Netvibes at DIUS (see his paper on the subject), and Shane from Gallomanor gave me a quick demo of a neat little application they’re developing, which does something similar. But it was great to get first-hand feedback of the apparent success of the project.)

Lloyd showed the ‘online media centre’ he had built for them: again, just a stitching together of real world tools – WordPress.com, YouTube, Delicious, all the obvious candidates – but this time, for the press office to create more web-friendly release material for use by journalists. It’s password protected, yet they weren’t prepared to open up comments – which, I think, is both disappointing and entirely to be expected. Maybe they need to be consumers for a bit longer, using Jenny’s work, before they start really producing.

Geek cuisine
Geek cuisine

The afternoon just seemed to whizz by. I helped out at the session on corporate blog platforms, led by Julia from DFID and Shane from FCO. I finally caught up with Paul Canning, who talked a bit about user testing. And there was a feisty session to close, on the subject of open source in government, which felt like preaching to the converted (sorry).

All of which meant I missed the session on Twitter; and almost everything on consultation, which was among my key interests for the day. Then there’s the long list of people I meant to speak to, but didn’t get the chance. And the videos I meant to capture, but didn’t get the chance. So yeah, as I say, hungry for more. Will there be another one next year? Put it this way, people were already starting to talk about it.

Scottish Sec Murphy to keep ‘blogging’

Well, here’s a first. Government press officers haven’t been the most enthused by new media. I’m told that’s changing, slowly but surely. But it’s quite startling to see a press office announcing a blog which hasn’t even been launched yet – and even better, syndicating the content via press release!

Clearly the Scotland Office are pretty excited. They sent out new secretary of state Jim Murphy’s first post from his new blog, without mentioning that the blog didn’t exist yet, or even the address it would occupy when it did finally launch. Ian Cuddy managed to glean that: ‘It will be going on the Scotland office website in a more conventional blog format … once we’ve got one or two technical things ironed out.’ Which came as some relief to those of us who feared this might be an attempt to blog by press release alone. What a concept.

The ‘blog’ is now live on the Scotland Office site: but ominously, it looks like a standard web page. No RSS feeds, no comments, no tags, nothing that would fit the de facto definition of a blog. But it’s a start, I suppose. To their great credit, they’ve got it into WordPress relatively quickly. Comments, feeds, the whole lot are now available, and it slots seamlessly into the existing corporate site. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just do that in the first place.

It’s been very interesting to watch how Jim Murphy has warmed to blogging. He started in September 2007, as the Foreign Office launched their ambitious multi-author approach. My understanding at the time was that he had to be persuaded to do it: with the EU Constitution/Treaty argument at its height, a blog was seen as a good thing to do. The FCO project is generally recognised as a success, with Murphy’s own blog being singled out for particular attention: an impressive following, and at least one instance where a reader comment affected subsequent policy. Shortly afterwards (I think), Murphy started blogging on his own personal website.

Had he wanted one, the move up to Cabinet level would have been an excuse to stop. Greater responsibility, no existing platform, etc. So it’s good to see his desire to continue – and you have to assume, it was high on his priority list when he arrived. He tells us (via that press release):

When I was Minister for Europe I had a regular blog. I found it a useful way of letting people know what was going on in Europe, and I got a lot of good feedback. Now I’m Secretary of State for Scotland I’m going to carry on blogging and I look forward to having a dialogue about the really important issues that face our country.

It’s very much the same challenge: emotional discussions about matters of national sovereignty. And by vowing to keep blogging, it’s probably the best signal we’ll get that it was felt to have been a valuable use of his time. There are, of course, quite a few parallels here with David Miliband who kept up his blogging through two reshuffles (ODPM to Defra to FCO), all the way to the Cabinet table.

And while we’re on the subject of people with multiple blogs… I note that James Barbour, press secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, and an occasional visitor to these parts, now has an official blog on the Foreign Office platform, to go alongside his personal blog outside. I asked him via Twitter how he was planning to juggle the two: his honest reply comes on a post on his personal blog: ‘I’m not entirely sure myself, Simon, but I’m going to try.’ You can’t ask any more. Good luck sir.

Govt comms: better, but years behind

Flicking across the news channels tonight, I bumped into recorded coverage of Wednesday’s Lords Communications Committee. You had the BBC’s Frank Gardner and Sky’s Tim Marshall, plus a couple of other senior journalists, giving their frank opinions on the state of media, politics and government. I only caught the last few minutes; it looks like I missed coverage of the earlier session with Nick Robinson and Adam Boulton.

The session closed with each ‘witness’ being asked: is government communication getting better or worse, and how does it need to improve? Fascinatingly, the two TV correspondents referenced the world of multi-platform, multi-media, online-driven news.

Frank Gardner told the committee: ‘I definitely sense a desire to be helpful. [But] they are still in about 1985, when it comes to being in tune with the modern, multimedia environment we work in. We live in a fast-moving media environment. Government departments generally are far too slow – unnecessarily.’

Tim Marshall, never one to mince his words, agreed that things were ‘getting better since 2004, because things were pretty bad before that. The flow of information is much better, putting things on the internet, the Prime Minister’s conferences being televised, Lobby being on the record – these are all very positive things. But there are still not enough professional people [in media operations]. It’s people passing through for two years, sometimes they don’t want to do it.’

Tim then quoted an email from an unnamed colleague, who had recently spoken to a conference of 60 government press officers. ‘I got the distinct impression they are several years off the pace.’ ‘We in the media have had to embrace the blogosphere, all this stuff,’ Tim said in conclusion. ‘We’ve had to, because it’s survive or die. It’s not like that in government press offices, and I don’t think they’ve quite understood 2008, and the multimedia platform.’

So, to any press officers who happen to be reading: it isn’t just the geeks saying this now; it’s the journalists you’re there to serve. They’re telling you – politely, positively – that you aren’t serving them satisfactorily. You need to play catch-up.

PS: I’d never have found this if I hadn’t been channel-hopping at the right moment. The fact is, some of the most insightful and intelligent broadcasting in the UK is happening at weekends on BBC Parliament – and it’s a crying shame that we can’t find a better way to get it out there. The iPlayer is a start (and yes, this recording will thankfully be on iPlayer ‘soon’ – Monday I guess). But surely it’s crying out to be a TED-style podcast series?

Telegraph style guide: 2m forward, 1′ back

Thanks to Shane at the Telegraph for highlighting the new Daily Telegraph style guide. Written (or more accurately, drafted?) by Simon Heffer, it’s online now for consultation, prior to hard-copy publication in a few months.

As you might expect it’s a curious mix of the web-friendly and the conservative (with a small, and probably also a large C). So you get rulings like these:

Increasingly, as the distinction between publishing the newspaper and producing the website fades, we will stop using such words as “yesterday” and “today” in copy except when necessary to avoid confusion or to promote exclusive stories.

On the internet the priority for any headline is to inform search engines (and therefore readers) what the article is about. Its language should therefore be concrete, not abstract, and contain full names.

We use imperial measures except where for accuracy’s sake – as in some scientific or foreign story, or one detailing the calibre of armaments – metric is appropriate.

Bah. Just as you think the Telegraph is reinventing itself and its journalism for the imminent future, it drags you crashing back to pre-decimalisation days.

The death of ‘today’ is well judged, though. I’m seeing too many (government) press releases with eager press officers falling back on the old rule of getting the word ‘today’ in the first sentence, to make it seem more urgent. I’m not sure it ever worked; now it’s positively counter-productive.

New Wales Office websites by Puffbox

Swyddfa CymruWe’re exceptionally proud to unveil the latest Puffbox site: a new corporate website – or indeed, two – for the Wales Office. And as you’d probably expect from us, it’s not just another government website.

In late 2007, I was invited over to the Wales Office’s Whitehall HQ. I hope they don’t mind me saying, their website was probably the ugliest in government, and people were starting to take notice. They had no hands-on control of their own content, and no site usage data. Could Puffbox help? Yes, yes we could.

The new site, which we’re launching today, was designed, built and populated in a timescale (and for a budget) which would put many suppliers to shame, and gives them functionality which many of their Whitehall neighbours will envy. I also believe it could spark a culture change in how government communicates.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear it’s built on the WordPress ‘blogging’ platform, and continues our series of ‘blogs which aren’t blogs’. News releases, speeches, publications and FOI disclosures are all entered as ‘blog posts’, distinguished using categories. All the more static, corporate stuff is done as ‘pages’.

For the readers, there are immediate benefits. Obviously, it’s prettier. It’s been coded with better accessibility in mind. Every page is automatically printer-friendly, using CSS. The blogging mechanism gives reliable, automated archiving by category and month. Not to mention the various RSS feeds. And as you’re legally entitled to expect, there’s a fully-functional Welsh-language version too.

And for the Wales Office themselves, it’s a quantum leap. Previously they’ve been emailing pages out for someone to hand-code: yes folks, even in 2008. (Not the only ones, either.) They now have direct access into their publishing back-end, with all the benefits thereof. And because it’s WordPress, page authoring and management is a breeze. That’s before we get on to things like Google rankings, site usage statistics, multi-site and mobile working…

Why do I see it as a culture-changer? The site is being run by the Press Office, a small team in a small department (60 staff). They have the authority, and now the ability, to publish new communications at a moment’s notice. If they want to operate by ‘bloggers’ rules’, they can. And as I recall Tom Steinberg once saying, it’s the tools which are transformational. Let’s see what happens… and if they make a success of it, expect others to follow.