Buzzfeed listicles have no place on GOVUK. Do I really need to write that?

Her Majesty’s Government has made occasional forays into the world of Buzzfeed. I thought the Foreign Office’s use of the platform to rebut claims by Russia Today was quite amusing, and entirely appropriate. A very serious message presented in an ultra digestible format.

Earlier this week, someone in UK central government (the Treasury?) put together a list of 12 things you could buy with the £1,400 that Scottish people are better off per capita by remaining in the UK… and posted it on Buzzfeed. Complete with photos of Lego scenes.

Now I have to say, I don’t feel at all comfortable with Whitehall, the Civil Service, the organs of state taking a position on the Scottish referendum like this.

I agree entirely with the assertion (posted on a gov.uk explanatory page) that ‘there is a demand for the provision of information which will enable voters to come to an informed decision’. If the conclusion arising from unbiased consideration is clearly in one direction rather than the other, they should say that.

But they should do so whilst standing clearly outside the fray. If the Yes campaign wins, Whitehall needs to negotiate a smooth exit from the Union, having been an active combatant on the opposite side. It means they would enter any such negotiations at an immediate and irretrievable disadvantage.

If they are going to take a stance, and campaign actively in its favour, they might as well articulate their conclusions in a digestible format (listicle), and post it in an appropriate place (Buzzfeed). Yes, it might create a few ripples in the Scottish media – and indeed it has: they probably wanted that anyway. But it’s easy to shrug off. Sure, it’s Buzzfeed. What do you expect?

But I think it’s a huge mistake to bring that into the universally acclaimed gov.uk site, as they have now done. Steph Gray describes it beautifully in a post on his Postbureaucrat blog.

Library content answers questions… It has credibility, and a certain longevity, if maintained appropriately. These days, GOV.UK is the natural home for most library content in central government.

Café content is what you create to get people talking. (It) needs to exist in the context of a solid strategy, and often will point people to your library content where they can find out more, sign up for something, join a campaign or give you their feedback.

Keep the library and the cafe distinct spaces, and find out how best to make them work together.

He also points to the deeply troubling ‘imaginable situation’ of the civil service being instructed to campaign for exit from the EU. And I now wish he hadn’t.

Scotland’s new public service portal

First major government web launch of the year is DirectScot – described by some as the ‘Scottish version of alpha.gov.uk’, although if you dig beneath the service, it’s arguably closer in philosophy to Northern Ireland’s NIDirect.

On its WordPress-powered blog (yay!), DirectScot says its aim is ‘to enable you to find what you are looking for as quickly and easily as possible, based on aggregation of content and powerful, location-based search technology.’ Indeed, it explicitly calls itself a portal, a word Alphagov never used. The development agency behind the site, Edinburgh’s own Storm ID admit as much: their launch announcement is all about search, search, search.

The site highlights a handful of services ‘featured for the prototype’: one of which is Booking a practical driving test. This takes you to a page with an intriguing URL, ending in a DG reference number. Can you guess what DG stands for? And indeed, the five-digit number on the DirectScot site matches the equivalent page ID on its orange neighbour. Scanning down that page on driving tests, you’ll see links to half a dozen other DG-sourced articles, plus a few pointing at dft.gov.uk… none of which, as yet, carry your geographic location across.

The one feature which is properly ‘wired in’ is the application process for a Blue Badge parking permit. A page named DS_0001 ultimately leads you to a DirectScot-branded equivalent of the standard Directgov page… although tellingly, the ‘home’ URL behind the DirectScot logo is, in fact, still www.direct.gov.uk. Ahem.

It’s far too early to make any judgements about the site. The principle of location-tailored information is unquestionably a good thing; and even if this prototype is only a statement of intent in that regard, it’s to be welcomed. It’s quite pretty, and makes a good first step towards responsive design – the process by which a layout adapts according to the available screen size.

But there’s one dark cloud on the horizon: the site looks to have been built using Microsoft technologies, which doesn’t bode well for the site’s code being open-sourced.

Consultation on the site opened today, and closes on 1 March.

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.