Dept of Health’s eulogy for WordPress

I feel somewhat obliged to highlight the latest blog post by Stephen Hale, head of digital at the Dept of Health. As regular readers will know, Stephen switched the department’s web publishing strategy over to WordPress just over a year ago, and he’s written subsequently about the joy of making such a move.

The countdown is now well and truly ‘on’ for government’s move to its new bespoke web platform: in less than a week, Directgov and BusinessLink will have been switched off. Government departments’ corporate sites will make the transition over the next few months: initially as ‘islands’, but reaching a critical mass ‘in around February’, according to the Inside Inside Government blog. A post on another Health blog quoted a completion date of April – and that certainly tallies with conversations I’ve had.

All of which leaves Stephen in reflective mood.

In DH, since we switched our main content management tool for dh.gov.uk to WordPress, we’ve expanded the range of people who can publish DH content. We’ve been able to do this because it’s now dead easy for people to do it. WordPress removes complexity for the editor – form relates to function pretty well.

As a result the digital team spend much less time publishing than we once did, and less time training and supporting editors. So we are able to focus more of our effort on ambitious uses of digital for health and care, and our policy engagement work.

– which is exactly the message I have been pushing around Whitehall for several years. How great to see it reflected back on a *.gov.uk website.

Stephen’s post closes:

I’m expecting [with] the publishing tools for the Inside Government bits of GOV.UK … our editors won’t need a manual and a training course to do their jobs. From what I’ve seen, it’s looking good.

Is it just me, or is that a veiled threat? :)

Going in 60 seconds

In a single sentence, Stephen Hale’s latest blog post encapsulates the sheer joy of moving from a classic old-style CMS to WordPress.

By switching out Stellent for WordPress as our primary content management tool, we changed the processes by which web content was created and published. Editors no longer needed the same in-depth knowledge of the CMS to publish content, it was possible to publish more quickly, and it was much easier for us to devolve the act of publishing. The day-long CMS training course for new editors was replaced with a 1 minute (I timed it) session showing staff how to click on “add new” and type in a box.

From what I hear, the GDS training course for those publishing on the new unified platform is going to take a _little_ longer than that.

Dept of Health switches to WordPress

Congratulations to Stephen Hale and the team at DH for finally making the leap, and moving their corporate web presence over to WordPress.

Stephen hinted at such a move back in February, when he blogged about their successful use of WP for a number of subsites: ‘having dipped a toe in,’ he wrote, ‘it’s tempting to go a bit further than we originally planned.’ Clearly though, Stephen’s plans have moved on quite a bit since the start of the year: in a blog post last week, he described this as ‘phase 2 of 4′ (!).

As with our work for Defra, they’ve opted not to redesign the site: it still looks (broadly) the same as it did, although not identical, and the trained eye will spot a more WordPress-friendly approach to sidebars and things. Nor have they migrated most of the old content: it will remain accessible until it’s out of date, at which point it’ll be moved to an (unspecified) archive. I don’t think anyone would call that a perfect solution, but these are cash-strapped times, and it’s almost certainly good enough.

The project – driven by Steph Gray, including some input from Mike Little – is based on HealthPress, the same TwentyTen-based child theme Steph developed for those aforementioned subsites. Back in February, I wrote that the code ‘isn’t pushing the technology’s boundaries too hard’ – and really, that’s still the case. But I stress, I don’t write that as a criticism. It’s to Steph’s great credit, and that of WordPress itself of course, that he’s made the site work with just a vanilla WP instance. Amazing what you can do with posts & pages, tags & categories, a bunch of widgets, and a few ‘usual suspect’ plugins.

Stephen very kindly referenced the Word Up Whitehall event from last October as having provided ‘a moment of epiphany': if there’s a direct line to be drawn from there to here, then I’m absolutely delighted my little get-together served its purpose. Maybe it’s time for a follow-up.

That’s now four Whitehall departments running their primary websites on WordPress: Transport, Health, Defra and the Wales Office; plus Downing Street, of course, and several – Cabinet Office, BIS, DFID, DECC – using it for secondary elements of their corporate websites.

So does that make it the most used ‘CMS’ for Whitehall departments’ primary sites? I rather think it might. :D

WordPress at Dept of Health

Just a brief post to highlight Stephen Hale’s write-up about WordPress usage at the Department of Health, answering the question I posed in a tweet last week:

Just how many WordPress based sites is @hmshale running over at @dhgovuk?

… to which the answer is, one or two more than I had spotted.

It’s all Steph Gray‘s handiwork, commissioned through Steria, with a child theme of the default Twenty Ten. I’m sure Steph would agree that it isn’t pushing the technology’s boundaries too hard; but it doesn’t need to. Stephen’s team’s needs have been met, allowing them to spin off high-quality subsites, quickly and efficiently, when requirements land on his desk – and indeed, Stephen observes: ‘I think the theme will exceed our expectations for it.’ I look forward to Steph’s write-up of the work; it’s highly unusual for him not to have posted something by now.

There’s a very interesting sign-off to the piece, too:

I don’t need to tell you that using a straightforward publishing tool like WordPress is fairly pleasing. Having dipped a toe in, it’s tempting to go a bit further than we originally planned.

Whatever could he mean? ;)

FCO’s modest redesign

newfco

The Foreign Office relaunched its corporate website over the weekend – always a brave move. You’re met by a very striking news-y homepage, with large-format high-impact (and high maintenance) imagery: it works very well indeed, but is the sort of homepage which takes a lot of editorial effort, and presumably a photo budget of some sort. There are several RSS icons dotted around the place; blog and Twitter areas on the homepage; and if you dig a little deeper, a press office blog (of sorts). It’s a homepage which clearly knows its purpose. And that’s a good thing.

Design-wise, the header feels modest and contemporary. But I’d have concerns about the presentation of text lower down the page. Whilst I’m sure a lot of the issues – inconsistent spacing, curious alignment, empty links – can probably be put down to teething troubles, I’m forced to look back to the Blogs site which started fairly messy, and hasn’t ever improved. Stephen Hale promises a new look to that site too; I sincerely hope so.

The press office ‘blog’ is a very interesting addition: running since June, it actually uses an account at Tumblr.com as its CMS, with the material being pulled into FCO chrome (presumably) via RSS feed. It’s publish-only, so no comments; and if you want anything beyond the last few items, it sends you off to Tumblr. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to like about Tumblr, a lighter-than-lightweight ‘blogging’ solution. But I don’t feel comfortable about a major department of state using it. And I wonder if they’d be doing that if their main blogging platform wasn’t a better one.

You’ll be wondering about cost, no doubt. ‘None of this work cost any extra money,’ says Stephen, ‘we’ve done it in house.’ And whilst that doesn’t mean it’s free, at least it means (one assumes) they’ve avoided the worst excesses of some previous site rebuilds.

Is it better than what went before? Yes, I think so. It feels like a much smaller, slightly better organised site. But as I said last time, we expect a lot from FCO – with a famously digitally-savvy Foreign Secretary, a communications remit and a significant budget. I still think they can do more, and do it better. We await their new appointment with interest.

FCO seeks new head of digital

Another senior digital job pops up: this time, it’s the Foreign Office looking for a Head of Digital Engagement. It’s a Senior Civil Service band 1 position, a 2-year fixed-term contract with a salary up to £90k (plus London weighting, plus 6 weeks holiday!), managing the 30-strong team based in London, Washington, New Delhi and Singapore.

But it’s not Stephen Hale‘s position – or is it? Announcing the vacancy on his FCO-hosted blog, he writes:

You might also have noticed that my own job title contains the words “Head”, “Digital” and “Engagement” in a slightly different order. This is a different job – it’s for our head of department. When the position is filled, it could change the dynamic of the team I work in. And my responsibilities (and job title) might have to change too. A lot will depend on who we recruit.

Fair enough… but I note that the ‘slug’ of the post is ‘time_to_move_on’. Hmm.

Update: Stephen emails to explain – the initial title of the piece was ‘Time to move on?’, with a question mark. (To which the answer was going to be ‘no’.) Except that, of course, the question mark got removed in the translation to a page slug. He assures me, he’s going nowhere.

Having spent the early – and probably the most productive – years of my Civil Service career at the FCO, I can vouch for it as a fine place to work; and with David Miliband as Foreign Secretary, you know there’s support for online work at the very top. If you fancy it, CVs and covering letters are due in by noon on 12 October.

FCO blogging on blogging

It’s great to see the Foreign Office’s Stephen Hale raising his head above the parapet, and blogging about his job as ‘Head of Engagement’. (Quite a job title, by the way.) Makes sense for numerous reasons of course, not least as a means of setting a good example for colleagues. I mean, would you trust a ‘blogging expert’ who didn’t blog?

Stephen has already touched on the FCO’s choice of the rather obscure Roller blogging platform – ‘because of the ease with which we could integrate it with our web platform’. His latest post reveals something I hadn’t previously appreciated: ‘we opened up the blogs over the summer so that any member of staff with a valid business reason could start an official blog’.

That’s a remarkable move in itself, and perhaps unexpectedly, puts FCO on a par with hi-tech companies like Microsoft – but I’m still in two minds about the wisdom of people blogging in a personal capacity on an official platform (generally speaking). My instinct remains that corporate blogging is best done on a project basis, with more personal stuff (again, generally) kept separate.

In that respect, we should all be grateful to FCO for testing the water here; we’ll only find out what works – if anythying – by trying it, and they’ve certainly got the Boss most likely to give them the freedom to experiment.