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 Nor have they migrated most of the old content: it will remain accessible until it’s out of date, at which point it’ll be moved to an (unspecified) archive.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. 😀

Networked blogs: our latest science experiment

Over the last couple of months I’ve been working with Steph Gray and his BIS colleagues to build a modest little family of websites which could have far-reaching consequences.

As Steph notes on his own blog, I’ve long been musing openly about seeing corporate websites as clusters of smaller websites: making a virtue of the silo mentality, if you like. Give each sub-unit a full-featured website, with hands-on control of content, their own ‘latest news’ stream, the ability to activate and manage reader comments. Let the technology platform enforce a certain degree of consistency, and centralised control. Lay a unifying ‘front end’ over the top, to promote the day’s most important developments, and assist with search and navigation.

It also tied in neatly to a question I’ve been asked quite a few times lately: what’s the maximum number of pages a WordPress build can handle? In a single ‘page tree’, I’ve helped run sites with hundreds of pages – and whilst it’s perfectly serviceable, it’s hardly ideal. But maybe it’s the single page tree that’s the problem there. How about if, instead of a 100-page structure, you had 10 structures each of 10 pages?

The opportunity to test the theory arose when Steph approached me about BIS’s Science and Society site – which, as it happens, had been Steph’s first WordPress build (whilst still in DIUS). What better audience for such an experiment than the science community?

We replaced ‘ordinary’ WordPress with WordPress MU (‘multi user’), and I built a more flexible MU-friendly theme, maintaining the same basic look and feel. There’s a top-level ‘family’ navigation, representing the various individual subsites; and with a line or two of CSS, we can give subsite its own colour scheme. There’s a special ‘homepage’ template for subsite use, driven primarily by widgets. And at the top level, we’re actually aggregating the subsites’ RSS feeds to produce a ‘latest across the whole site’ listing and RSS feed.

It’s a tricky time to be doing the project, on numerous fronts. BIS are working on launching a redesigned (non-WP) site, hence the new blue branding along the top. WordPress v3.0 is on the horizon, integrating MU’s multi-user aspect into the core product, with as yet unknown consequences. Oh, and in case you’d missed it, there’s an election on the cards, not to mention a purdah period leading up to it – and who-knows-what afterwards. So things have been a bit quick-and-dirtier than I’d usually allow; but I saw no point getting bogged down in detail when everything could be up for grabs imminently.

Steph has used a deliberately provocative title on his post – ‘One day, all of this will be blogs.’ Is that an overstatement? Perhaps, but aren’t we seeing blogging steadily take over other forms of communication?

If teams really do want to connect with their stakeholders (hate that word), and operate transparently, and permit two-way conversations – this model would give them the platform they need. A single WordPress MU build makes the maintenance of the network (almost) as straightforward as a single blog – and allows a degree of control to be kept at the centre. The stakeholders can have all the RSS feeds and email alerts they could desire. It doesn’t resolve the human and organisational / cultural aspects: but it clears the way for those to be tackled, if we really want to.

I think it can work: it’s the logical ‘next step’ for WordPress’s journey into the corporate world, surely. Do I think it will work? I honestly don’t know. I’ll be watching with interest.

Microsites make perfect

Steph Gray drew my attention to a piece highlighting the downside of microsites, and offered a nicely balanced view of the pros and cons. But whilst I admit to a commercial interest here, he missed one strong reason in favour of allowing at least the occasional microsite.

I know it flies in the face of web rationalisation; but the only way to get better at building websites is to build websites.

I’m unquestionably better at this job than I was when I started a couple of years ago. I learn something with every new project, and every fresh set of client requirements. I always consciously try to add something new and innovative – for me, or for government, or for WordPress – into every build. If it works, I’ll do it again next time; if not, I’ll certainly be wiser for trying.

If you adhere to the ‘only one website per government department’ rule, that would mean your team is only building one website every 3-5 years, or maybe even more. No opportunity to practice or experiment in between monster projects; and the experience of ‘last time’ will, in all likelihood, be irrelevant. Any mistakes you make, you’ll be stuck with for the v-e-r-y long term.

Innovative & skilful: it’s The Business

New BIS website

On reflection, if you’re going to put two of the most forward-thinking people in e-government into the same department, great things are probably to be expected. BERR (as was)‘s Neil and DIUS (as was)‘s Steph put their heads together on Monday afternoon, and on Wednesday, they launched a new corporate website for the newly-created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It’s based on WordPress, with a bit of RSS magic, and the help of a few (free) web-based tools. And it’s brilliant.

Steph documents the work with characteristic modesty:

It won’t win any design awards, and the downside to Heath Robinson web development will no doubt be some quirks in reliability. But happily, we can say we haven’t spent a penny on external web development or licencing costs, and we got something up within 3 days. Compared to the static, hand-coded site DIUS had for the first 18 months of its life, it’s a start, and a little bit innovative too.

Actually, I like the design: it’s forcibly simple, but that’s no bad thing, and is something they should try to maintain in the long run. There may be quirks; but that doesn’t make it any worse than some of the £multi-million CMSes in Whitehall. Yes of course it’s work in progress, but isn’t everything – or rather, shouldn’t it be?

I can’t think of a better case study for the power of open source, web tools, pretty much everything I bang on about here. And if my work for the Wales Office was any kind of inspiration, I’m delighted to have been a part of it.

Oh, and just for the record… that’s now the Prime Minister’s office and the Deputy Prime Minister First Secretary of State’s department running their websites on WordPress. I’m just saying… 😉

A couple of Commentariat launches

Low Carbon Commentariat

A key element of the (re)statement of UK government open source policy the other week was the need to ’embed an open source culture of sharing, re–use and collaborative development’. That may have seemed like a waste of ink/bandwidth to those outside government; but I can assure you, I’ve sat in too many wheel reinvention seminars in my life already.

So Puffbox is glad to do its bit to get the wheels turning, by building and launching a couple of commentable documents using Steph Gray HM Government’s Commentariat WordPress theme, as seen on the (draft) Power Of Information Taskforce report. One is for DFID, on the elimination of world poverty; the other for Neil Williams at BERR, on the Low Carbon Economy. Wow, weighty subjects or what? – WordPress saving the world?!

Both are instantly recognisable as variations on Steph’s basic theme, give or take a bit of branding. This was a deliberate choice: I felt it was important for the sites’ origins to be immediately evident, as they needed to send a clear message about re-use, and the benefits in terms of speed and cost.

The DFID site was just another WordPress installation in an existing environment – the same one we’re using for DFID Bloggers, as it happens; the total cost to them will be one day of my time, covering WP setup and tweaks to the theme. And when you look at the functionality they’re getting for just a few hundred quid, it’s a pretty good deal.

The BERR project was slightly trickier. It was a new WPMU environment, always a little trickier to set up; and because the document wasn’t as long as other Commentariat instances have been, I had to re-engineer the theme to work off pages rather than categorised posts. I finished my bit in the final hours before dashing off on a week’s holiday; seeing the finished product on my return, I’m really impressed by how well it’s come together. Massive credit to Neil and the BERR team; the use of pictures really makes a dramatic difference.

Government’s WordPress theme for collaborative commenting

commentariat

Steph from the Department of Innovation is at it again. I’m really very impressed by his new WordPress theme, Commentariat, which effectively picks up where CommentPress left off. After an internal trial, he’s used it publicly for the first time, allowing people to comment on the Power Of Information Taskforce’s report.

I think he’s correctly identified the weakness in CommentPress: it isn’t meaningful to comment on individual paragraphs. Better instead to offer the content in editorially selected chunks. And that’s what Commentariat does. It makes commenting a breeze: I’ve just been through the entire POIT document, commenting furiously as I went… and I’ve certainly never done that before. The technology is irrelevant: if it’s getting me to contrbute like that, that‘s why I’d consider it a success.

I don’t understand the potential ins-and-outs of copyright (which will be the subject of another post in due course), but I really hope we can find a way to release this ‘properly’ as a theme offered through WordPress.org. It will genuinely amaze people to see HM Government producing something like this, and offering it free to the world. Who says we don’t ‘get’ open source?

DIUS living up to its name

I’m genuinely delighted to see the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills allowing itself some room to innovate. As DIUS social media manager Steph Gray explains, they’ve just published an interactive version of their white paper on innovation (published a few months back), using – wahey! – WordPress. Or more specifically, CommentPress: the theme which allows you to add comments on each individual paragraph of a document.

It’s a nice piece of work: I first referenced CommentPress in late 2007, saying it was ‘just crying out for someone to use on a White Paper or other consultation document.’ Lo and behold, Steph has done just that, and it really does work. It even looks quite pretty too. I actually find myself wanting to add comments.

But more significantly, as Steph clearly recognises, it represents ‘one of the first public outings of [their] sandbox server, designed to be at arm’s length from the corporate site and with greater scope to test innovative tools and approaches online.’

It’s not the first really smart thing to come out of DIUS lately, either. The work they’ve done with Harry Metcalfe, to deliver a full-on (customised) Atom feed of consultations. Unlikely to excite many people, to be honest; in fact, I doubt many people will ever see it. But it’s absolutely the right thing to do, delivering a comprehensive, well-structured data feed for interested parties (ie Harry) to use as they please.

We’ll only make steps forward if people are given freedom to play around, and somewhere to do it. It’s fantastic to see DIUS taking such a lead on this.