Whitehall, WordPress, where?

We love WordPress round here, and our passion is infectious. I’m currently talking to a handful of new people about possible WordPress-based projects: some small, some huge. The ‘yes we can’ message goes a long way.
But the unknown in the equation is always: where to host it? You don’t have to look too hard to find ridiculously cheap hosting deals in the marketplace: £30/year will buy you enough disk space, bandwidth and support/monitoring for most modest projects, often including automated installation of WordPress and other ‘open source’ software. But in government, in the midst of ‘web rationalisation’, it’s inevitably a bit more complicated than that.
So here’s my problem. At the moment I’m producing (on average) a new WordPress site every month – that’s just me alone. And I’ve got a steady stream of people wanting to do others. These sites have to be hosted somewhere. The normal consultant thing to do would be to buy some cheap hosting in the marketplace, then apply a massive markup. Government ends up paying over the odds, and we end up with countless disparate WordPress installations. Nobody’s happy, except greedy consultants.
But we can nip this in the bud. A central server somewhere, offered free of charge to any departments who want to run a WordPress project. It would only cost a few grand a year; put two sites on the same server, and you’re probably already saving money. It’s not as if we don’t already have centralised hosting deals. And most importantly, you’ve ‘rationalised’ from day one. (Well, day two anyway.)
This would make my life easier as a supplier. It makes ‘the centre’s life easier, cos they know where everything is and can ensure it’s properly maintained (security patches etc). It’s a single migration strategy, if ‘the central solution’ ever provides equivalent functionality. In every respect, it works out cheaper overall. Everyone wins.
So here’s my plea to the Powers That Be. Stop me before I proliferate again. Make me an offer I can’t sensibly refuse. And save us all money and effort, now and later.

onepolitics, the new Puffbox site

onepoliticsIt wasn’t originally intended for public consumption, but today I’m unveiling a new website produced by Puffbox. onepolitics is an at-a-glance view of the latest posts on the growing number of political blogs being written by ‘proper’ reporters. You can wait until tomorrow to see what they say in print, or in tonight’s bulletin; or you can get advance warning from what they’re writing on their blogs.
In essence, it’s an RSS aggregator for people who don’t get RSS. I realised I’d written too many posts looking forward to the day when RSS would go mainstream – and it still shows very little sign of happening imminently. And all the while, I’m talking to public sector people for whom RSS is several evolutionary steps away. I’ve written quite lengthy explainers, covering the concept and the technicals, on the new site itself… so I won’t duplicate my efforts here. Suffice to say, it’s WordPress. But you all knew that already.
onepolitics is the first fruit of my promise to give myself some Google-style ’20 per cent time’; a project with a loose connection to my work, but no direct commercial application. But I’m starting to wonder if it might be of interest to clients. Press offices or stakeholder managers, maybe, who don’t yet have any kind of blog monitoring strategy. We could be pulling in any kind of RSS feed; and could be indexing them, or just listing them (as with the ‘meanwhile in the blogosphere’ box on the homepage). Even better, it’s almost entirely automated, updating in the background as often as you like.
It’s also making me wonder if there’s a need for a bridge between casual web surfing, with zero commitment to the site or subject; and the ‘need to know’ hunger for RSS subscriptions. I’m finding myself looking at onepolitics during quiet moments through the day, purely to see what’s popping up. I’m kind of interested in this sort of content generally, but not enough to want to be disturbed by every new item popping up in my RSS reader.
I’m making no promises about onepolitics. It is what it is, for now anyway. Please have a play with it, and tell me what you think. There are a couple of glitches I know about, and can’t really justify fixing, so don’t get too pedantic please.

WordPress as a CRM tool?

Another example of why I love WordPress. Somebody has built a new theme which, with the help of a few common plugins, becomes a contact manager – with search, tagging, ‘related people’, etc. But I think it can be pushed further.
Using the standard WordPress comment functionality, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t turn this into quite a sophisticated CRM tool, along the lines of 37signals’ Highrise. You’d automatically get an RSS feed per ‘client’, and a global RSS feed for ‘all client activity’. Plus, it would all happen on the client page – no need to go ‘back end’. Ooh, I’m buzzing with ideas on this one already.

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.

Breaking news blogs (again)

Alfred Hermida, ex BBC, now Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of journalism, makes an interesting suggestion: using the new WordPress Twitter-style ‘Prologue’ theme as a breaking news site, ‘with reporters adding the latest details as they come in’.
I actually suggested something identical to this, back in July: ‘A ‘breaking news blog’, in my book, should look and feel more like Twitter. Activate it when a huge story breaks – maybe only a couple of times a year, maybe a couple of times a month. Short snaps of maybe only a couple of lines, written in an informal tone.’ Wish I’d followed it through, now.
If I were running a news operation right now, I’d have a WordPress installation quietly stashed somewhere offsite, ready to go. It’s so many advantages: emergency capacity in the event of a site meltdown, instant activation (by the newsroom, not the IT team) when required, and a more natural ‘breaking news’ style. When you get another 9/11, it could be as simple as switching the DNS for your main site.
By the way… did I really hear a BBC interviewer utter the words ‘people look at the World Trade Center very differently after 9/11’ the other day? Yes: they used to look up, now they don’t. That’s pretty different.

Leading blogger is new e-gov Minister

I haven’t yet seen official confirmation, but I’m reliably informed that Tom Watson is the new minister for e-government, post-reshuffle. The Cabinet Office website only says that: ‘Following on from Gillian Merron’s departure to the Department for International Development, Tom Watson MP has been appointed as new Parliamentary Secretary.’ And since she was responsible, it seems a safe bet that he is now. Watson, writing on his own blog, has only said that he has ‘some responsibility for technology projects’.
Tom Watson was famously the first MP to start a blog, back in 2003; he won recognition from the New Statesman’s new media awards in 2004. And already he’s putting it to good use, to try and engage with people like us:

If I was (smarter at all this stuff), I’d design a one page “Tell Tom” site where you could describe the project you think the clever people at the Ministry should be working on. A sort of “Fix my Street” for government web sites. All ideas welcome and who knows, you might actually make a difference.
(Tip for Tom: you’re using WordPress. Just create a ‘page’ rather than a ‘post’, and be sure to tick the ‘Allow Comments’ box – if, that is, your web designer has allowed for comments in the ‘page’ template, which he/she may not have done.)

This, of course, raises an interesting dilemma. Watson’s blog has always been unashamedly pro-Labour, anti-Tory: even in the last handful of posts, he’s been having digs at Iain Dale and David Cameron (reminding me of his apparent involvement in 2006’s notorious Sion Simon video). It’s generally good-natured, but it’s certainly party-political. So is it appropriate for him to conduct Ministerial business on the same blog?
I’m not trying to make a point by asking this question: just pointing out that Ministers face the same quandry as the civil servants. Tom clearly understands the territory, and it’s actually a great appointment from that perspective. But I’m more than curious to see how ministerial responsibility for government web activity will affect his long-running personal web activity.

WordPress meets Twitter

As if I needed another reason to love WordPress, along comes their new Prologue theme which effectively gives you your own local version of Twitter. That’s not to say it’s a competitor to Twitter: the whole beauty of Twitter is that everyone is using the same platform (with occasionally unfortunate consequences). But as a team collaboration tool, particularly on anything requiring a bit more privacy, this is potentially brilliant.
And yet, it’s so obvious. The ‘tweets’ are just very short blog posts. Author archiving, tagging, commenting, permalinking and RSS functionality is all built-in anyway. All it needed was the integration of a ‘write new post’ box into the display template – plus the stroke of genius to actually do it. Now all we need is an events calendar (maybe using the same ‘input box on the output screen’ concept), and WordPress takes over the world.
(If you want to use it on a local installation, you can get the files from Subversion. And you know what? Looking at the underlying PHP code, it’s depressingly straightforward. 🙂 )

Thoughts from Barcamp: just do it

The mere fact that Saturday’s BarcampUKGovWeb happened at all would have been enough in itself; but the assembled group of influential, inspirational and interesting people made for a fantastic day. At one point in the afternoon, I remember looking at the schedule and getting depressed at the countless interesting sessions I’d missed. It’s been a long time since I thought that of a (more conventional) conference. But I left with a slightly empty feeling: lots of questions, some of them very deep indeed, but no simple answers, and very few ‘action points’.
The best lesson I can draw from the day’s proceedings is this: Just Do It. The day itself was proof. We all arrived with a common purpose, but no specific agenda. The framework was set in advance, and proceeded to fill itself. We all got stuck in, and it just worked.
You’ve got Steve Dale’s example of just getting a Drupal installation into place, within a fortnight, to shock the client into a response. Or the MySociety approach of accepting ‘The System’ can’t or won’t deliver, and just getting on with it. Or my own WordPress-based crusade, I suppose. How to decide if Twitter or Seesmic has a role in government? – start using it, and let’s see.
Since Saturday, I’ve heard of one person who’s started a blog, and one person who’s decided to get to grips with Facebook. Dave’s (relatively simple) Pageflakes example has drawn some interest. I wonder how many had ever edited a wiki before signing up for the event? These are all baby steps, but they are the only way people will get the big picture. (Welcome aboard, guys.)
I firmly believe ‘the shift’ has happened, and government risks being left (even further) behind unless it exposes itself to the new world out there. COI’s Transformation / Rationalisation isn’t a bad thing in itself: the worst excesses needed to be reined in. But if we can agree what not to do, can we start agreeing what we can or should do?
Let’s start small: a Directgov/COI blog, please. Then maybe a WordPress (MU?)-based blogging platform for Civil Service uses (like Microsoft did). A tie-up with Basecamp or London-based Huddle, to encourage lightweight project management methods. But the best idea of the day came (I think) from Graham from DIUS: a parallel version of Directgov in wiki form, allowing external experts to suggest improvements which might improve the ‘real’ version. Sheer genius. Let’s just do it.

Meet the new Puffbox site

Everything seems to have rolled over successfully, so I think I’m now safe to talk about the new Puffbox.com site.
The majority of Puffbox’s work since launching in April 2007 has been based around WordPress. I make no secret of my feelings for the product; so it was only natural that, at some point, I’d want to take control of my own affairs and build a self-hosted WordPress site from scratch.
I found plenty of excuses not to abandon my long-established WordPress.com blog, but in the end, two milestones forced my hand: passing 50,000 page views, and Jeremy Gould‘s announcement of tomorrow’s UK Government Barcamp. As ever, a fixed date in the calendar soon focused the mind.
An immediate question arose: which was more important, the blog or the company background? In the end, the blog won on points. For me anyway, the blog’s (almost) daily stream of news and opinions is the best indication of what I’m about. But the site still needed a solid corporate side, otherwise it was going to look like an amateur blogger in search of pocket money. Hence the split homepage, with a clear colour distinction between ‘company’ (white) and ‘personal’ (green).
I designed it in collaboration with Jonathan Harris, a former colleague at National Statistics, now working freelance; he’s also done another piece of work with me, which we’ll unveil next week. All the templates were coded from scratch, although I took some inspiration from the Hemingway WordPress theme(s): particularly as regards the very vertical presentation, with the sidebar becoming a footer. Icons come from the Milk and Green set. The homepage ‘grid’ layout of recent posts is done using multiple WordPress loops, a technique I’ve had to perfect for several recent client projects.
I’ve learned a few lessons in building the site, but most important of all is that you should always redirect your main RSS feed through Feedburner from day one. What a relief it was to flick the switch from old site to new, and see the subscriber base carry over (almost) seamlessly. The Feedburner stats are nice to have, but they are nothing compared to the convenience of having a perma-URL for your feed. Now it’s all free, there’s no excuse not to.
And by public demand, there’s now also a link for the comments feed. Of course, being WordPress, the feed was already there if you knew where to look. But in honour of Alan in Belfast, first to comment on the new site, I added an explicit link – and named it after him. 🙂

'Governance of Britain': Puffbox helps rewrite the UK's constitution

Puffbox‘s latest project was unleashed today; working alongside Jeremy Gould at the Ministry of Justice, we’ve built a WordPress-based website in support of the Whitehall-wide programme of UK constitutional reform, going under the banner Governance of Britain.
As regular readers will know, I’ve started specialising in blog-powered websites which aren’t actually blogs. And this one is probably the least bloggy of the lot, so far. (For now, anyway; the functionality’s there when they want it.) At its heart is a ‘what’s new’ function, keeping track of the various announcements and consultations happening across Government. And as you’d expect, there are a few supplementary, ‘static’ pages explaining what’s going on.
There are a couple of ‘innovations’ (using the term rather loosely, I admit) worthy of note. One is the use of categorisation in the blog posts news updates. We’ve used WordPress’s notion of parent/child categories to build a list of subjects, and a list of departments. So if you want to see any announcements related to Parliament, let’s say, or announcements by HM Treasury, then there’s a page for that. And because it’s WordPress, you can access this ‘page’ as an RSS feed. (Which explains something I wrote a couple of weeks back…)
I’ve been trying to do something like this for a while; the implications for cross-government working are huge. You, in your Whitehall department, can write stuff into the Governance site; and we can pump it back to you in RSS format, for your own site to republish (if you want). In other words, it’s the ability to get the best of both worlds: a page on your own corporate site, and inclusion within the unified web presence. A real-world example of joined-up working… if your corporate site is able to process basic RSS. We do the hard part at our end; we can’t make it any easier for you. But I fear very few will be able to receive it. (Please prove me wrong, folks.)
The other ‘innovation’ is the page of ‘What others are saying‘, powered by del.icio.us. Technically, it’s just a republished RSS feed (um, see above). But I think it’s an important step for a government website to go out of its way to point to relevant stuff elsewhere – newspapers, magazines, blogs, anywhere online.
We’re using del.icio.us for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s a really nice way to save web links; and it delivers an easy-to-process RSS feed which we can integrate directly into our pages. (Yes, even our homepage.) But equally of course, this means we’re in the del.icio.us community – so if people want to tell us about pages we might want to read, they can do this via del.icio.us. Just tag it ‘for:governanceofbritain’, and we’ll see it in our ‘links for you’ inbox.
We’ve also hijacked some other blog functionality: for example, the list of ‘recent documents’ on the homepage is actually managed by the WordPress ‘blogroll’. Nothing particularly special or clever in that, but it provides an easy-to-use interface for non-technical people to keep that list up-to-date.
It all came together very quickly, almost too quickly; and it’s far from the prettiest site I’ve ever done. But again, it’s proof that you really can get from nought to a full-featured, multi-authored, two-way communicating, CMS-driven site in a couple of weeks. It’s a site which makes real efforts to engage with the rest of the web. And it tries a few things which might come off, and might not. We’ll all learn something as a result.