Building DFID's new consultation platform
A few months back, I helped the Department For International Development set up an online consultation site for their white paper on Eliminating World Poverty. We used WordPress (obviously), plus Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme (with a few tweaks). The site was well received, and had close to 500 reader comments, many of them lengthy. So when a new consultation came along, into DFID’s plans to spend £8.5bn on education in developing countries, I’m delighted to say they were keen to do it again.
This time, we’ve done it slightly differently – creating a reusable platform for online consultations, instead of just another one-off site build. Rather than use the Commentariat theme itself, I’ve built a generic DFID-styled theme to fit almost seamlessly into their corporate look and feel; but the defining elements – reverse-dated posts in categories, the floating comment box – are still there.
And significantly, we’ve moved from ‘normal’ WordPress to a WordPress MU (‘multi user’) installation. This brings several important benefits for DFID:

  • the ability to create new sub-sites in a matter of seconds, through the WP interface;
  • centralised management of platform / plugins / themes;
  • one sign-on for all blogs on the system: OK, it’s not ‘single sign-on’ via LDAP or anything, but it’s a start!
  • varying levels of user permission: you can give someone ‘admin’ status on a sub-site, and still keep the most dangerous options at the higher ‘site admin’ level;
  • once it’s in, you can avoid all the usual IT Department headaches – DNS being a particular problem, I’ve found;
  • and yes, it’s also cheaper for them in the long run. They no longer need to hire me to set these things up for them. (D’oh!)

Now having said all that, working with MU isn’t without its issues. Historically it didn’t get quite the same love and attention that ‘normal’ WordPress got; although to be absolutely fair, the delay between ‘normal’ releases and the matching MU releases has been cut right down. Some of its processes and language could be clearer: for example, when is an admin not an admin? When he/she’s a site admin, of course. And how do you make someone a site admin? You type their username into a text box under Options, naturally. (That took me a l-o-n-g time to figure out.)
Coincidentally, as I’m writing this, I get a tweet from COI’s Seb Crump: ‘@simond what’s the tipping point for considering WPMU? Plans for maybe up to 3 blogs eventually, but their launches spread over next 2+years
For me, it’s not particularly about the number of blogs being managed: it’s about the convenience of using the single installation. If those benefits I bullet-listed above are of interest to you, then MU is worth doing even if you’re only planning on having two blogs. Particularly in a corporate context, it means you can delegate quite a lot of responsibility to individual staff or departments, whilst still being able to wade in as and when. (And with automated upgrading now built-in, I’d say that’s a bigger issue now than it was previously.) But be warned, MU does have a learning curve. Even as a (normal) WordPress veteran of several years experience, it still beats me sometimes.
But in a 2+ year timespan, it ultimately won’t matter. It was announced in late May 2009 that ‘the thin layer of code that allows WordPress MU to host multiple WordPress blogs will be merged into WordPress’; I don’t believe there’s a confirmed timetable for it, though. That should mean that the MU elements get raised to the same level of perfection as in the ‘normal’ product: unquestionably a good thing, I’d say.
Anyway, back to the DFID project. I’m delighted with the first site to be built on the platform: and the DFID guys have done a great job dressing it up with imagery – it makes a huge difference. But the really exciting part, for me, will be seeing the next one get built. And the next one. And the next one.

13 thoughts on “Building DFID's new consultation platform”

  1. Hang on… it’s that easy? I’ve never tried it myself, and I’d heard different.

  2. Nah, it’s just a plugin. You activate it and fill out some options 🙂 If you know your LDAP / Active Directory details, it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve found that LDAP plugins for different software can use different terminology, which is the most confusing thing, but once you get over that, there’s not much to it. Mail me if you run into any problems. I might be able to help. (Any chance of you using the Subscribe to Comments plugin on here? A useful way of staying in the conversation).

  3. Lovely work, and very nice of you to still credit us for an original concept you’ve taken so much further since. I’m impressed by the 500 comments on the poverty consultation – that’s a phenomenal response, and I’d be interested to know how that was promoted.
    The other big challenge for consultations is the ‘workflow’ aspect from designed-for-print document to living web version. Your great platform takes away some of the interface development work for future exercises, but the cut and paste work remains. Can there ever be a way to avoid that?

  4. Steph,
    I’ve been testing (and will continue to do so) XML-RPC clients for desktop publishing to WordPress. Quite successful. Copy an entire document from Word2007 in one go, paste into MS Live Writer (free to download/use) and publish to WordPress:
    Ignore the headings and the table mess on the site. It’s a bug in the DigressIt plugin/theme. Otherwise, it very clean and accurate. Getting there. Now you just need to dump IE 6 and install MS Live Writer 😉
    I’m documenting my tests for the JISCPress project here:
    It’ll be all wrapped up by end of November.

  5. By popular demand, the ‘subscribe to comments’ plugin is hereby restored. I had a few problems with it previously, but I think that was prior to some server reconfiguration.

  6. @Steph I’m more than happy to keep the Commentariat hat-tip in place. I’ve always felt Commentariat’s major contribution to The Cause wasn’t so much its functionality, but the fact that it happened, and how it happened. So I think it’s a good thing for people to see the trail of innovation, from your work into mine, and onwards. And all because it was open-sourced in the first place.

  7. To add a few points to answer @Steph’s question, the consultation you mention, which was the first time we in DFID had used this framework to invite people to comment online, was publicised widely among the community of people interested in international development. It was part of an approach which included a series of formal events around the UK and in some countries where we work and regular mentions in all our other communication channels – especially via a feature on the home page of the main website.
    We had good anecdotal evidence from participants at live events that they valued this channel in particular becasue it meant they had thinking time and could revisit the questions we were asking, and answer them in their own time. Others said they liked the idea of an alternative forum to the slightly intimidating environment of a meeting room with lots of “experts”.
    One follow up that I am very pleased the team who were working on this initiative put together, was a summary of all the responses they received – from all channels, that they then published openly. This will I hope demonstrate to people that they were listened to (I think always potentially a challenge when governments consult). This document can be found at
    Finally – a huge vote of thanks to Simon for the additional work he has put in to develop this framework so that we now have something flexible and re-usable. I hope it will encourage colleagues across the organisation to see that this form of open interactive consultation is something that adds value to their work when they want to canvas opinion from a wide audience, and will request it as a matter of course. And of course, echo the thought that in the long run this is a cost effective way for the department to run them (while sympathising with the sentiment that he has in fact done himself out of any more work in this particular area!).

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