Why WordPress is a good fit for government

One way or another, it’s going to be a momentous week for UK government. A lot of people will be leaving their Whitehall offices on Thursday evening, not quite sure who they’re going to be working for – in terms of the boss, and the organisation – on Friday morning. I’ve had calls from literally all my government clients over the past week or so, just checking that I was going to be around in case of changes needing to be made. And that’s before we get into the short-term chaos of any large-scale departmental reconfiguration.
All of which makes it a good moment for a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for some time now, on the subject of WordPress in government.
I’ve been banging the WordPress drum up and down Whitehall since late 2007. At first, it was small tactical builds: the Darzi NHS Review in November, followed by the Wales Office in February 08. From there, over the road to Downing Street, and thence to half of central government departments – thanks in no small part to Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme, first published in February 09.
So what exactly is it about WordPress in particular, that makes it so attractive for government in particular?
Cuts out (the worst excesses of) procurement: In my experience, procurement teams are very good at explaining why their role is crucial, and why they need to be invited to all your meetings. But when the best available product is available free of charge, you can instantly cut out a large portion of your project schedule.
Cheaper and friendlier suppliers: So far at least, WordPress has been the domain of the small-scale agency, or even the solo operator. We don’t have tiers of business analysts and project managers. We don’t have CMS solutions we built at significant expense several years ago, from which our product executives are trying to milk every last penny of profit. Generally speaking, the guy you speak to is the guy doing the work. No intermediaries, and minimal overheads.
Speed of implementation: WordPress’s finest hour in government circles surely came in June last year. One Friday, two departments – BERR and DIUS – were unexpectedly forced together by a Cabinet reshuffle. By the Wednesday, and for minimal cash outlay, the newly merged web team had built a WordPress-based site for the new department. An almost incredible achievement, given the usual glacial pace of Whitehall web development. It just shows what can be done.
Focus on content, not process: For me the key strength of WordPress is that, as soon as you log in, you’re looking at an authoring screen. If you haven’t seen many CMSes, that may sound odd. But believe me, most platforms would much rather you waded through several layers of menu before you even get close to writing some words. And that’s what policy officials and press officers are paid to do: not worry about taxonomies or systems admin.
More than you bargained for: Time and again, I find new things WordPress can do, which I hadn’t previously known about. Things I’d never have thought to request in a tech spec; but because someone else did, or because it was a happy bi-product of something else, or because a geek somewhere fancied coding a quick plugin to do it, it’s in the package. And one day, you’ll suddenly be very grateful.
And last, but definitely not least:
The ‘open source’ principle: Open source does mean cheap code, but its true merit lies in what comes next. When government spends public money on IT development, the public has a right to expect to derive the maximum benefit from it – and that can mean so much more than simply getting a prettier or more efficient website out of it. In the same way that taxpayers now have a right to raw data, the same can – and I’d say, should – apply to software development. The use of other people’s code – in the form of themes and plugins – is fundamental to WordPress; and it provides an easy framework to introduce the notion of releasing HMG-commissioned code.
If you’ve ever wondered why I’ve pushed WordPress so hard all these years, the answer is encapsulated in that last point. It represents a gentle introduction to some potentially huge concepts. I’ve seen too many people trying to pitch the concept of open source in philosophical terms; it rarely works. WordPress makes it real, and has already delivered tangible results. And we’ve only just got started.
Footnote: this post was prompted by Dave Briggs’s reference to this video of author and blogger Aaron Brazell talking about ‘WordPress and government’ – which doesn’t really say anything specific to government. Still worth watching though.

4 thoughts on “Why WordPress is a good fit for government”

  1. Hearing you loud and clear Simon! A touch busy right now, but you need have no fears that your work for New Labour civil service, No. 10 and the Libdems over the years will in any way be held against you by me personally or my government. I’m sure we can count on your support where it matters tomorrow! Dave

  2. WordPress has enabled me and others to deliver cost-effective websites for the NHS – and it is doing so more and more. Just need to get rid of IE6! Some solid UK hosting for a MU installation would be useful too. But I agree with all your points. I’d add that the out of the box comments functionality makes accountability a default option.

  3. Not the first time such sentiments have been expressed on these very pages, Rob. 😉

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