No10 proposal to replace press offices with a blog

The FT is getting all excited by apparent ‘proposals’ by Downing Street’s shaven-headed, shoeless strategy director Steve Hilton to abolish maternity leave and suspend consumer protection laws, in the interests of kick-starting the economy. Personally, I can’t believe either was suggested seriously: sounds more like the start of a brainstorming session.
But I can’t help smiling at one of his other reported ideas: ‘replacing hundreds of government press officers with a single person in each department who would convey all necessary information via a blog.’ – an idea which Guido Fawkes calls ‘half decent‘. I’d go further.
The fact is, it’s the logical conclusion to a process which is kinda happening already – and which started three and a half years ago. We already have Downing Street plus three Cabinet-level departments running their websites, their main public-facing presence, on (what used to be) a blogging platform, namely WordPress.
And frankly, any department which isn’t already running its News section using a blogging platform is missing a trick. I guarantee it would be easier to use, and would provide a much better service to the customer, than whatever Big Ugly Corporate CMS they’re using.
I’ve argued for a decade plus that the web would ultimately destroy press office work as we have known it: specifically, the day-to-day mechanical stuff, and most of the mundane telephone enquiries. I don’t think that means sacking every press officer: but it would certainly redefine the role of those press officers who remained, to become ‘press relations’ people. (Or is that the role fulfilled primarily – and arguably, correctly – by Special Advisors?)
Take a look at the website for COI’s News Distribution Service – and tell me why this shouldn’t be a WordPress multisite. With COI’s demise imminent, now would be the perfect time to rebuild it. And if it needs to do stuff that isn’t available ‘out of the box’ – that’s where people like Puffbox come in. The answer is almost certainly, yes it can. And yes, we’d be delighted.
If it’s true that ‘three-quarters of [Hilton’s] ideas fail to get off the drawing board’, this is one which – in some shape or form – definitely will. In fact, it already has.

Downing Street redesigned

Very quietly last week, Downing Street launched a new design for – but to my own great relief, and (happily!) contrary to my prediction of last December, it remains very much on WordPress.
Visually, I personally think it’s a great improvement, with bold use of the iconic 10, now complemented by the lion door-knocker. It looks a lot more head-of-statey: with the central alignment of the ‘logo’, and the capitalised primary navigation, I can’t help thinking of the White House a bit… but maybe that’s just me. It’s also nice to see a non-standard font in use – the free PT Serif.
One of the new site’s most striking aspects is the way it seeks to represent government policy across departments – see, for example, this FCO page. If we didn’t know that BIS’s Neil Williams has only just started looking at this area, you’d be left wondering if this was the next stage of the Alphagov vision, with No10 taking control of all policy presentation. These pages look like WordPress pages (or a similar custom post type), with the sidebar news stories being pulled in automatically via tags (or a similar custom taxonomy).
And it’s intriguing to see Prime Ministerial initiatives being represented up-front: ‘TAKE PART’ is one of the handful of primary nav headings, and includes some very Cameron-y elements (which one wouldn’t previously have expected to see on the No10 site):

Apart from the animating slideshow (which in my mind doesn’t count, somehow) there’s no actual ‘news‘ content on the homepage, and not that much of Cameron himself – which might be indicative of a change of target audience, away from the Westminster Village? And whilst static icon-based links point out to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, I note the virtual disappearance of video content from the site: no Number10 TV, not even a YouTube link. (Although to be fair, it’s still there on the sitemap.)
The front end doesn’t give much away, in terms of what lies behind (boo! not fair!); but I sense there’s a fair bit of hard-coding going on in certain page templates, not least because the source code is very neat. Plus the page generation times, as reported by WP Super Cache in the source code, also look extraordinarily quick… usually measured in hundredths of seconds, which is impressive by anyone’s standards.
My only criticism – and it’s a very mild one at that – is that there seem to be a few missed opportunities to do things ‘the WordPress way’. The primary navigation, for example, looks hand-crafted, where it could surely have been done as a custom menu – meaning changes are dependent on the technical team editing the theme code, rather than the editors using the admin interface. But we’re mainly talking about the potential for things to be problematic in due course, rather than already causing problems already.
I understand it’s been done almost entirely in-house: in which case, hearty congratulations to the Cabinet Office team. I never doubted you. 🙂

Telegraph calls No10 site 'a technical mess'

Last night, the Telegraph published a piece by their head of audience development, Julian Sambles accusing the Downing Street website of being ‘a technical mess’. This damning conclusion was based on the following criticisms:

  • It wasn’t in the top search results for a few randomly-selected Budget-related search terms.
  • It doesn’t have a ‘link canonical’ tag in its code header.
  • It has a pretty curious set of ‘meta keywords’ – including ‘piercings’, ‘tattoos’ and ‘polish armed forces’. (Update: apparently not random at all – see comment below.)
  • The page templates aren’t especially well structured for SEO purposes.
  • It has inconsistent names on various external sites like Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

None of which, in my mind, constitute a ‘technical mess’. So it’s interesting to see, this morning, that the headline has been watered down, to mock the keyword selection.
Some of the criticisms are valid. The site could do a few simple things to improve its SEO standing, probably taking barely a few minutes. And yes, I have trouble remembering which specific configuration of ‘downing’ and ‘st(reet)’ it uses to make up its various usernames. But some of the accusations are way over the top, and some don’t stand up at all.
The ‘meta keywords’ criticism, for example. In the old days, search engines respected the keywords you entered in your page header as a guide to the page’s substance. But then people, possibly working in the field of ‘audience development’, began abusing them. So what does Google, with 90% of the UK search market, think about meta keywords?
Let’s ask Google’s Matt Cutts, shall we?
His answer: they don’t use it. ‘Basically not at all… Even in the least little bit.’ Not worth spending much time on then, I’d say.
And then there’s the failure to rank highly for certain budget-related search terms. But would you want or expect Number10 to be a high-ranking result, when it has very little material on the subject – and isn’t the ‘lead site’ on the subject, from either a policy (HM Treasury) or a citizen-facing (Directgov) perspective?
If you search Google right now for ‘budget’, you’ll get both HMT and DG in the top few results. That’s the appropriate outcome.
I’m not saying there aren’t improvements I’d want to make to the Number10 site. As regular readers may know, I contributed some advice in the early days of their migration to WordPress – but I didn’t have any hands-on involvement in the build itself. If I had, for the record, certain things would have been done differently.
PS: Thankfully, someone at the Telegraph saw sense, and dropped the ‘technical mess’ line. Otherwise I’d be forced to point out that their article page scores 88 HTML validation errors in the W3C checker, compared to the Number10 homepage’s zero.

New Number10 site goes live

Today sees the long-awaited launch of the new Number10 website, based on WordPress and built by New Media Maze with occasional interventions by yours truly. The reaction so far has been positive, although as the team have admitted to Twitter contacts, there are numerous rough edges still to be smoothed out. (Some more serious than others: as I write this, the site’s gone down.)
Although I’ve been contributing to this project for several months, today’s public activation is the first time I’ve actually seen it ‘for real’ – and I’m struck by just how stripped-back it really is. The homepage really does feel like a blog; and it’s a pleasant surprise to see quite how much prominence has been given to the Twitter, Flickr and YouTube activity. The image / video unit at the top of the homepage really is huge, and represents a brave move: keeping it fresh will be quite a challenge, but good on them for trying nonetheless.
The exciting aspect for me is the sheer potential opened up by the move to WordPress. There has been a lot of hard (and frankly unglamorous) work done by the guys from New Media Maze to migrate everything to the new platform. But now that’s done, we can all start thinking about extra functionality and presentation ideas, and add them into the site with relative ease.
The ‘beta’ label in the header isn’t just an industry in-joke, or an attempt to excuse any temporary difficulties: it’s a statement of future intent.
PS: If anyone’s interested in the background to today’s launch, you can look back through the archives. And please note the URL of that link, for another cool WordPress trick. 🙂

Sneak preview of new Number10 site

Fresh from stealing the online show at the recent G8 summit, the 10 Downing Street digital comms team have given the Prime Minister’s new website its first public outing, with a few sneaky screengrabs popping up on their Flickr account. It’s quite a significant departure from the existing site, although if you’ve been following the travel-blog work I’ve been doing with them recently, you’ll instantly recognise its evolution.
The most striking element is the prominent use of video, with a large playback window – not YouTube, FYI – occupying pride of place on the homepage. (It’ll be hard to avoid comparisons with Obama’s website in that respect – but with initiatives like TelegraphTV, we’re all heading towards the same thing.) The team’s activity on third-party sites, like Flickr and Twitter, is also brought to the fore – driven by RSS feeds from the originating sites, as I’ve done on the travel-blogs.
You’ll note a much more streamlined navigation on the new designs – primarily because the new site has been stripped right back to its core functions, allowing the team to concentrate on the day-to-day work. The historic information remains popular, and keeps its place; but otherwise, it’s a sharp focus on news and communication.
If it feels a bit bloggy, there are a couple of good reasons for that. In part, it’s a recognition of the role now played by blogs in national political life. The political anoraks who are likely to visit a Downing Street site are probably spending the rest of their time on the political blogs, so it makes sense to adopt the same presentation methods. And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, the underlying technology is WordPress.
The new site has been designed and produced by New Media Maze, with occasional contributions from Puffbox. And of course, being WordPress-based, there’s plenty of scope to take the site forward in the coming months. We’re already floating ideas for new features.
The team haven’t quoted a ‘go live’ date, but my understanding is that it’s in its very final stages of development, and they aren’t afraid of a ‘public beta’ approach. Watch that space.

Another Downing St travel-blog

Gordon Brown’s off to Japan for at the weekend, to hang out with the other G8 heads of government. So it’s time to crank out another Puffbox production for 10 Downing Street: the now-familiar mash-up of a travel-blog, Twitter stream and Flickr photo set.
As with previous trips to the US and Brussels, it’s based primarily around WordPress, with data pulled in from the third-party services via RSS. Once again I’m using SimplePie to handle the RSS processing; although if I’d had more time this week, I’d probably have tried out Google’s new AJAX Feed API, to do it all on the client-side. I’ve done some preliminary trials with the service, and it seems very useful indeed.
This will probably be the last such travel-blog to be done in this form, for reasons which will very soon become apparent. But these set-piece microsites have served their purpose – providing an excellent excuse to expose the Number10 team to WordPress, and the possibilities of lightweight content management.
Update – the site got a nice mention in Monday’s Washington Post. ‘British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is stealing the G-8 show online. No. 10 Downing Street is blogging the summit in Toyako, throwing up an integrated social media site to follow “our man in Japan,” with Twitter and Flickr feeds to boot. Downingstreet, “the official twitter channel for the Prime Minister’s Office based at 10 Downing Street,” has more than 3,000 followers, and is part of the prime minister’s ongoing Web-savvy operation.’ Best press No10 has had in ages… 🙂

On tour with the PM

I hinted that there might be more online initiatives coming out of 10 Downing Street; and true enough, next out the world-famous door is a bit of on-the-spot blogging from Gordon Brown’s trip to the United States later this week.
For the first time on a foreign visit, a member of the No10 web team is joining the PM’s entourage, armed with a laptop, a camera, a fresh WordPress installation back at base, and the passwords to the Flickr and Twitter accounts. And as Downing Street announced last week, we’re mashing it all together into a ‘live’ microsite.
The plan is to cover the set-piece events – speeches, press conferences, etc – via Twitter flashes, to be followed up with a longer, more considered blog post. Pictures will be posted on Flickr, most likely a combination of agency-sourced images and snaps from our man on the spot. And it’ll all be pulled together by the power of RSS, into the custom WordPress theme I’ve built.
When a journalist does this, it’s considered cutting-edge. But when the tables are turned, and the civil servants start doing it too? Let’s see.
My favourite element is the plotting of stories on a Google Map planted on the homepage. Granted, it’s fairly crude: articles written in Washington will be assigned a WordPress category ‘washington’, then when you click on the Google Map pushpin over Washington, you’ll see the appropriate archive listing. We aren’t talking GPS coordinates or anything. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try doing it… and it works. 🙂
As with the Progressive Governance summit website, it’s experimental. We’re hoping to bring a new first-person perspective to things, but naturally it can’t be too personal: striking an appropriate balance could prove tricky. We’re banking on internet access being readily available; and it may or may not be practical for one person, with limited hands-on experience, to do all these things. But hey, there’s only one way to find out.
The fun starts late on Tuesday, or early on Wednesday, depending where you are. Please have a look, and tell us what you think.

No10's new microsite by Puffbox

Fresh from its success with Twitter, 10 Downing Street is preparing for a weekend of social media experimentation, in association with Puffbox.
This Saturday, Gordon Brown is hosting a gathering of around 20 left-leaning world leaders under the banner of Progressive Governance, to discuss globalisation, climate change, development and international institutional reform. (It got a brief mention in yesterday’s monthly press conference, but you’d be forgiven for missing it.) With the renewed appetite for online experimentation at Number 10, I was asked to put together a microsite for the event – running on WordPress, and incorporating a few ‘web 2.0’ tools and tricks.
The site went live late this afternoon – sort of. There’s very little to see so far: the supporting materials, and our ideas of what to do with them, are still coming together. In fact, I fully expect to be coding up new templates and functions live on the day. I know rapid development has become a bit of a Puffbox trademark, but we’ve never cut it quite this fine before. 🙂
The centrepiece will be a live video stream of the proceedings, with a text commentary / discussion thread alongside. You could call it ‘live tweeting’, but we’re probably not going to use Twitter (tbc though). We’ll be posting the conference’s discussion papers for online viewing, with the opportunity for you to post your comments alongside. We’re hoping to get photos beamed into the site from the conference venue, via Downing Street’s new Flickr account; their well-established YouTube channel may also come into play. As may anything else which crosses my mind in the meantime.
It’s an ideal opportunity for innovation: a one-off, relatively low-profile event, not exactly on the scale of a G8, but still significant enough to be taken seriously. The ludicrously tight timeframe is forcing us to make rapid, almost instinctive decisions: in my book, that’s a good thing.
If you’re interested to see what we make of it, believe me – so am I. It all happens on Saturday morning, with the live proceedings due to wind up in the early afternoon. With Arsenal-Liverpool Round Two kicking off at 12.45pm, I’m relying on my fellow Gooner, David Miliband to ensure things stay on schedule.