BIS gets a blog

A fairly soft launch today for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s new corporate blog: built by Steph Gray (obviously), using WordPress (naturally).
Taking a quick whizz round the Cabinet table, the departments now running formal, properly-designated corporate ‘blogs’ are:

Additionally, of course, there are a few corporate sites which are actually running on blog technology, but choose not to present themselves as blogs – notably Number10, Defra, and the Wales Office; plus various blogs for teams and projects, too many to list here, and occasional Ministerial contributions to the Tories’ Blue Blog.

BIS website grows up

There’s a new website for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – aka BIS – this weekend; and as I reported here back in November (sniff!), they’re waving farewell to WordPress as their core publishing platform. The new site is built on Sitecore, and is appearing bang on the published schedule.
Visually it’s really nice: a very open feel to the design, good solid navigation and a very fashionable ‘carousel’ slideshow at the top of the homepage. It still doesn’t feel like a large site, although it’s clearly much deeper than its WordPress predecessor – and that’s definitely a compliment. As you might expect, given they’ve got some of the most web- and social-media-savvy people in Whitehall, it’s a fine piece of work.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride for them though. With purdah probably only 4 weeks away, with Lord Mandelson as your minister, in the wake of the Tory technology manifesto, given controversy over the Digital Britain bill, given the possibility (likelihood?) of Machinery of Government changes in a couple of months, etc etc… well, you can imagine what headlines it might prompt. But the BIS team aren’t stupid; I’m sure they’ll have a comms plan ready.
On the WordPress front – yes of course, it’s a pity to lose a ‘trophy user’. It’s been great to quote the main corporate web presence of one of Whitehall’s highest-profile departments as a WordPress-based site. But remember why it was on WordPress in the first place: a small-scale, stop-gap website, thrown together within (literally) a couple of days. Precisely the kind of lightweight, tactical context where we’ve always said WordPress excels.
And whilst WordPress might not be right for a single department-wide site, with thousands of pages and dozens of authors, I refer you to our recent work with BIS on Science and Society, and its testing of the concept of a ‘network of blogs’ making up a larger site. This model is already starting to happen in a few places: I know of one Whitehall departmental site which is steadily hiving off various bits to stand-alone WordPress sites. And of course, BIS have quite a few WordPress-based sites which remain live, even after the parent site ‘grows up’.
Now… chances are, on 7 May, we’re going to have a few new or rejigged entities keen to get web presences up and running: certainly quickly, probably cheaply. As BIS has hopefully proven beyond all doubt, WordPress is up to the task: at least in the short term, and probably longer – ask the Wales Office, now into year 3 of operation. And for the record, it ticks a good number of the boxes on BIS team leader Neil Williams’s Fantasy CMS wishlist. We’re ready when you are.

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.

Time marches on

It’s been formally announced that BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) is to move its corporate website over to Sitecore by March next year. Of course, it’ll be a shame to see them moving away from WordPress for the ‘shop window’: but I can say with some certainty that there will still be plenty of WordPress-based activity after the move. 😉
But that March launch date? As you may have noticed, there’s going to have to be a general election in the first half of next year. There are local elections scheduled for 6 May, making it the obvious date to pick for a national poll; although it could be as late as 3 June, and there have been rumours of a date as early as 25 March.
Check your calendars, folks: we’re now into territory where the election date is a factor in even medium-sized web projects. The Cabinet Office’s election guidance isn’t specific about website redesigns, but the thrust of all their advice is to reduce communication activity to a bare minimum during the ‘purdah’ period immediately before polling day. So in the admittedly unlikely event of them calling the election for March, the BIS Sitecore site might have to be mothballed until after Election Day – even if it’s bang on schedule. And then you’re into awkward questions as to whether the behemothic BIS would survive in its current form. It might never see the light of day..?

New site for National Student Forum

Today sees the launch of the latest little site we’ve built on behalf of – or more accurately, in collaboration with – BIS, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. It’s a pretty straightforward WordPress build for something called the National Student Forum: a panel representing HE students’ interests, whose latest annual report was published this morning.
It started out as a fairly simple project, to do the ‘commentable document’ thing around the new Annual Report. But it soon became obvious that, for various practical and structural reasons, the only sensible thing to do was to remake the Forum’s entire site. (Er, all half a dozen pages of it.) And although it’s still a fairly small site, it’s been built with future flexibility in mind, should it ever be needed.
I’ve put a lot of work into the visual aspects this time: it’s a big, bold design drawing heavily on the style of the printed publication. There’s a cute little routine which allows you to specify the header image for a given page. We’re using to host the PDF files, allowing us to embed them back into our pages with Flash; but I’ve used a bit of Javascript to hold it all back until it’s required. The site will use comment threading, which isn’t (yet?) the norm: I’ll be watching to see if the users are comfortable with it. And all turned round in less than a week. A fun job.

Credit where it's due

The BIS All-Stars have produced something relatively small-scale in support of their new consultation on credit and store cards: but it works remarkably well.
Working with plain English consultancy Simply Understand, they’ve boiled the classic 80-odd-page goverment consultation document down to just 10 (and done a nice design job on it too). But then they’ve gone a step further, and reduced it to a simple web poll asking which of five issues is most important to you. There’s a short explanatory paragraph on each, hidden by Javascript thus forcing you to interact with it immediately. Concise, straightforward text which gets you clicking from the off… and makes you think a bit, but not too much. Modest in its ambitions, and all the more successful for it.
And then, when you’ve cast your vote, it offers you the option to send a pre-constructed tweet out on Twitter (as well as a few other sociable options)… which is how I heard of it, so at the very least, it’s worked on one person. Not rocket science by any means, but a wonderful little touch I wish I’d thought of.
Oh, and it all slots perfectly into their existing website. Another good reason to be using WordPress.
It’s not the only thing BIS have put out today… more later.

New sites at Defra and BIS

Two major departmental website changes (that I’m aware of?) today – a completely transformed website for Defra, and a new look for BIS’s corporate site.
The Defra site feels like an incremental improvement of what went before. Gone is the blocky layout and earthy (and somewhat apt?) colour palette, replaced by the de facto standard tabs and colour gradients, and a slightly esoteric colour scheme. It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into site structure, particularly at the upper levels: a friendly homepage highlighting good feature content, and meaningful tabs.
I like it. But it’s a bit disappointing to learn that ‘[they’ve] had to change the web addresses for most of [their] information’ – and I think they’ve missed a trick by not at least trying to redirect some of the key pages.
For example, when you search Google for Defra, you get a list of eight key pages as well as the site homepage – ‘bringing pets to the UK’, ‘animal health & welfare’, ‘your questions answered’ and so on. Only two of these eight links lead anywhere still meaningful. It should only take a minute to add a few ‘301 redirects’ manually. And there’s still no RSS on the site. Grr. These days, I have to say, I think it’s a must-have. Even a reference to the feed generated by COI’s NDS-generated feed would be a help, guys.
BIS meanwhile have changed the design of their ‘pulled together in 3 days‘ corporate site: it now looks much more serious, considered, and dare I say it, conventional. I don’t mean that as a criticism; but the previous incarnation felt so much more agile, innovative even, and I’m going to miss having it there as a wonderful case study. Sniff.
The great news is, it’s still running on WordPress. So in fact, it’s probably just as useful a case study: proof that WordPress can do ‘conventional’ too, if that’s what you want. And with the volume of content in the new site structure, it looks like it’s there to stay for a bit longer, too. Steph and Neil have a bit more to say, including details of some interesting things happening behind the scenes: and fair play again to Steph for open-sourcing his coding work.

Twitter strategies: the boring bit

Anyone who finds Neil Williams’s 20-page Twitter strategy especially newsworthy clearly hasn’t spent much time inside Whitehall. Then again, with Parliament having just closed for its summer holiday, I guess the Westminster hacks had to find something to keep themselves busy.
So anyway, a week ago, Neil published a template for a departmental Twitter strategy on his own personal website, and on the Cabinet Office’s new Digital Engagement blog. Somebody in SW1 finally spotted it – the Guardian? Press Association? – then next thing you know, it’s everywhere. Incidentally, well done to the Daily Mail for inventing some extra details – it wasn’t ‘commissioned’, Neil chose to ‘open source’ the piece he produced for his own purposes for the benefit of colleagues elsewhere in government.
Yes, Neil’s document is lengthy; and he admitted from the off that it would seem ‘a bit over the top’. But if exciting new tools like Twitter are to make it through the middle-management swamp of the Civil Service, they need to be wrapped in boring documentation like this. Whether or not it ever gets read, mandarins need to feel that your Twitter proposal has received the same proper consideration as the other (weightier?) items on their to-do list. ‘Dude! This is so cooool! We should so be doing this!’ will not get you very far.
Getting government to do cool stuff is 50% actual doing, 50% creating the opportunity for things to get done. Neil’s document is aimed at the latter; and it would seem to have served its purpose already. Thanks Neil.
By the way… This provides an interesting case study in how news is made. It only becomes ‘news’ when one journalist notices. Then everyone else writes almost identical articles, usually based on the Press Association piece. Then it makes the broadcast media – starting with the Today programme. Expect the TV channels to follow suit later today.

Puffbox's social intranet for government

Last week, we finally completed the longest-running and most ambitious WordPress-based project in Puffbox history. Back in February, with snow on the ground, we started developing the concept of a self-contained ‘social intranet’ platform to be used by staff across government – DFID, BERR (as was), FCO and elsewhere – involved in the many facets of trade work. And with temperatures soaring at the end of June, we finally saw the site get off the ground.
Maybe I’ve just been unlucky in my career, but I’ve never seen an intranet I didn’t dislike. So the opportunity to design one, based on the experience of the 2.0 Years, was quite appealing. Inspired in particular by the work of Jenny Brown and Lloyd Davis at Justice, we based our thinking on the notion of an RSS dashboard. Since the biggest problem with most intranets is that they aren’t reliably updated, we thought, why not build an intranet that updates itself? So at its heart, the site is a huge RSS archive – pulling in news releases and media commentary from UK government, international organisations, expert analysts and humble bloggers. And since it’s all sitting on top of a WordPress MU installation, it’s easy for us to make each item commentable – on the platform itself, rather than at the originating site.
starredOf course, there’s a risk of information overload. So we’ve built a ‘collaborative editing’ function – along the lines of Google Reader’s shared items, but done as a group thing. If you read something which you think your colleagues ought to see too, you click the star icon, and it gets promoted to a ‘daily highlights’ list on the site homepage. Then, at the end of each day, there’s a Daily Email which rounds up all the ‘starred items’ – so even if you never look at the website, and we’re realistic enough to accept that some won’t, then you can still get the benefit from it.
We’ve used various WordPress plugins to add calendar functionality; to allow users to upload (non-restricted) documents; to put their faces against their contributions, making the place feel a bit more human; and even to allow senior staff to blog on the site via email. You could probably accuse us of throwing the entire 2.0 playbook at the project, and you’d be absolutely right. But apart from the core aggregation and recommendation functionality, everything else uses off-the-shelf open-source plugins, installed and configured (generally) within a few hours. So if they don’t work out, what have you lost?
This project has taken up most of my time for the past four months; working with my regular co-conspirators Simon Wheatley and Jonathan Harris, we’ve pushed the boundaries of the technology, and tested the limits of the civil service mindset. Although many of the individual elements have been tried before in government, I believe it’s the first time anyone’s tried to do all of it, all together – and crucially, all on an in-house system, which opens up some very interesting possibilities. (And yes, as ever, you might be pleasantly surprised by the price tag, too.)
So is this finally an intranet I like? I’ll offer a provisional yes for now, but maybe it’s better to ask me again in a few months. Since it’s a closed system, there’s limited scope for me to demo it… but if it’s something you might be interested in, ask me very nicely, and I’ll see what I can do.

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… 😉