Time called on top UK blogger

In February, The Times named the blog written by Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa, staff at the British Embasy in Zimbabwe, to be  one of the UK’s best. And rightly so. Some of the stuff they’ve written has been the most moving I’ve ever read on a blog. But while Grace is a local, Philip is part of the diplomatic staff – and in keeping with FCO policy, once three years are up, he’ll be moved on.
‘The Foreign Office is cruel,’ he writes in his final post. ‘My brain must go on to some other job, while my heart stays in Zimbabwe. How cruel to be dragged away just as recovery might begin.’ As ever, it’s stirring stuff: how the experience has changed him from an ‘arrogant and complacent British diplomat’, snapshots of the anguish and beauty in the country, expressions of optimism tinged with unspoken anger.
The blog will continue, he writes, in the hands of his colleague, ‘the incomparable Grace’. But that, in itself, takes us into intriguing territory: a Zimbabwean writing such a high-profile blog on behalf of the British diplomatic service. It’s terrible to have to write this, but I hope it goes OK for her. I was delighted to meet Philip at the FCO’s blogging seminar a few weeks back; it’ll be interesting to see if, or how he might take the blogging thing forward into his new role.

British Ambassadors' blogging excellence

It’s almost ten years since I left the Foreign Office, but it’s always nice to be back. This time, I’m a guest at a roundtable seminar featuring some of their – actually, to be fair, some of the country‘s – leading bloggers. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones chairs proceedings.
I’m struck by the different takes on what it means to be an Ambassador who blogs. Alex Ellis, HMA Lisbon and Mark Kent, HMA Hanoi both admit to doing it (at least in part) for marketing purposes, promoting British values of democracy and dialogue, challenging the safari-suited stereotype – and both, it’s worth noting, writing in the local language. John Duncan, the Geneva-based Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control & Disarmament has been blogging for years, and uses it to influence a small and very narrowly defined audience. David Warren, HMA Tokyo says he’s a relative novice, and is doing a bit of both, with one blog in English, and another in Japanese.
There’s something truly wonderful about hearing senior British diplomats talk proudly of being bloggers. But as the conversation progresses, it strikes me that the Foreign Office is natural territory for the blogging policy official. For hundreds of years, London simply had to trust the Ambassadors overseas to ‘do the right thing’: there’s no culture of ‘command and control’, certainly not at Ambassadorial level, to work around. They’re lucky.
Engagement with a community, usually but not always defined geographically, is absolutely fundamental to an Ambassador’s job description. To the usual toolkit of press notices, speeches, meetings and conferences, we now add ‘blog’. So I’m genuinely quite surprised by the slightly hostile tone of some contributions from the floor, questioning their ‘authenticity’. To me, it’s totally authentic, it’s totally inherent to the job.
How do they assess their success? For a couple, they are among the first bloggers in their respective countries, which should score a few credibility points for UK plc. Some quote instances where a particular post gets hundreds of comments; but there are more examples of cases where the blog has led to something else: coverage in traditional media, reaching many times further than the blog itself, or personal contacts made. (I must admit, I’m reaching a similar conclusion myself. It’s not about who comes to the blog, it’s about where the blog takes me.)
I haven’t yet mentioned the FCO’s star blogger, Philip Barclay from Zimbabwe, recently named among the UK’s top 100. His situation feels slightly different: for a start, he’s a mere Second Secretary, not an Ambassador. More pertinently, his stuff tends to be much more journalistic, reportage-y, emotional frankly than his more senior colleagues. But as a Brit working in a country where British journalists are banned, he has special reason to do so: and in doing so, he’s symbolising British values as regards freedom of the press. That’s probably reason enough in itself, never mind the fact that his writing (and, he’s quick to point out, that of his colleague Grace) is so good, so compelling.
There’s little scepticism in the room, but then again, perhaps there are no sceptics in the room. I come away feeling that the FCO is approaching this in the right way: fitting its blogging into long-established organisational culture, having fun with it, but keeping an eye on its contribution to wider organisational objectives. Sadly though, I fear its unique position means it isn’t a useful precedent for the rest of Whitehall.
Here’s what Rory thought on his way out:

DFID's new group blog function

We rolled out a fairly modest enhancement to the DFID Bloggers website this week: probably unnoticed by most users, but one I’m quite proud of. At its heart, the DFID site is a group blog; but we do a few things to present it as a network of individual blogs by individual bloggers. Then the question came – ‘could we do a group blog?’
What we’ve done is effectively hijack WordPress’s category functionality, turning it into a grouping function. We’ve created categories corresponding to the various ‘group blogs’ we want to run; and with the help of another custom plugin, we’ve added the ability to give each category its own ‘user image’, same as we’ve done with individuals. The WordPress category archive template then becomes, effectively, a ‘group homepage’ template.
Then, with another plugin, we’ve added a function to give each individual user a ‘default category’. So when they go to write a post, the appropriate category is already ticked – or to put it another way, it’s already identified as being for the appropriate ‘group’. But as with any WordPress categorisation, you have the option to tick other categories, adding the post to multiple group blogs; or you can untick your default category, if you want to blog in an individual capacity for a change.
Finally, we’ve changed the homepage code to handle both individual and group blogs. It took a while to get the logic right – but now, you should only ever see one entry per group blog, same as you only see one entry per individual blogger; and it all gets sorted together into reverse chronological order.
The result is a remarkably flexible blogging platform, with the ability to do solo blogs, group blogs, or any combination thereof. And as with the previous DFID work, we’re releasing the plugins to the world: the Default Categories plugin should prove particularly useful for people running group blogs.
Once again, it’s been a pleasure to work with Simon Wheatley: the man who makes my WordPress dreams come true. And the DFID guys have been great again too, giving us a general steer and letting us work out the best way to do it. I love this project.

BBC blog feeds go full-text

Credit where it’s due. By popular demand – and contrary to the implication of Jem Stone’s piece, I can’t claim to have started it  – the BBC has switched from sending (very short) summaries in the RSS feeds from its various blogs, to sending the full text of the blog postings in question. ‘Sorry that it’s taken so long,’ Jem writes; no apology needed, sir. Thank you.
Full-text feeds on the blogs was always The Right Thing To Do. There are basically two types of BBC blog: the senior journalist, offering instant analysis or adding background; and the ‘behind the scenes’ staff commentary, aimed at engaging / assuaging the community.
In both cases, we’re already paying for the work these people are doing through the Licence Fee, so it was arguable we were entitled to getting the item however we wanted. The excuse of stat tracking via click-throughs didn’t go far, as we’d already paid for it all anyway. It wasn’t for BBC management to judge a business case; it was our content, to receive however we might want.
The growth of mobile internet usage is perhaps the greatest user-centric justification for the move. I can speak from experience; I’ve got several BBC blogs in my Bloglines account, which I frequently read on my mobile phone. The inconvenience factor – reconnecting to the data network, pulling the page, and hoping the mobile browser doesn’t destroy it – was often enough to stop me clicking through.
But it also reflects the reality of the blogosphere, where most ‘normal’ bloggers are happy to share their full-text feeds. The Beeb’s bloggers are playing by the standard rules, joining the community rather than putting themselves above it. Again, it’s just The Right Thing To Do.
So will be see full-text RSS of news items? I doubt it; it would open up all sorts of anti-competitive arguments, and would make it just too easy for the Beeb’s content to be republished by others for profit. Mind you, since we’ve paid for it already… etc etc. 😉

Puffbox's onepolitics site relaunched

A few months back, I built and launched onepolitics: an automated website which pulled together the latest blog postings from the ‘proper’ political commentators. It wasn’t ever meant to be a mass-audience website: I built it for myself, but if anyone else wanted to use it, they were welcome. As I wrote at the time:

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’ve found it really useful, so much so that I wanted it to give me more than the fairly restrictive content it offered. I was also noticing the limitations of the initial build, based on WordPress and the FeedWordPress plugin; and at the same time, realising the awesome power of pure RSS. Plus, with more political content going into YouTube, I wanted to add a video element.

So in the last day or two, I’ve rebuilt onepolitics, dropping WordPress – see? it isn’t the answer to everything! – and driving everything through RSS feeds aggregated using shared labels in Google Reader. It now includes full representation of MainStreamMedia and ‘true’ bloggers. It should be faster to update, with the latest items appearing within five minutes of publication. It also includes an Ajax-style ‘video player’, showing the latest video clips from the parties’ official YouTube accounts. There are a few cute new design touches. The only flipside is, I’ve dropped the archive aspects… but looking at the usage stats, nobody was using anything other than the ‘latest’ list anyway.
The code is almost embarrassingly straightforward: it even relies on an old-school FRAMESET, for goodness sake. But it made things much easier to put together, particularly from a cross-browser perspective, and I’ve used a few presentational tricks to smooth the usability.
As before, it’s there if you want it. It helps me keep on top of what’s happening on the political blogs, and if it helps you too… great.

PoliticsHome: overwhelming and soulless

‘Staying on top of modern politics has become a full time job,’ declares the long-awaited PoliticsHome on its About page. ‘Things move too fast: it is too much for any single person to track.’ Unfortunately, the same can be said about the site itself: load up the homepage, and a torrent of headlines hits you head-on.  It’s overwhelming, and it leaves me dazed. I complained that the new Foreign Office site didn’t guide the eye: I take it all back.
There’s no doubt that, if a political story is out there, PoliticsHome has it in here, somewhere. Most of it is well-intentioned: the whole ‘live reporting’ aspect, a few ‘ticker’ areas, a nice grouping of the various sources’ coverage of the day’s big stories, a diary, a bit of story categorisation. A couple of ideas look familiar – the ‘newspaper front pages’ is a direct lift from my work at Sky News, for example.
But it looks like an ugly big database, more like a stock market terminal than a ‘super blog’, or an online magazine / newspaper. It’s hard to imagine a less engaging design; maybe they don’t consider that a priority. But having brought some famous faces on board, such as Andrew Rawnsley and former BBC man Nick Assinder, I’m surprised not to see them making more of the faces and their original material.
The idea of scrolling 100 items horizontally, in the window at the top of each page, is ludicrous; it’s utterly unusable. I’ve got a few issues with the technicals too: some page elements seem to refresh randomly, then there’s a brutal full-page refresh if you leave it five minutes. Quite simply, there are better ways these days.
I fear PoliticsHome has miscalculated. Politics is increasingly about personality, warmth and engagement. That’s why the blogs’ visitor numbers are growing (regardless of the accuracy of the specific figures). But PoliticsHome feels cold, functional and soulless. I don’t expect to use it.

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.