We’re working with colleagues across Government to get all information for citizens and businesses (what’s currently covered by Directgov and Businesslink) published on GOV.UK by the end of this year and this gives us the hurry up. We’re also working towards migrating Departmental sites onto ‘Inside Government’ but that will take a little longer, with a more gradual transition as current contracting arrangements for individual Departments come to an end.
I began my career at the Foreign Office, joining what was known as ‘Guidance Section’. Its job was to be the in-house newswire service for British embassies far and wide. The day started by editing down a daily news summary and press review, based on BBC World Service scripts; at the click of a button on a VT100 terminal (look it up), these were delivered to hundreds of British diplomatic missions by the best means available. Could be fax, could be telex, could be telegram, one or two had something called E-Mail. Cutting edge stuff for 1995, believe me.
We would spend the rest of the day gathering news items from around Whitehall – press releases, transcripts of speeches, whatever. We’d edit these down to the essential, decide which embassies would be likely to receive media enquiries on the subject, and send it out to them. Then, at lunchtime and 5pm, we’d produce a ‘shopping list’ from which embassies could request anything they were interested in, but hadn’t already received.
Departments were generally more than happy to work with us: often we’d get significant announcements ahead of delivery, so that Our Man In Wherever could have a head-start. The one massive exception was the Treasury, on Budget Day.
They would send an official on the short walk up Horse Guards Avenue to our office in the Old Admiralty Building, just by the Arch. He or she (usually he) would have the Chancellor’s speech on a floppy disk. He would sit stony-faced in our office, one of few in the building to have a TV, whilst we all listened to the speech. When the Chancellor’s bottom touched the front bench, the speech having been delivered to the House, he would hand over the floppy disk. And finally, we could begin the work of reformatting the text file, editing out the party-political bits, double-checking it, then sending it out.
Today, any Embassy press officer who’s interested will be reading the same advance press coverage we all are. He/she will watch the speech live – CNN, BBC World, streamed online, whatever – before hitting the Treasury website. And he probably won’t get a single call asking for a copy of the speech.
A written answer in response to Conservative MP Grant Shapps has provided the best breakdown I’ve yet seen of spending on NHS Choices, one of the government’s three £20m mega-portals. You kinda know what’s coming, don’t you?
Strategy and planning: £3,291,659.57
Design and build £4,266,748.79
Hosting and infrastructure £1,871,933.81
Content provision £3,010,242.69
Testing and evaluation £1,236,993.29
Strategy and planning: £8,764,040.54
Design and build £7,470,562.03
Hosting and infrastructure £3,169,335.95
Content provision £7,156,673.03
Testing and evaluation £1,300.208.47
Strategy and planning: £5,845,541.38
Design and build £6,377,614.00
Hosting and infrastructure £2,610,803.31
Content provision £5,448,688.20
Testing and evaluation £1,023,417.78
I’m not sure which figure jumps out at me the most; they’re all eyepoppingly large. It’s probably the £8.76m on strategy and planning in 2008-9 – which, let’s note, doesn’t include the £1.3m on testing and evaluation. And since it’s broken out separately, you have to assume that the costs allocated to the other categories are actual production costs, ie ‘strategy’ not included..?
The easiest to justify is probably ‘content provision’ – although it’s a genuine surprise to see it third on the list of priorities behind ‘design and build’ (of a site that’s already been largely designed and built already?) and ‘strategy and planning’.
It was described earlier as the biggest moment in modern political history that wasn’t an election: probably a bit much, I’d have said. But it’s no surprise to see so many websites ‘liveblogging’ today’s Pre-Budget Report: the TUC, the Spectator, Liberal Conspiracy, Iain Dale, among many others. Sky News is doing something especially interesting, with its ‘Unplugged’ online broadcast offering live commentary and analysis: effectively a live video-blog, I suppose.
Which rather begs the question, what should the Treasury themselves be doing? The Chancellor standing up in the Commons chamber, and (sorry) droning on for an hour or so, throwing numbers around like confetti, then BANG! a huge wad of paper lands on your newsdesk as he sits down – it’s simply not an effective way to communicate. There’s too much to take in, too many big numbers, too much jargon, in too short a space of time.
I’m wondering if the Treasury shouldn’t be running an enhanced live video stream, with bullet points appearing as the Chancellor makes his announcement; and graphs / charts / etc in a second window. I’ve worked in the TV channel gallery on Budget day; it’s chaotic, as a hapless producer tries to make sense of it all, picking out the headlines in real time. Meanwhile, of course, the Treasury staff are sitting on copies of the full text of the speech, with all the advance notice they need to make a really good job of it. It’s not as if they aren’t doing the production work already, with a consumer-friendly leaflet being a regular output each time.