How to live-blog a summit

I think we got away with it. The remit for the week had been pretty straightforward: design, install, build, populate, edit and operate a website for the Progressive Governance Summit of 20-ish world leaders. So yeah, I’ve been busy.

It became an exercise in ‘web 2.0’ – open source tools, free online services, RSS feeds, and a willingness to experiment. Arguably, that’s really the only way it could have worked. And the fact that it did work says as much about the culture change brought about by the new technology, as it does about my own (questionable) skills.
On the day itself, I concentrated my efforts on the ‘live video blog’: streaming video broadcast from inside the summit itself, with my live commentary alongside. To my mind, the former is probably more important than the latter. You could see the heads of government talking (relatively) informally, even arguing once or twice, and got a feel for their individual personalities and sincere beliefs.
But this is a blog, so let’s talk blog. There wasn’t really a plan for the ‘live blog’, and the approach changed as the morning went on. It started as a straightforward ‘this is Gordon Brown, prime minister of the UK’, with any good soundbites that caught my ear (and which I had time to transcribe correctly). But as the comments came in from ‘viewers’, it became increasingly interactive. And not just through me as host. Let me give you three examples of the social dimension.
AdSense for conversationsWe got a message from one viewer (blogger Ellee Seymour as it happens), complaining of sound problems. I wasn’t having issues, but I asked the audience. A stream of responses came back: no, not me, fine here, etc etc. Ellee turned it off and on again (or something), and lo, her problem was solved. The audience was providing its own tech support.
Then somebody – Oli Barrett? – spontaneously started sending URLs relevant to some of the points made in discussions. Context-sensitive links, popping up in the middle of conversation… effectively making a reality of Google’s April Fool gag earlier in the week. Way to go, Oli. 🙂
And none of this would have been practical without the CoverItLive tool. Now I confess, I’d never heard of it until Wednesday night, when Paul Bradshaw left a comment on this here blog. But it was perfect: a single console for live commentary, private messages, moderation of user contributions, and (phew!) a toilet break facility, although they didn’t call it that. (They should.) It was a dream to use… and it was free of charge. I almost feel guilty.So what, you may ask. The dozens of people who watched the video, and followed the blog, probably learned a few things, and saw a side of global democracy that they’d never seen before. We had a few laughs, the majority from the comments we didn’t feel able to allow through moderation. (FYI, very few comments failed moderation… and I suspect the contributors generally knew it was coming.)
But most importantly, we proved it can be done – even with zero preparation, zero prior experience of the technology, and two administrators who (frankly) didn’t know much about the subject matter. People were able to share their thoughts, with us and with each other. Maybe it wasn’t like being there, but it was like being next door.
The precedent is hereby set. Next time, we’ll do better. We need a host who really knows the subject matter (and can type really fast). We need to get the admin console operating on several machines, and delegate the various tasks. We need to bring more coffee. And we need a way to get the chat into the meeting itself – to the conference table somehow, or into the ‘press conference’ after.
Me at No10All the while, our valiant photographer at the venue was pumping photos into the Downing Street Flickr account, which were then fed back into the summit website. The executive summaries of the various expert papers were opened for comments. And my colleague was sending out the odd Twitter flash.
By the summit’s conclusion, we were both tired and hungry. But every comms channel earned at least one holler of ‘bloody hell! this is fantastic!’… which, for anyone without Whitehall experience, is not common.
I’m grateful to the No10 team for letting me play with their summit. I hope we proved a few points, and learned a few lessons, which can help inform Downing Street’s future online work. Stay tuned. 😉

Innovation, innovation, innovation

Over at the Telegraph, Mick Fealty rightly reflects on the ‘fascinating confluence of ideas cascading into the body politic at the moment’, with both right and left suddenly making an issue of innovation, open source, and all that good stuff. The latest contribution was David Cameron’s speech at NESTA this morning:

Indeed, the odd thing about the Government’s innovation policy is how un-innovative it is. More spending, more state control, more reliance on the levers of bureaucratic intervention. The chapter on public sector innovation in Government’s “science innovation” document, has this as its centrepiece: the proposal to create a “Whitehall Hub for Innovation”. Something about that doesn’t ring true. Whitehall and innovation don’t go together, for the simple reason that innovation is the product of many heads not a few, and free thinking not state control.
We accept that innovation requires a culture of risk-taking, of trial and error, of flexibility in thinking and often of collaborative effort. So I have also asked Adam Afriyie to identify ways a Conservative government could tackle the corrosive sense of risk-aversion which holds back innovation within our society.

To be fair, it’s been an uplifting week in terms of online innovation, across the political divide(s). The sudden rush into Twitter – by No10, and (apparently) by both major parties – isn’t a big deal in terms of audience numbers, but it’s certainly symbolic: a recognition that there’s clearly something interesting going on, and a readiness to just get stuck in.
I’m hoping that the weekend’s Progressive Governance summit microsite, which I’m constructing on No10’s behalf, can take that momentum forward. We’re throwing as many 2.0 tricks into the mix as we can: some will undoubtedly work better than others. (And yes, as Guido helpfully notes, we’re cutting it fine. We know.)
But the value of the social connections fostered by blogs and Twitter is already revealing itself. Last night I talked about my search for a live blogging / chat solution. Paul Bradshaw suggested CoverItLive, a service I hadn’t seen before. I played around with it, and it looked great. But I wanted to see what others thought – so I threw out a plea for assistance on Twitter. Within a couple of minutes, I had two friends in the ‘chatroom’ with me, giving the product a proper test. It passed – and it’s looking like we’re going to use it on Saturday morning to ‘live blog’ the summit’s proceedings. This stuff works.

'Gov 2.0' in US presidential campaigning

I’m grateful to Jeff Jarvis for a detailed post on ‘government 2.0’ (although it isn’t a term he used, nor should he have). He points to two recent proposals from the Democrat candidates for the US presidency.
I hadn’t heard Hillary Clinton’s suggestion, back in January, that government should actually be required to blog:

I want to have as much information about the way our government operates on the Internet so the people who pay for it, the taxpayers of America, can see that. I want to be sure that, you know, we actually have like agency blogs. I want people in all the government agencies to be communicating with people, you know, because for me, we’re now in an era–which didn’t exist before–where you can have instant access to information, and I want to see my government be more transparent.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama told an audience at Google:

I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made, and let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer.

The concept of universally accessible data formats will/would be music to some people’s ears, of course.

No10 man's blog raised at PMQs

With civil servants’ blogging habits such a hot topic, I can’t avoid mentioning the reference casually dropped into PMQs by David Cameron this afternoon.

There is a new strategist, a man called David Muir. Yes, I have done a bit of research—he is the chief strategist and on the internet he has listed his favourite book. It is called—[Interruption.] Is his favourite book not the following? It is called “The unstoppable power of leaderless organisations”. If the Prime Minister cannot make a decision, and if he cannot run his office, why does anyone wonder why he cannot run the country?

How could Cameron possibly have uncovered this? Well, David Muir included the book on a list of ‘books I really like’, in the sidebar of his Typepad blog… hastily password-protected upon the announcement of his appointment, but still visible via Google’s cache.
The FT’s Westminster blog calls it a ‘nice bit of point scoring’ – and wonders how the book’s message of decentralisation squares with the perception of a Stalinist Prime Minister. How indeed. Meanwhile of course, Clay Shirky – in town to promote his new book, ‘Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations‘ – is being invited round to tea by Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson. There’s a thread here.

The hunt for Civil Serf continues

It looks like I wasn’t the only e-gov person to get an email this afternoon from the Daily Mail, asking if I knew who Civil Serf was. No, I don’t. And given the treatment which the Mail handed out to DFID’s Owen Barder, I wouldn’t be inclined to tell them, even if I did. But on the bright side – if they’re asking, they clearly don’t know yet. Probably just as well.
I’ve worked out what troubled me about the Mail’s reporting of Civil Serf’s suspension. They have reproduced a remarkably detailed account of Serf’s meeting with ‘investigators’; details which, I’d say, reflect badly on the individual concerned. I’d have thought such details were confidential, at least until the completion of any investigation. Breaching confidentiality? I’m not smiling at the irony in that.

Civil Serf suspended

I’m reluctant to write this solely on the basis of a piece in the Mail (on Sunday?), but it seems Civil Serf has been identified and suspended by DWP.

Investigators hunting for the blogger summoned her to a meeting last week, when it is understood that she denied responsibility. She was told she was being suspended regardless and, when she was ordered to attend a subsequent meeting with the inquiry team, she finally confessed.
She was caught after the Government dedicated a team of computer experts to track her down across the internet. A source in the DWP said it was an extraordinary outlay of resources as the team was told to clear their desks of everything except their hunt for Civil Serf.

OK, if we try to strip away the inevitable tabloid hyperbole, which isn’t necessarily straightforward… this is almost the worst possible conclusion. Denying responsibility was a bit daft, and probably only made things worse. It also leaves DWP looking just a bit reactionary.
What message are they trying to send, I wonder? And what signals does it send about DWP senior management’s appreciation of the way communications are evolving?
Reminder: DWP takes ownership of the government’s flagship web project in a couple of weeks.

Civil Serf: Simon's video for BBC

I got an email from the team behind BBC News 24’s Your News show during the week, asking if I’d record a contribution as part of a piece they’re planning about – guess what – Civil Serf. So here it is, as a Puffbox first-play exclusive.
Nothing you probably don’t know already, but hey – a bit of TV exposure, for the first time in ages. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognise the location for the filming, a deliberate choice obviously. (I say filming: more a case of propping my mobile phone up against the wall of the Foreign Office building.)

Civil service blogging guidelines

I guess you might see it as kneejerk; I prefer to see it as responsive. The Civil Serf affair has brought the matter of civil servants blogging to a head, and now is absolutely the right time to work out the ground rules.
At lunchtime, Tom Watson publishes a ‘for starters’ list of bullet points on his personal blog. By 6pm, he’s had responses back from all the usual suspects, and a few others. And you can see things taking shape. A case study in itself.
Point number one has to be the observance of the Civil Service Code. I don’t see anything in it which shouldn’t apply in the online world as in the offline. And if there are anomalies, the Civil Service Code needs to be reconsidered.
As for specific rules on (personal) blogging, It’s hard to argue with Tom Loosemore‘s suggestion that we adopt the BBC’s policy as a starting point. It’s well worded; it’s been collaboratively developed by people who actually do it; it’s been through several iterations, with a new release out today in fact; communication is their natural territory; and they’ve been dealing it as an issue for longer than most. Besides, ‘it’s what the BBC does’ usually wins any argument in this business.
But it’s official blogging which interests me most: use of the tools to engage your stakeholder audience in a rolling dialogue. Too often initiatives disappear the day after their announcement, sometimes never to be spoken of again. The job needs to be done, I’d argue; and blogs are the best tool for doing so. I’d like any official guidelines to actively encourage them, especially on long-running, sensitive and high-visibility projects. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking ID cards, Census, major public service reform.
Do they need separate guidelines? Initially I thought so; now I’m not so sure. The BBC guidelines basically say if you use your BBC identity, you must do so responsibly. Official blogging is the very same scenario, turned up a notch. But we’ve got plenty of experience in doing blogs like these – FCO, Our NHS, the various Hansard Society pilots. It should be fairly easy to test any guidance against prior experience.
My only thought is that any guidance will inevitably call for distance between personal capacity and professional capacity, opinion and fact. Where does that leave a Minister, who splits his posts between the Ministerial portfolio and the party-political? Tom?

Minister's 'regret' at Civil Serf affair

Full credit to Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson for his extremely measured and well-balanced take on the Civil Serf story. Tom was speaking at Tower 08, a major CO-hosted conference on Transformational Government – and has posted his speech on his long-established (and often highly party-political) blog. For the record, the speech isn’t yet showing on the Cabinet Office site… which probably says something in itself.
4pm update: in fairness to the Cabinet Office, it’s up there now. Kinda.
Cabinet Office grab
(Following evening update: they still haven’t fixed it. But anyway – back to our previously published story…)
Tom said of Civil Serf:

Yesterday I read with regret the story of an anonymous civil servant blogger by the name of Civil Serf. Her bluntly written blog about life in Whitehall was taken down, after it came to the attention of the national press. Now, I’m not going to say that we should tear up the civil service code it’s very important that civil servants play by the rules, nor do I agree with everything she says, but surely a truly transformed government would be one in which speaking engagingly about life our public services would be far from newsworthy, and far from career wrecking.

Hear hear. But that’s not the end of it. Tom goes on to list a number of things happening ‘over the next few months’, some of which I’m getting unreasonably excited about.

I see my job as helping you to accelerate the pace of change. Over the next few months, we will be

  • pushing through the closure of our hundreds of unnecessary websites.
  • improving our online content, including minimum standards for the content of remaining websites.
  • Ensuring that all content held on government web sites is fully accessible to the major search engines.
  • Embedding data mash-up into thinking across all of government not just the early adopters within departments.
  • Driving through the cultural change in all our communications that sees the internet, mobile and other new media as the norm
  • ensuring better innovation and much faster implementation. Build stuff small, test it out then iterate, iterate, iterate.
  • capturing the skills, talent and energy we need for change – from within the public service and from outside. Over the next few weeks I hope to say more on this.
  • using new media to engage more directly and more effectively with individuals and communities.

And the most frequent question my civil servants will hear from me is, ‘Why not’?

Yes yes yes yes yes. In all seriousness, I can’t imagine it getting much better than that. A rallying call, and a list of tangible actions from an e-government minister who knows first-hand what he’s talking about.
Er… except for one thing. I say the Tower 08 conference was backed by the Cabinet Office. You might be interested to discover that the two-day event at the Tower Guoman hotel (formerly the Tower Thistle) was actually ‘hosted by the Cabinet Office in conjunction with Intellect, the trade association for the UK technology industry and is being supported by our sponsors Fujitsu Services, Oracle and Lockheed Martin.’ And it cost £995 ex VAT per head per day.
I’m sorry, but there is something inherently wrong with ‘a range of public sector officials from chief executives and senior managers to customer facing staff’ paying that sort of money to hear their own bosses and colleagues talk.
I’m informed that the conference was actually free for civil servants – although since the web page has now been updated to the past tense, the cost details have been wiped. Still a lot of money for a conference, though.

Tom Watson's 'mashed up' speech

OK, I’m an idiot. The lengthy and fair-minded piece I wrote this morning about a speech by Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne at the RSA was a year late.
Osborne made some interesting points about the need ‘to recast the political settlement for the digital age.’ And now today, there’s an email doing the rounds (see Nick Booth’s piece) pointing out similarities between this 2007 speech and the one made by Tom Watson on Monday. Amusingly, it condemns the Watson speech as a ‘mashup’. But hold on. Surely it’s entirely in keeping with the whole ethos of open source, to take good ideas and build on them? Didn’t you say mass collaboration was a good thing? 🙂
OK, I’m being churlish. But this points to the biggest single hurdle in ‘politics 2.0’, or whatever we’re calling it. Inevitably, roughly once every four years, every politician’s worst instincts will come out as they fight for power or survival. You can’t blame them. That’s the adversarial, winner-takes-all political system we’re currently stuck with.
And that’s ironically why we need the apolitical Civil Service to take a lead on use of these collaborative technologies.