Civil Serf: the Spartacus effect

I was curious. In an idle moment on the train home on Monday night, I wondered how easy it could have been for Civil Serf to delete all trace of her now legendary blog. So I went to the site she used, and set about registering my own blog with them. When it asked me what username I wanted, just for a laugh, I tried ‘civilserf’. Would it let me have it? Astonishingly, the answer was ‘yes’.
And so, with the clock ticking towards 10pm, I took ownership of Britain’s most famous blog. I quickly bashed out an initial post, as I knew the story was going to feature in Radio 4’s The World Tonight, and on BBC2’s Newsnight, within the hour. By the power of Google, my post was indexed within a few minutes, and sat proudly atop the search results for ‘civil serf’.
And the traffic began to come. In the first hour, I received 60+ referrals to my own website; I don’t know about the various other bloggers I highlighted. Bear in mind, this is hardly peak time for web surfing. (Well, maybe not this kind of web surfing.)
Opportunities like this don’t come round very often. I can’t help feeling we should make something of it. Anyone?
Oh, and by the way… yes, there is a big ‘delete’ button on the control panel. But I’m certainly not planning on pressing it, to see what it does. I’ve had another dozen hits since I started writing this piece.

The inevitable tragedy of Civil Serf

It’s most amusing to see so many journalists writing up the Civil Serf story for the ‘proper’ media… particularly since most seem to be lifting the key quotes from each other’s write-ups, rather than the blog itself (which was pulled, cached versions and all, by Sunday morning). Secondary sourcing at its worst.
Steadily though, the Legend Of Civil Serf is building, in the secondary analysis and the ill-informed blog comments which build on it. That the blog was revealing state secrets, including the contents of Alastair Darling’s forthcoming budget. That it named individual Ministers and told endless tales of their incompetence. That she was wasting time blogging, when she should have been working. That it was a big deal. In truth, it was none of these. It was a modest affair, a handful of posts written over a three-month period by an intelligent young woman, describing what she saw in her workplace.
There’s been an air of inevitability about each step, as the story plays itself out. Of course her anonymity was going to fail eventually. What else could she do when the truth came out, but delete the blog? What else could people make of it all? My worry is for the next inevitable, knee-jerk step: a Cabinet Office communique choosing to interpret the Civil Service Code in such a way that bans all such blogging.
The Civil Service has a problem. It needs to recruit people with outside experience; and it does a pretty good job of that. The problem is keeping them, once they’re inside. I left under a cloud of frustration a couple of years back. Too few people interested in making things happen, too many people eager for a quiet life – and, I concluded, a quiet retirement. Or perhaps that’s harsh. Maybe just too set in their ways.
More than anything, it needs people who really care about what they’re there to do. And when you care about something, you want to talk about it. You want to evangelise. You want to involve your friends. I’m really worried that this sends a message – join us by all means, but whatever you do, don’t start to care.

The rise and disappearance of Civil Serf

It was going to happen eventually. I think was the first to highlight Civil Serf’s excellent blog, back in late January. She started to hit the big-hitting political blogs a few weeks later – see Dizzy Thinks, the Telegraph’s Three Line Whip, The Times’s Comment Central. But it’s only when she hits the proper media, namely this morning’s Sunday Times and Telegraph, that it becomes a big deal. Big enough, it seems, to wipe the blog from the face of the web. (Wish I’d archived it for onepolitics now.)
First off, there’s a lesson here about the relative importance of blogs in general, and the papers’ own blogging efforts in particular. If the Times and Tele were that fussed about it all, they sat on its existence for a remarkably long time. That’s assuming one desk in the newsroom is talking to another – one suspects not, on this evidence.
It’s really depressing that the blog has been deleted so quickly. I don’t recall anything especially sensitive being disclosed – she never said enough to really confirm which department she worked in, even. (For the record, some of us reached a different conclusion to the Times.)
The only controversy, and that’s already stretching the definition, was the fact that a civil servant dared to ‘tell it like it is’, and very eloquently too. It was provocative, but having been in a very similar position myself, I can say it was absolutely valid. Frankly, I think we’d be better off if there was a bit more of that.
I have a nasty feeling this has set back the cause of ‘government 2.0’ by a good few months – just as it seemed the word ‘blog’ had shaken off its most negative connotations. It’ll be interesting to see if Tom Watson makes reference to it in his big speech tomorrow.

No10's new recruit is a geek

Various reports on the political blogs about Gordon Brown’s latest recruit to the No10 staff: David Muir, who will work on political strategy.
It’s interesting for readers of this blog because, until earlier this afternoon, he was a fairly prolific blogger – until, that is, he flicked the password-protection switch on Typepad. The Times’s Red Box blog has pulled some interesting facts from the Google-cached version of the site, not least that he ‘parades IT geekery with pride’. And to further boost his geek credentials, it transpires he’s a ‘pro’ user of Flickr,  and an occasional user of
I was told most of No10’s online enthusiasm left the building along with Tony Blair last summer; so an appointment like this has to be a good thing.

FCO's brilliant Kosovo blog

I can’t let today go by without mentioning the marvellous blogging effort over at the Foreign Office. Ruairi O Connell, deputy head of the British Embassy-in-waiting in Pristina, Kosovo, has put together a series of fascinating posts which give a terrific crash course in why today’s declaration of independence matters. Simple things like the protocol of how you refer to place names, the historic context, the personal stories. Read this one page, and be dramatically better informed.
When Ruairi started blogging in January, I noted: ‘An insight from the UK’s Embassy-in-waiting could be very timely indeed.’ I’m now starting to wonder if it might actually be a deliberate new policy, to use the freedom of the web to tell the story from inside international hotspots. Traditionally, corporate blogging efforts have foundered because people have been unable (supposedly) to find the time. This almost looks like the Foreign Office deciding that blogging is a communication priority. And if so, good on them.
Next on the list, by the looks of it, is a new blog from Philip Barclay at the Embassy in Zimbabwe. Another hotspot, at another significant moment: presidential elections are due in a month. Never mind the fact that the BBC – including the World Service, funded by the FCO – are banned from the country.
PS: Pristina’s Albanian-language Express newspaper had a contender for Headline Of The Year. Be warned, it contains one use of very strong language in English, and in large print. See this thumbnail, or the full edition in PDF.

Government in competition

Two articles in what looks like a special edition of the The Economist this week, which sum up exactly where e-government falls down. In ‘Government offline‘, they write (rightly):

Governments have few direct rivals. must outdo other online booksellers to win readers’ money. Google must beat Yahoo!. Unless every inch of such companies’ websites offers stellar clarity and convenience, customers go elsewhere. But if your country’s tax-collection online offering is slow, clunky or just plain dull, then tough.

Indeed. But in the same edition, ‘The electronic bureaucrat‘ notes, just as correctly:

In the online world, government is competing for users’ time and attention with beautifully designed sites that are fun to use. The government’s offering, says Mr Markellos (of PA Consulting), “has to be massively attractive”.

In other words: government is in competition, but (generally) only indirectly. So consumers steadily develop an understanding of how great things can be; then come up against government services with no particular incentive to be great. And since they’re fundamentally stuck with the government (or perhaps more accurately, the civil service) they’ve got, their only available response is to disengage. All of which leads the Economist to a depressing conclusion:

The examples of good e-government in our special report have a common factor: a tough-minded leader at the top, willing to push change through against the protests of corrupt or incompetent vested interests. It would be nice to think that democracy would do that, concentrating voters’ preferences for good government and creating an electoral ratchet in favour of modern, efficient public services. It hasn’t happened yet.

Enjoy your Friday, folks.

Where's our Directgov blog?

When the Guardian’s Michael Cross interviewed Directgov chief executive Jayne Nickalls in August last year, he wrote:

In its response to the Power of Information report, the Cabinet Office proposes that Directgov embraces Web 2.0 technology by incorporating a blog in which users exchange their experiences.

Now if it’s really in the official Cabinet Office document, ‘The Government’s Response to The Power of Information‘ (PDF), I’m damned if I can find it. But that’s not the point. We were promised a two-way communication channel with Directgov… and nigh-on six months later, it’s still not here.
Tom Watson’s ‘minister for e-government’ role still hasn’t been explicitly confirmed, as far as I’m aware. But if he’s looking for ideas, there’s one for a start. I hear the Directgov people are waiting to be given official guidance. But now we’ve got a blog-literate minister in charge, it’s as simple as three little words – Yes We Can – and a quick trip over to We could do it tomorrow. What do you say, Tom? Jayne? Anyone?

New Wales Office websites by Puffbox

Swyddfa CymruWe’re exceptionally proud to unveil the latest Puffbox site: a new corporate website – or indeed, two – for the Wales Office. And as you’d probably expect from us, it’s not just another government website.
In late 2007, I was invited over to the Wales Office’s Whitehall HQ. I hope they don’t mind me saying, their website was probably the ugliest in government, and people were starting to take notice. They had no hands-on control of their own content, and no site usage data. Could Puffbox help? Yes, yes we could.
The new site, which we’re launching today, was designed, built and populated in a timescale (and for a budget) which would put many suppliers to shame, and gives them functionality which many of their Whitehall neighbours will envy. I also believe it could spark a culture change in how government communicates.
Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear it’s built on the WordPress ‘blogging’ platform, and continues our series of ‘blogs which aren’t blogs’. News releases, speeches, publications and FOI disclosures are all entered as ‘blog posts’, distinguished using categories. All the more static, corporate stuff is done as ‘pages’.
For the readers, there are immediate benefits. Obviously, it’s prettier. It’s been coded with better accessibility in mind. Every page is automatically printer-friendly, using CSS. The blogging mechanism gives reliable, automated archiving by category and month. Not to mention the various RSS feeds. And as you’re legally entitled to expect, there’s a fully-functional Welsh-language version too.
And for the Wales Office themselves, it’s a quantum leap. Previously they’ve been emailing pages out for someone to hand-code: yes folks, even in 2008. (Not the only ones, either.) They now have direct access into their publishing back-end, with all the benefits thereof. And because it’s WordPress, page authoring and management is a breeze. That’s before we get on to things like Google rankings, site usage statistics, multi-site and mobile working…
Why do I see it as a culture-changer? The site is being run by the Press Office, a small team in a small department (60 staff). They have the authority, and now the ability, to publish new communications at a moment’s notice. If they want to operate by ‘bloggers’ rules’, they can. And as I recall Tom Steinberg once saying, it’s the tools which are transformational. Let’s see what happens… and if they make a success of it, expect others to follow.

Another new FCO blogger (ish)

The Foreign Office launched itself into blogging last September, with a couple of ministers and a couple of high-profile ambassadors joining in the fun. Indeed, I note they’ve been scoring some PR points with it: Jolyon Welsh, FCO’s head of ‘Public Diplomacy’ presented a case study on it at a conference last week. But what happens when a (relatively) senior FCO staff member blogs off his own bat?
James Barbour is the (relatively) new Head of Press at the British Embassy in Moscow – one of the more interesting posts to be in at the moment, I guess. He has some experience in blogging, having blogged for a while in his last job, a consultant with the public affairs practice at PR agency Hill & Knowlton, with a focus on technology.
He’s quick to point out that ‘this blog is unofficial, personal, and does not (necessarily) represent the views of Her Majesty’s Government’. But it’ll be interesting to see what he feels able to say, from such a potentially sensitive position.

Another Whitehall blogger

Just picked up on another Civil Service blogger, bringing the total to… er, a slightly larger handful. The otherwise anonymous Civil Serf is female, aged 33, and Whitehall-based. I’m guessing she’s a ‘Grade 7’, if her boss is a member of the Senior Civil Service – and that would seem to be more or less in line with her statement that:

Fortunately for you i’m just senior enough in my department to really know what’s going on. Fortunately for me i’m not senior enough to attract suspicion from my blogging.

And in the space of barely a dozen posts since November, she’s hit several nails squarely on the head – very articulately. You’re most welcome to the club, whoever you are.