What should I say at Barcamp?

Back from the Christmas break, and thoughts are turning to the second annual UK Government Barcamp at the end of the month. I’m told the venue is about to be confirmed; and already we’re seeing people concerned at not being able to get a ticket, despite the fact ‘tickets’ haven’t yet been released. Regardless, it’s probably a good time to start thinking about what I’m going to talk about.
I guess people are expecting a session from me on WordPress, and what I’ve been doing with it lately. But I did a fairly generic session on the same subject last year, so I’m trying to think of a new angle on it. And anyway, the amount of times WordPress comes up in conversation these days, with government colleagues and others, maybe people know enough about it now. Or maybe that’s just the conversations I tend to have.
So, dear readers, over to you. Is there anything you’d like me to talk about? I can demo the new v2.7 interface, which many people won’t yet have seen. I can do a walkthrough of any (or all) my recent work, if that’s helpful – be it technically or editorially focussed. Maybe something about use of WordPress in the longer term: upgrading, hosting, extending. Or if people would value a ‘from the very basics’ session, I’m happy to oblige. Let me know in the comments, or contact me directly.
And if I may, I’d like to throw out a few ideas for sessions I’d like to attend myself.

  • I want someone to lead a discussion about consultations, on a really fundamental level. Off the top of my head: we’ve had Harry M’s efforts to make consultations more visible; and Steph‘s experimental work at DIUS – has either initiative had a demonstrably positive effect, either qualitatively or quantitatively?
  • What about the explosion of government content on YouTube? Does anyone have any tips, tricks or even metrics to share? What tools are people using to shoot and edit the footage, and what are they doing to ensure it gets seen?
  • And I want to know about the various attempts to ‘engage the unengaged’ internally… specifically press offices. I know of at least two explicit initiatives to get press officers onboard; what’s happened with them? Are the dashboards and/or ‘saved searches’ helping?

I’m also planning to use the Barcamp as an excuse to redesign puffbox.com, subject to other commitments in the next few weeks. The work-in-progress design is, let’s say, quite dramatic; everything more or less in the same place, but very different ‘screen furniture’. You have been warned.

COI's contradictory rules on browsers

Timely, given the release of Google Chrome, and the reopening of the Browser Wars: COI has just issued a consultation document, five months in gestation, on browser standards for public sector websites. Its 15 pages can essentially be boiled down to the following, based on an intriguing 2% rule of thumb:

17. Browsers used by 2% or more of your users must be supported.
18. Operating systems used by 2% or more of your users must be supported (although it rather undermines itself later on, demanding support for Mac and Linux).
19. The two most popular browsers on each supported operating system must be supported.
20. Browsers and operating systems used by less than 2% of your users may be semi-supported. This means that the content and navigation works but the website might not display correctly.

Like it or not then, we’re obliged to ensure the content, functionality and display all work ‘as intended’ on IE6 – although there’s no precise definition of what ‘as intended’ means. One would hope for a pragmatic (ie not ‘pixel perfect’) approach.  And it sounds like bad news for Opera, whose user base is highly unlikely to pass the 2% threshold, or hold the no2 ranking on any one OS.
There’s an all too predictable write-up in The Register; Andrew Orlowski opens with the statement that ‘a firestorm is brewing’, and quotes ‘experts’ who say ‘taxpayers will be forced to change their browsing habits and computer setup to accommodate the guidelines.’ I disagree with the first part, and I’m not sure I see the second as a bad thing. It’s entirely appropriate for government to advise people on suitable behaviour where their body’s health is concerned… why not also their PC?
Orlowski quotes Bruce Lawson of the Web Standards Project – and, as Orlowski neglects to point out, a Web Evangelist for Opera – who apparently said something along the lines of ‘designers should conform to commonly agreed basic standards, rather than browser idiosyncrasies.’ (Shame it’s not a direct quote.)
Philosophically, I can’t argue with that point. But pragmatically, it can’t work. The browsers are here, on the ground already; and Utopia it ain’t. You can’t tell people unable to use your site with IE6 that ‘hey, it’s not our fault Microsoft didn’t buy into web standards seven years ago.‘ And whilst the latest browser releases are getting closer to standards compliance, the current IE6 market share of 25% clearly shows (as does the 66% of people hitting COI’s own site) that it’ll take a l-o-n-g time for everyone to upgrade accordingly.
Deep down, I want COI to take a stand on IE6. As I wrote (coincidentally) the other week: development would undoubtedly be quicker, easier and most importantly, cheaper for the taxpayer. A friendly ‘government health warning’ could advise you to upgrade, for this and other good reasons. Others have already set the precedent. But I know such a brave step isn’t likely.
If anyone from COI is reading this, please consider the following to be my contribution to the consultation process:

  • There’s an inherent problem with the 2% thing. You don’t have to support a browser unless 2% of your own unique users are using it; but if the site doesn’t support them, they won’t be able to use the site anyway. Catch-2%, you might say. Whilst I see the value in the ‘2% of your specific user base’ rule, it may have to be a global assessment of market share.
  • Keep the geeks on board by including an explicit note about web standards, welcoming the progress towards better standards compliance… but acknowledging the reality of current usage levels, particularly as regards IE6.
  • Terms like ‘look as intended’ or ‘major/minor maintenance release’ are too vague to be meaningful. Similarly, there are problems with the get-out clause for beta versions (para 27), especially now Google (with its perpetual betas) is in the game.
  • There’s no recognition of emerging scenarios like the iPhone or Nintendo Wii (over 1m sold in UK). I accept I may be an ‘edge case’ here, but as video becomes increasingly important to the web experience, I find myself using the Wii – and specifically, the big telly in the living room – to browse the web.
  • You simply can’t make an exception for Linux (para 32), or indeed the Mac (para 35). Either the 2% rule stands, or it doesn’t. Grant one exception, and you’ll have countless others making an equally strong case.
  • If you’re specifying operating systems, you might as well go the whole way, and specify particular browsers and versions. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds: the BBC does it. There’s a strong case for the simply ‘contracting out’ the testing process to the BBC, and adopting their rules as the gov-wide standard. They are subject to the same accessibility obligations as any government site.

The consultation document is here, in universally browser-unfriendly DOC and PDF formats.

WordPress and widgets as DIUS consults

There’s no stopping Steph Gray over at DIUS. Last week it was a ‘commentable’ White Paper, driven by WordPress. Today, they’ve launched a remarkably deep consultation site on Science and Society. In his writeup, Steph is kind enough to quote my own work for the Ministry of Justice’s Governance of Britain as an inspiration. But he’s taking things at least one significant step forward.

As with Governance (and indeed the new No10 site), there’s heavy reliance on third-party services, like YouTube and del.icio.us, with content being pumped in automatically via RSS. Steph’s following the Governance idea of using ‘famous name’ video clips to kick-start debate in the form of blog comments: both sites are in their earliest days, so we don’t have any meaningful evidence about its effectiveness yet, but it feels like a good way to work.
Steph’s big step forward is on widgets. His starting point is that few people have an interest in every question raised by a consultation; but most people would have an interest in some of it. (Good call.) So using a simple tickbox form, you can pick out the questions you think your readers would have a view on, and create an embeddable (Javascript-based) questionnaire for your own site, feeding into the main database. Very smart.
Here’s one I made earlier.

Science and Society: your views

Please visit the Science and Society consultation site to join the debate.

It’ll be fascinating to see what kinds of responses this move produces. I’m still a bit wary of the whole Big Questions approach to consultation: my own feeling is that the constant, small-scale exchanges around a well-managed blog will build something more valuable. But if Big Questions are the way you’re going, this is a very clever way to drive them further.
PS: Remember PlaySpace, the DCSF SimCity-esque consultation game? JonW wondered how much it cost; the answer’s in Hansard (well, TheyWorkForYou) this week. Good as the app is, there’s no getting away from the fact that £50,000 is a lot of money for a three-month consultation exercise.

DIUS living up to its name

I’m genuinely delighted to see the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills allowing itself some room to innovate. As DIUS social media manager Steph Gray explains, they’ve just published an interactive version of their white paper on innovation (published a few months back), using – wahey! – WordPress. Or more specifically, CommentPress: the theme which allows you to add comments on each individual paragraph of a document.
It’s a nice piece of work: I first referenced CommentPress in late 2007, saying it was ‘just crying out for someone to use on a White Paper or other consultation document.’ Lo and behold, Steph has done just that, and it really does work. It even looks quite pretty too. I actually find myself wanting to add comments.
But more significantly, as Steph clearly recognises, it represents ‘one of the first public outings of [their] sandbox server, designed to be at arm’s length from the corporate site and with greater scope to test innovative tools and approaches online.’
It’s not the first really smart thing to come out of DIUS lately, either. The work they’ve done with Harry Metcalfe, to deliver a full-on (customised) Atom feed of consultations. Unlikely to excite many people, to be honest; in fact, I doubt many people will ever see it. But it’s absolutely the right thing to do, delivering a comprehensive, well-structured data feed for interested parties (ie Harry) to use as they please.
We’ll only make steps forward if people are given freedom to play around, and somewhere to do it. It’s fantastic to see DIUS taking such a lead on this.

Subliminal consultation

Consultation is something government puts huge amounts of effort into, without (often? ever?) getting it right. The latest major attempt, to encourage discussion around the Draft Legislative Programme, takes you to a five-question web form with questions so vague and high-level, couched in parliamentary language, that I wouldn’t know where to start. Will we improve on last year’s embarrassing 71 responses, many of which had ‘little, if any, relevance’? I’m not convinced.
So full marks (unexpectedly?!) to DCSF for trying something quite different. Playspace is intended to canvas the opinions of younger children about playgrounds. It presents itself as a kind of Sim City affair, letting you drag play equipment into an empty space to create your own playground. But the clever bit is that you’re actually spending ‘credits’ to choose the equipment, and you earn extra credits by answering questions.
It’s consultation for the attention-deficit generation: a handful of questions, with the reward of play after. A dozen multi-choice questions, and you’re done. Meanwhile, behind the scenes – I assume – it’s capturing the answers to the questions, as well as an indication of what types of equipment kids actually prefer.
It’s not without its problems. Like, for example, spelling DCSF wrong; and failing to link to its privacy statement, which is pretty essential for what must be a data-capture process behind the scenes. (Thankfully these glitches have now been fixed after I raised them… although I’m not convinced the site’s generic privacy statement goes quite as far as I’d like for this application.) But it shows a willingness to explore more effective means of sounding out public opinion… and I bet it results in a much richer collection of real data then any ‘normal’ consultation process.
It’s good to see an e-comms good news story coming out of DCSF’s e-efforts. You don’t have to dig too deeply into their website to find crushing legacy problems dating back a decade. And that’s before we even mention Schoolsweb.

Consultations supersite mkII

Thanks to Jeremy for pointing out Harry Metcalfe‘s new ‘Tell Them What You Think‘, the latest mass screen-scraping exercise from the MySociety stable: this time, it’s government departments’ consultation exercises. I actually met Harry last week, but didn’t realise the project was actually ‘out there’. It bears all the classic MySociety hallmarks – which Harry should take as a great compliment.
Describing the story so far on the site’s own blog, he writes:

A few months ago, I responded to a couple of government consultations and, in the process, discovered there was no way to search all live consultations, or to be alerted when a new one was published. This struck me as more than a little mad.

consultations.gov.ukExcept that, as web.archive.org demonstrates there was a central site listing live consultation exercises, at www.consultations.gov.uk from 2004 to early 2006. Did the site succeed in encouraging a new wave of civic engagement? Let’s put it this way: if it had, why would I be writing this? The site was then taken down, with the address redirecting into the Cabinet Office site.
Today, it redirects to the BERR page on last year’s Consultation Policy Review. And – oh! the irony – if you look at their published response, you’ll find the following paragraphs:

3.21 Several responses called for a new approach to publicising consultation exercises, including suggestions for a single website for all central Government consultations with a facility to register for alerts.
3.23 The Better Regulation Executive will look into the feasibility of one website indexing all central Government consultation exercises and providing an automated alert system.

Visibility of current consultations is part of the problem, but I’d argue it’s a small – and maybe even negligible – part. I’m not even sure we know what they are trying to achieve: is it simply transparency of process? is it just ‘what we’re meant to do’? are we looking for huge volumes of responses?
And more pertinently, does the government really care what The Masses think? Harry almost acknowledges this himself to an extent, citing an example of a recent consultation which saw 85% outright opposition, and 91% disagreement with the phrasing of the question. What happened? The measure passed anyway.
We need to decide what we’re trying to achieve with consultation, then decide the best way to go about it. We’re a long, long, l-o-n-g way from there.
But there’s one important lesson from the exercise, as Jeremy notes. There are things you can do with your website to help the eage, public-spirited geeks take your information, and do something better with it. Ask them. And next time you spec up a website, make sure there’s a section on XML, RSS and/or API.

E-gov minister not hanging around

Just to note that e-gov minister (?) Tom Watson, responding to comments on his ‘tell me what to do’ blog post, says he has ‘already got moving on the single spot for consultations’. It’s a start, but it’s far from the solution. Indeed, not so long ago, we did have a single (Cabinet Office?) website listing all open consultation exercises. It disappeared. The address www.consultations.gov.uk now redirects to a page at BERR.
The more important aspect to Sheila Thomson’s proposal was the ugly techie bit. Her four-stage plan started with a single list, moved to a single notification channel, then to a standard layout, then to a standard XML schema. The first two are dead easy, we could do it in WordPress in minutes; the second two are much, much more difficult – if not impossible. People get very precious about their writing.
Of all the issues in government web activity, consultation is the one I’m most concerned about. It’s taking us a helluva long time to find an acceptable means of consulting, online or offline; and frankly, I’m not sure there’s an appetite for it among the general population. Various people are trying various things at the moment; but until those deliver (or not), we need to concentrate on re-engaging the population, and making them actually care enough to get involved.

'Governance of Britain': Puffbox helps rewrite the UK's constitution

Puffbox‘s latest project was unleashed today; working alongside Jeremy Gould at the Ministry of Justice, we’ve built a WordPress-based website in support of the Whitehall-wide programme of UK constitutional reform, going under the banner Governance of Britain.
As regular readers will know, I’ve started specialising in blog-powered websites which aren’t actually blogs. And this one is probably the least bloggy of the lot, so far. (For now, anyway; the functionality’s there when they want it.) At its heart is a ‘what’s new’ function, keeping track of the various announcements and consultations happening across Government. And as you’d expect, there are a few supplementary, ‘static’ pages explaining what’s going on.
There are a couple of ‘innovations’ (using the term rather loosely, I admit) worthy of note. One is the use of categorisation in the blog posts news updates. We’ve used WordPress’s notion of parent/child categories to build a list of subjects, and a list of departments. So if you want to see any announcements related to Parliament, let’s say, or announcements by HM Treasury, then there’s a page for that. And because it’s WordPress, you can access this ‘page’ as an RSS feed. (Which explains something I wrote a couple of weeks back…)
I’ve been trying to do something like this for a while; the implications for cross-government working are huge. You, in your Whitehall department, can write stuff into the Governance site; and we can pump it back to you in RSS format, for your own site to republish (if you want). In other words, it’s the ability to get the best of both worlds: a page on your own corporate site, and inclusion within the unified web presence. A real-world example of joined-up working… if your corporate site is able to process basic RSS. We do the hard part at our end; we can’t make it any easier for you. But I fear very few will be able to receive it. (Please prove me wrong, folks.)
The other ‘innovation’ is the page of ‘What others are saying‘, powered by del.icio.us. Technically, it’s just a republished RSS feed (um, see above). But I think it’s an important step for a government website to go out of its way to point to relevant stuff elsewhere – newspapers, magazines, blogs, anywhere online.
We’re using del.icio.us for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s a really nice way to save web links; and it delivers an easy-to-process RSS feed which we can integrate directly into our pages. (Yes, even our homepage.) But equally of course, this means we’re in the del.icio.us community – so if people want to tell us about pages we might want to read, they can do this via del.icio.us. Just tag it ‘for:governanceofbritain’, and we’ll see it in our ‘links for you’ inbox.
We’ve also hijacked some other blog functionality: for example, the list of ‘recent documents’ on the homepage is actually managed by the WordPress ‘blogroll’. Nothing particularly special or clever in that, but it provides an easy-to-use interface for non-technical people to keep that list up-to-date.
It all came together very quickly, almost too quickly; and it’s far from the prettiest site I’ve ever done. But again, it’s proof that you really can get from nought to a full-featured, multi-authored, two-way communicating, CMS-driven site in a couple of weeks. It’s a site which makes real efforts to engage with the rest of the web. And it tries a few things which might come off, and might not. We’ll all learn something as a result.

Health minister now blogging, courtesy of Puffbox

Today sees the launch of version 2 of the website I designed and built for Lord Darzi’s national review of the NHS. V1 was built in double-quick time during the summer, and for reasons of cost and speed, used the Typepad blogging platform. Over the last month or so, Typepad’s limitations have become more and more apparent… so it was time to migrate to WordPress. Which, of course, is what I’d always wanted.
All the juicy new stuff hangs off the homepage. ‘Latest news’ is (as you’d expect) a listing of the top news updates, using a special ‘homepage’ category to give the authors total control. ‘Lord Darzi’s blog’ is the latest blog to be written by a government minister, but unlike some, we’re positively encouraging comments. Finally, there’s the ‘latest video’: the review team is producing quite a lot of video content, so we’re sticking it on YouTube, and using YouTube’s little-known RSS feed functionality (with a bit of string manipulation) to pump it back into the site.
The primary navigation is a mix of blog categories and static ‘pages’: hey, if you dig deep enough, there’s even an old-school image map! How long is it since I did one of those? We haven’t made any distinction between the two; I’m not sure it really matters to the punters.
As it’s WordPress, we’ve got full comment functionality if we want it. The plan is that blog posts should generally have comments enabled, but news posts won’t. However, if we fancy it, we can. To draw attention to the items where comments are ‘on’, there’s a little speech bubble icon which appears against the relevant headlines. A minor thing, but it catches the eye really well.
Overall, it’s taken less than a week to recode the templates, develop the new functionality, and import the content. Importing from Typepad was relatively painless: the initial process took seconds, but then you’ve got the hassle of setting summaries for each item, identifying and repointing all the manual inline links, etc etc. I’m glad there wasn’t too much content to worry about. DNS changes and server reconfiguration took about a day and a half, which was a real disappointment, but at least it’s done now.
I’m really pleased with it; the initial site was OK, particularly given the laughably short timeframe, but I knew we could do better. I’m afraid the exercise has put me off using Typepad, though: although it does have some pseudo-CMS functionality, my feeling was that it’s too tied to the concept of blogging.
Next steps? We’re thinking of a photo gallery, and maybe even some delegated authoring responsibility. But that’s all for another day. My next WordPress-in-government project is looming, and is likely to be even bigger. 😉