Scottish Sec Murphy to keep 'blogging'

Well, here’s a first. Government press officers haven’t been the most enthused by new media. I’m told that’s changing, slowly but surely. But it’s quite startling to see a press office announcing a blog which hasn’t even been launched yet – and even better, syndicating the content via press release!
Clearly the Scotland Office are pretty excited. They sent out new secretary of state Jim Murphy’s first post from his new blog, without mentioning that the blog didn’t exist yet, or even the address it would occupy when it did finally launch. Ian Cuddy managed to glean that: ‘It will be going on the Scotland office website in a more conventional blog format … once we’ve got one or two technical things ironed out.’ Which came as some relief to those of us who feared this might be an attempt to blog by press release alone. What a concept.
The ‘blog’ is now live on the Scotland Office site: but ominously, it looks like a standard web page. No RSS feeds, no comments, no tags, nothing that would fit the de facto definition of a blog. But it’s a start, I suppose. To their great credit, they’ve got it into WordPress relatively quickly. Comments, feeds, the whole lot are now available, and it slots seamlessly into the existing corporate site. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just do that in the first place.
It’s been very interesting to watch how Jim Murphy has warmed to blogging. He started in September 2007, as the Foreign Office launched their ambitious multi-author approach. My understanding at the time was that he had to be persuaded to do it: with the EU Constitution/Treaty argument at its height, a blog was seen as a good thing to do. The FCO project is generally recognised as a success, with Murphy’s own blog being singled out for particular attention: an impressive following, and at least one instance where a reader comment affected subsequent policy. Shortly afterwards (I think), Murphy started blogging on his own personal website.
Had he wanted one, the move up to Cabinet level would have been an excuse to stop. Greater responsibility, no existing platform, etc. So it’s good to see his desire to continue – and you have to assume, it was high on his priority list when he arrived. He tells us (via that press release):

When I was Minister for Europe I had a regular blog. I found it a useful way of letting people know what was going on in Europe, and I got a lot of good feedback. Now I’m Secretary of State for Scotland I’m going to carry on blogging and I look forward to having a dialogue about the really important issues that face our country.

It’s very much the same challenge: emotional discussions about matters of national sovereignty. And by vowing to keep blogging, it’s probably the best signal we’ll get that it was felt to have been a valuable use of his time. There are, of course, quite a few parallels here with David Miliband who kept up his blogging through two reshuffles (ODPM to Defra to FCO), all the way to the Cabinet table.
And while we’re on the subject of people with multiple blogs… I note that James Barbour, press secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, and an occasional visitor to these parts, now has an official blog on the Foreign Office platform, to go alongside his personal blog outside. I asked him via Twitter how he was planning to juggle the two: his honest reply comes on a post on his personal blog: ‘I’m not entirely sure myself, Simon, but I’m going to try.’ You can’t ask any more. Good luck sir.

Ben Hammersley prototyping at Foreign Office

Things are happening at the Foreign Office. About a month ago, they registered a new dot-com domain, with the apparent intention of hosting a series of prototype web builds. But since the only link I’ve yet seen to the domain has now been removed by its (well-connected) author, I won’t provide a link to it here.
First to emerge is an ‘online collaboration space’ to be used for ‘work on projects with partners outside government’, running on the same wiki platform as Wikipedia. Unlike previous wiki efforts at Miliband-led government departments, it will be invite-only: all users will be ‘verified’, following nomination by an FCO officer. (It’s probably just as well.) There’s also a WordPress blog installation 🙂 – although it’s currently empty.
The site confirms a rumour I’d heard, that all-round Renaissance Man Ben Hammersley (geek, journalist, photographer, ultra-marathon runner, kilt-wearer) is working for the Foreign Office… even going so far as to have a email address. With one single appointment, the credibility of e-government efforts takes quite a leap… although I note Ben doesn’t appear to be shouting too loudly about his move into the civil service.
It’s good to see the Miliband Effect finally kicking in. I was a bit underwhelmed by the FCO website’s £1.47m relaunch back in March, although I know that site had been in preparation long before Miliband arrived at King Charles Street. FCO is right to recognise that such ‘skunk works‘ operations are the best – and arguably, the only – way to fire innovation.
Mind you, that was a lesson they should have learned more than a decade ago, when they gave a fresh-faced 22 year old more-or-less free rein to design, build and run Whitehall’s first ‘real time’ website, with groundbreaking and award-winning results. Have I ever told you that story? 🙂

Ofcom blogging at last

The only surprise about Ofcom launching a new blog, in support of its review into Public Service Broadcasting, is that it’s taken so long, with veteran blogger Tom Loosemore over there. (It does bear an uncanny resemblance to Tom’s personal blog, actually.) With electronic communications being part of its remit, and its stated objective to ‘remain at the forefront of technological understanding’, you’d have expected them to be an early adopter. (See thoughts from BBC man Nick Reynolds on a related subject.)
This new blog is hosted on Typepad, which I used to recommend for people keen to run a ‘bog standard’ blog, especially if hosting was going to be an issue – but don’t any more. My experience is that people inevitably want ‘normal website’ features at some point, and Typepad really isn’t geared up for that. Not to the same extent WordPress is, anyway. (Another recent launch on Typepad is the Dept of Health’s Diabetes blog, for whom Typepad’s instant availability was the primary motivation.)
Meanwhile, across the blogosphere – I’m just a little surprised by the ultra-personal tone of David Miliband’s latest post: reflecting on Arsenal’s performance on Tuesday night. Well done for the attempt to tie it into European politics. And yes, for the record, I have to agree on the sentiments. I’m not sure we’ll see Philippe Senderos surviving the summer: occasionally he does OK, but that’s not really good enough.

New Foreign Office website

A year after spending £1.47m on the Morello content management system, the new Foreign Office website went live this morning. Having spent five great years there, the FCO is naturally dear to my heart; but with David Miliband at the helm, its online activity takes on added significance. So how’s the new site looking?
It’s unquestionably better looking than its (frankly quite ugly) predecessor. The consistent, colour-coded header area works well, and navigation into the site’s depths is handled well. Personally I’m not sure about the homepage, whose four evenly-sized columns don’t direct the eye particularly efficiently; and I’m not sure about the balance between white space and solid copywriting at deeper levels. But if the question is ‘does it succeed functionally?’, the answer is yes.
However, with Miliband in charge, and with its track record of innovation, we expect more from the FCO. I’m looking for examples of groundbreaking content, function or presentation – and so far, I haven’t found many. The use of a layered Google Map is nice, to show worldwide FCO activity; and I suppose we should welcome the introduction of a first RSS feed on the main site (although it doesn’t currently work). The blogging site gets a facelift, but it’s suffering some especially nasty teething troubles, as I write. There are occasional references to their YouTube and Flickr presences, but I’d have hoped to see them integrated more deeply.
I’m a little disappointed that some obvious enhancements haven’t made an early appearance. The lack of RSS feeds is a particular shame: a single news feed really isn’t sufficient. The Travel Advice section is surely a prime candidate for RSS: shouldn’t FCO be going out of its way to feed advisory notices out to travel websites? I’m surprised there isn’t at least a general ‘don’t go there‘ feed; I’d also have hoped to see individual country feeds, which should probably also incorporate more general news content.
So overall, I’m underwhelmed. We need departments to push the boundaries, and few departments will have an easier ride from their Secretary of State than FCO. But maybe this is the prudent approach: migrate the basic stuff at the beginning, then start to push the platform harder in due course. We’ll have to wait and see.