New man in charge at Number 10

One of the most prominent WordPress installs in the UK is under new management: Nick Jones, formerly Director of Interactive Services at the (now doomed) COI, has been appointed Head of Digital for the (now merged) Downing Street / Cabinet Office operation. He replaces former Tory staffer Rishi Saha, who quit government for a PR job based in Dubai.
New Media Age reports:

As head of digital for the Prime Minister’s office and Cabinet Office, Jones will oversee all digital communications, including the Number 10 and Cabinet Office websites. He will also continue with his COI duties.

Both sites have, of course, been redesigned in the last 12 months: the former staying on WordPress, the latter moving to Drupal late last year. We’ve also had a number of WP-based microsites from the Cabinet Office crew. So they know their open source on that team, as does Nick, so there are grounds for optimism… although of course, the next six months will (in theory) see departments’ independent web presences being run down, in favour of the (ahem) bespoke unified presence. But I don’t want to prod that particular hornet’s nest again quite yet.
It’s interesting to see a civil servant taking up the role, following on from the political appointment of Rishi Saha: and given the imminent shake-up in government comms, not just online, it’s unquestionably the right thing to do. We need someone in that position of key influence who understands government as a whole – not technology, not politics – and there’s no questioning Nick’s experience in that regard.
Good luck, Nick. It’s a job which, publicly, can be more about limiting criticism than earning praise. But there’s no more influential role in digital government. Use it well, sir.

No10 proposal to replace press offices with a blog

The FT is getting all excited by apparent ‘proposals’ by Downing Street’s shaven-headed, shoeless strategy director Steve Hilton to abolish maternity leave and suspend consumer protection laws, in the interests of kick-starting the economy. Personally, I can’t believe either was suggested seriously: sounds more like the start of a brainstorming session.
But I can’t help smiling at one of his other reported ideas: ‘replacing hundreds of government press officers with a single person in each department who would convey all necessary information via a blog.’ – an idea which Guido Fawkes calls ‘half decent‘. I’d go further.
The fact is, it’s the logical conclusion to a process which is kinda happening already – and which started three and a half years ago. We already have Downing Street plus three Cabinet-level departments running their websites, their main public-facing presence, on (what used to be) a blogging platform, namely WordPress.
And frankly, any department which isn’t already running its News section using a blogging platform is missing a trick. I guarantee it would be easier to use, and would provide a much better service to the customer, than whatever Big Ugly Corporate CMS they’re using.
I’ve argued for a decade plus that the web would ultimately destroy press office work as we have known it: specifically, the day-to-day mechanical stuff, and most of the mundane telephone enquiries. I don’t think that means sacking every press officer: but it would certainly redefine the role of those press officers who remained, to become ‘press relations’ people. (Or is that the role fulfilled primarily – and arguably, correctly – by Special Advisors?)
Take a look at the website for COI’s News Distribution Service – and tell me why this shouldn’t be a WordPress multisite. With COI’s demise imminent, now would be the perfect time to rebuild it. And if it needs to do stuff that isn’t available ‘out of the box’ – that’s where people like Puffbox come in. The answer is almost certainly, yes it can. And yes, we’d be delighted.
If it’s true that ‘three-quarters of [Hilton’s] ideas fail to get off the drawing board’, this is one which – in some shape or form – definitely will. In fact, it already has.

Downing Street redesigned

Very quietly last week, Downing Street launched a new design for – but to my own great relief, and (happily!) contrary to my prediction of last December, it remains very much on WordPress.
Visually, I personally think it’s a great improvement, with bold use of the iconic 10, now complemented by the lion door-knocker. It looks a lot more head-of-statey: with the central alignment of the ‘logo’, and the capitalised primary navigation, I can’t help thinking of the White House a bit… but maybe that’s just me. It’s also nice to see a non-standard font in use – the free PT Serif.
One of the new site’s most striking aspects is the way it seeks to represent government policy across departments – see, for example, this FCO page. If we didn’t know that BIS’s Neil Williams has only just started looking at this area, you’d be left wondering if this was the next stage of the Alphagov vision, with No10 taking control of all policy presentation. These pages look like WordPress pages (or a similar custom post type), with the sidebar news stories being pulled in automatically via tags (or a similar custom taxonomy).
And it’s intriguing to see Prime Ministerial initiatives being represented up-front: ‘TAKE PART’ is one of the handful of primary nav headings, and includes some very Cameron-y elements (which one wouldn’t previously have expected to see on the No10 site):

Apart from the animating slideshow (which in my mind doesn’t count, somehow) there’s no actual ‘news‘ content on the homepage, and not that much of Cameron himself – which might be indicative of a change of target audience, away from the Westminster Village? And whilst static icon-based links point out to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, I note the virtual disappearance of video content from the site: no Number10 TV, not even a YouTube link. (Although to be fair, it’s still there on the sitemap.)
The front end doesn’t give much away, in terms of what lies behind (boo! not fair!); but I sense there’s a fair bit of hard-coding going on in certain page templates, not least because the source code is very neat. Plus the page generation times, as reported by WP Super Cache in the source code, also look extraordinarily quick… usually measured in hundredths of seconds, which is impressive by anyone’s standards.
My only criticism – and it’s a very mild one at that – is that there seem to be a few missed opportunities to do things ‘the WordPress way’. The primary navigation, for example, looks hand-crafted, where it could surely have been done as a custom menu – meaning changes are dependent on the technical team editing the theme code, rather than the editors using the admin interface. But we’re mainly talking about the potential for things to be problematic in due course, rather than already causing problems already.
I understand it’s been done almost entirely in-house: in which case, hearty congratulations to the Cabinet Office team. I never doubted you. 🙂

Rishi Saha leaving government

Rishi Saha: pic by gooliver (Flickr CC)

Rishi Saha, the former digital chief at the Conservative Party who slipped very quietly into the role of Head of Digital Comms at Number10, is on the move again. It’s been announced that he’s joining PR agency Hill & Knowlton, part of WPP, becoming its new ‘Regional Director for Australia, the Middle East, Africa and South & Central Asia’.
Based in Dubai, he will also ‘be responsible for leading H&K’s digital strategy across Europe and AMEASCA, developing H&K’s global content creation capability and business development with a focus on the emerging markets.’

Mark Flanagan leaves No10

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News of another high-profile (if you’re into this sort of thing) Whitehall departure: this time it’s Mark Flanagan, who joined Downing Street in 2008 as head of digital, but subsequently became head of strategic comms. Mark’s Labour connections were no secret, so perhaps the biggest surprise is that he lasted so long.
He’s moving to Portland Communications, joining numerous former Westminster villagers including Tim Allan and George Pascoe-Watson, with a mandate to ‘put digital at the heart of the business… integrating online profile, social, search and mobile into every level of our client interaction.’
Mark deserves a lot of credit for the quiet good work done by the Downing Street web team over the last couple of years. It was he who first invited me in to talk about using WordPress, and it was his initiative to leap into Twitter: in both cases, giving an effective green light to the rest of government (much as Jimmy Leach had done previously with YouTube etc), and sparking so much of the innovation which has characterised the last couple of years.

Downing St's new transparency site

When is a new website not a new website? When it’s a subdomain, of course. Presumably that’s the justification for Downing Street launching a new transparency website, acting as a centralised depository for departments’ Business Plans (don’t call them ‘structural reform plans’, no matter what the URL says), org charts and meetings / hospitality data. In the last hour or so, it has taken its place in the Number10 site‘s primary navigation, replacing ‘Communicate’.
There’s a rather complex arrangement behind the scenes, by the look of it, with the more basic pages showing signs of being hand-coded in PHP, and the jQuery-rich Business Plans area being content-managed by a different application. It’s all running on Amazon hosting, so I’m guessing it might be bespoke PHP with Business Plan data sitting underneath in Amazon’s SimpleDB? But I’d be delighted if someone could enlighten me further. It certainly isn’t WordPress.
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One disappointing aspect, though, is the use of Disqus for commenting. I continue to have serious reservations about government using a function which absolutely requires javascript – not just to submit a comment, but to read them too; and hosts its data at an overseas third party. As Neil Williams noted previously, it’s dead easy to lash it into any web page: but personally, I’d only ever want to use it as a last resort. I’m not sure Downing Street should be setting this kind of example.
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Telegraph calls No10 site 'a technical mess'

Last night, the Telegraph published a piece by their head of audience development, Julian Sambles accusing the Downing Street website of being ‘a technical mess’. This damning conclusion was based on the following criticisms:

  • It wasn’t in the top search results for a few randomly-selected Budget-related search terms.
  • It doesn’t have a ‘link canonical’ tag in its code header.
  • It has a pretty curious set of ‘meta keywords’ – including ‘piercings’, ‘tattoos’ and ‘polish armed forces’. (Update: apparently not random at all – see comment below.)
  • The page templates aren’t especially well structured for SEO purposes.
  • It has inconsistent names on various external sites like Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

None of which, in my mind, constitute a ‘technical mess’. So it’s interesting to see, this morning, that the headline has been watered down, to mock the keyword selection.
Some of the criticisms are valid. The site could do a few simple things to improve its SEO standing, probably taking barely a few minutes. And yes, I have trouble remembering which specific configuration of ‘downing’ and ‘st(reet)’ it uses to make up its various usernames. But some of the accusations are way over the top, and some don’t stand up at all.
The ‘meta keywords’ criticism, for example. In the old days, search engines respected the keywords you entered in your page header as a guide to the page’s substance. But then people, possibly working in the field of ‘audience development’, began abusing them. So what does Google, with 90% of the UK search market, think about meta keywords?
Let’s ask Google’s Matt Cutts, shall we?
His answer: they don’t use it. ‘Basically not at all… Even in the least little bit.’ Not worth spending much time on then, I’d say.
And then there’s the failure to rank highly for certain budget-related search terms. But would you want or expect Number10 to be a high-ranking result, when it has very little material on the subject – and isn’t the ‘lead site’ on the subject, from either a policy (HM Treasury) or a citizen-facing (Directgov) perspective?
If you search Google right now for ‘budget’, you’ll get both HMT and DG in the top few results. That’s the appropriate outcome.
I’m not saying there aren’t improvements I’d want to make to the Number10 site. As regular readers may know, I contributed some advice in the early days of their migration to WordPress – but I didn’t have any hands-on involvement in the build itself. If I had, for the record, certain things would have been done differently.
PS: Thankfully, someone at the Telegraph saw sense, and dropped the ‘technical mess’ line. Otherwise I’d be forced to point out that their article page scores 88 HTML validation errors in the W3C checker, compared to the Number10 homepage’s zero.

Number10's iPhone app

I finally gave in, and upgraded the company’s iPod Touch for the purposes of testing the brand new iPhone app from 10 Downing Street. And then, as I spent an hour randomly resetting and restoring, I promptly remembered why I hadn’t upgraded for so long. Anyway…
On a technical level, the Number10 app is actually quite modest – just a pretty front end on its website’s RSS feeds, and the feeds from its YouTube, Flickr and Twitter accounts. But it’s really very pretty – and that kind of thing matters in the world of the iPhone. It feels like a perfect blend of native iPhone interface and the parent website’s house style.
It follows, coincidentally I’m sure, in the wake of recently-launched apps by both Labour and the Conservatives – and I’d say it’s the best of the three. The Tories’ somewhat dazzling effort may have more glitz, but the Number10 app feels better in terms of information delivery: and I like its one-click sharing button to send details to your Twitter and Facebook chums. (It’s quite surprising that neither the Labour nor Tory apps have sharing buttons.)
Not entirely sure who it’s aimed at, or what specific purpose it serves, other than providing an iPhone-optimised interface on those various web presences: but the same criticism can be levelled at many such ‘corporate’ iPhone apps.

No10 e-petition on abandoning IE6

I’ve happily signed the e-petition on the Downing Street website calling on the Prime Minister to ‘encourage government departments to upgrade away from Internet Explorer 6.’
I’ve written on this subject before; and I know the huge headache it would be to alter in-house applications built for IE6 alone (although that’s another story altogether).
I note the petitioner’s failure to mention the government-backed Get Safe Online initiative, which explicitly recommends upgrading. So when he says ‘(The French and German) governments have let their populations know that an upgrade will keep them safer online. We should follow them.’ – I know he’s wrong. And I’m not sure I buy his suggestion that ‘When the UK government does this, most of Europe will follow. That will create some pressure on the US to do so too.’
But that’s all beside the point. If we can use this petition as some kind of leverage, I’m prepared to overlook its deficiencies. And with nearly 5,000 signatures in a couple of days, and front-page coverage from the BBC, we have a platform on which to build.

The latest browser market share numbers show that finally, IE6 has been deposed as the world’s #1 browser. And in the last few days, Google has announced that its Apps will be phasing out IE6 support, becoming the latest big name to say enough is enough.
It’s time to put IE6 out of our misery. Sign the petition.

Who says Labour people can't do web?

A couple of (broadly) Labour-related online developments of note late last week.
One was the relaunch of LabourList, just in time for conference. Alex Smith has done great things editorially since taking control of the website in the wake of Drapergate, and entirely deserved the recognition of a high ranking in Iain Dale’s annual poll of the top political blogs. But the website has always been a bit, well, ugly (or indeed, well ugly) – like it was trying too hard.
The new look is a big improvement, primarily because it accepts the reality that it’s really just another multi-author blog. You get a straightforward two-column layout: content plus comments on one side, a site-wide sidebar on the other, with header navigation based (I guess) on tags. It isn’t spectacular in design terms, but it doesn’t need to be. (Mind you, I’m not sure about including everyone’s ‘gravatar’ on every page: that’s going to slow things way down, for everyone.) It’s still powered by the same mysterious Tangent Labs platform as other Labour output; I’m wondering why.
The other was the news that Sarah Brown, the PM’s wife had passed uber-geek Stephen Fry in terms of Twitter followers. As I write this, Mr Fry has 773,000 followers, Mrs Brown has 791,000.
With no great fanfare in the conventional media, Mrs B has built quite a profile around her Million Mums campaign against ‘the needless deaths of women in pregnancy and childbirth around the world’, and other similarly lefty causes. It’s pretty clear she’s writing her own tweets personally, and gets actively involved in terms of replying, re-tweeting and hashtagging. It’s working, and she is often (rightly) used as a best practice example for public figures.
She also did a bit of blogging from last week’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh, again at – although I’m told there has been talk about bringing it properly ‘in house’; and has been contributing to the influential Huffington Post for some time.
Her activity is rarely Labour-branded per se… but of course it’s exactly a year since she sensationally appeared on-stage at the Labour conference to introduce her husband. (It’s quite amusing to look back at the BBC’s live text commentary from the day: ‘It’s almost time for the pre-speech video. Sarah Brown is in the hall. At the lectern. What’s going on? It looks like she is about to address the Labour conference.‘) Now articles are being written, describing her as ‘arguably the most admired and powerful woman in Britain… She might even be the last hope for Labour.’
Don’t underestimate the role her new media activity has played in this.