History lesson

My first workplace: photo from Wikipedia

I began my career at the Foreign Office, joining what was known as ‘Guidance Section’. Its job was to be the in-house newswire service for British embassies far and wide. The day started by editing down a daily news summary and press review, based on BBC World Service scripts; at the click of a button on a VT100 terminal (look it up), these were delivered to hundreds of British diplomatic missions by the best means available. Could be fax, could be telex, could be telegram, one or two had something called E-Mail. Cutting edge stuff for 1995, believe me.
We would spend the rest of the day gathering news items from around Whitehall – press releases, transcripts of speeches, whatever. We’d edit these down to the essential, decide which embassies would be likely to receive media enquiries on the subject, and send it out to them. Then, at lunchtime and 5pm, we’d produce a ‘shopping list’ from which embassies could request anything they were interested in, but hadn’t already received.
Departments were generally more than happy to work with us: often we’d get significant announcements ahead of delivery, so that Our Man In Wherever could have a head-start. The one massive exception was the Treasury, on Budget Day.
They would send an official on the short walk up Horse Guards Avenue to our office in the Old Admiralty Building, just by the Arch. He or she (usually he) would have the Chancellor’s speech on a floppy disk. He would sit stony-faced in our office, one of few in the building to have a TV, whilst we all listened to the speech. When the Chancellor’s bottom touched the front bench, the speech having been delivered to the House, he would hand over the floppy disk. And finally, we could begin the work of reformatting the text file, editing out the party-political bits, double-checking it, then sending it out.
Today, any Embassy press officer who’s interested will be reading the same advance press coverage we all are. He/she will watch the speech live – CNN, BBC World, streamed online, whatever – before hitting the Treasury website. And he probably won’t get a single call asking for a copy of the speech.

Foreign Office finally switches to WordPress

Earlier this week, the Foreign Office rebuilt its blogs.fco.gov.uk site. It doesn’t look much different. But the screenshot above isn’t the significant one. The one below is.

Yes, after some gentle encouragement on the pages of this blog, it’s great to see the Foreign Office moving off the Apache Roller blogging platform – What, you’ve never heard of it? Exactly. – and on to the blogging platform of choice, WordPress.
Like a lot of government projects, the brief has clearly been to keep the visuals almost exactly as-was. But Steph Gray has rebuilt the site using an HTML5-based theme, deployed on a multisite setup at Bytemark (by the look of it), and has managed to migrate 50+ blogs’ worth of content too.
I can see a few things we’d have done differently – notably around non-English content. But as Word Up Whitehall attendees will have heard, Simon Wheatley and I have been concentrating on precisely that subject for most of the past few months, so we’re probably deeper into it than most.

And so the highest-profile blogging platform in Whitehall comes over to WordPress, joining similar efforts at DFID (launched Oct 2008), Health, DECC and BIS. Well done to Ross & co for doing the right thing. You know it makes sense. That really only leaves the MOD

Oi BBC, don't you dare diss my legacy

The BBC published a very nicely balanced, sober article yesterday by Brian Wheeler, noting the ‘web revolution sweeping Whitehall‘. It’s been widely retweeted around the e-gov community, and is being seen as highly complimentary of civil service efficiency.
Which makes it all the more curious to see the pictures they’ve chosen to illustrate the story: and the presumably humorous captions added beneath them.

As you may or may not know, I was the individual responsible for the FCO web presence during those formative years. I designed and built every page of the 1997 site with my own two hands; and led the development of the 2000 (actually, 1998) site. And I’m going to defend them.
The 97 site was redesigned, top to bottom, during purdah… and launched on the morning after the election. Never mind ‘few frills’: its design was pretty close to cutting edge at the time. That image of Munch’s The Scream was actually an animated GIF, which morphed into a globe – OK, maybe that was a bit pretentious on reflection. We even had RealAudio clips of Robin Cook’s comments on arrival at King Charles Street, thanks very much. Grr.
The 98 site had a hell of a lot more than ‘a dropdown menu!’ (sic). In fact, it was absolutely groundbreaking, internationally speaking: and it had more functionality than the majority of Whitehall departments’ sites have now. Actually, if it launched now, it would still be one of the top handful.
You could register to receive email alerts, based on news items ‘tagged’ with certain policy areas, or updates to country Travel Advice notices. And the list of latest news on the homepage was then personalised according to those same preferences: so you’d instantly see news items of interest to you, and a chronological list of changes to country Travel Advice for countries you cared about.
On the back end, it was the first in government to use a web-based content management system – a custom-built thing, courtesy of a truly heroic developer called Ian Lathwell at Bates Interactive (later  known as XM London). And if you’re not impressed by that, maybe I should tell you about the several large Whitehall departments which still – a dozen years later! – haven’t evolved that far. We had a simplified markup language – […] for bold, {…} for italic – which was flexible enough for our purposes, and yet simple enough to explain to those who had never seen the web. Nothing too extravagant, but it just worked. We won enough awards to justify a trophy cabinet.
And you won’t believe how little we paid for it. Buy me a coffee and I’ll tell you.
So, less of the smart-alec captions, Mr/Mrs/Miss BBC Production Assistant. Thank you.

Wireframes? Specs? Ha.

I’ve added a lengthy comment to Stephen Hale’s recent blog post about preparations for a much-needed redesign of the FCO’s blogs.fco.gov.uk site. Unfortunately, the FCO’s platform did horrible things to the formatting, so even if it’s only to make it legible, I thought I’d echo one of the more controversial points I made in that comment.
Specifically: my point that, for a project like that, the days of spending weeks and months honing wireframe diagrams and/or lengthy functional specifications should be behind us.
A blog platform is no longer a start-from-scratch, blank-sheet-of-paper kind of project. Wipe away the surface layer, and there’s a very limited range of web page layouts these days. The functionality of a blog platform is even more standardised, with only a handful of serious candidates. Virtually all the functionality you’ll need will be ready, out of the box, within a matter of minutes.
Having done this very regularly for several years now, I strongly believe that if you have a fairly good idea of the functionality you want, and a fairly good idea of the platform you like, you should look to force the two together at the earliest possible opportunity, rather than spending ages and £££ refining your wireframes and technical spec to perfection. Why waste time and money dreaming of what you might like, when you can have it in front of you within minutes, and know?
It’s like when you buy a new car. Cars are a mature technology. They all feel a bit different, and come with slightly different features, but they all do broadly the same thing in the same way. If you want a new car, you don’t sit down and design your dream car. You don’t recruit your own team of engineers, designers and mechanics. You make a list of the few things that are important to you; then you go to the local showrooms and test-drive a few.
In writing my comment for the FCO site, I went out of my way to avoid using the word WordPress. But my blog, my rules. So here’s the slightly less diplomatic version of what I wanted to say.

  • In a world of instant zero-cost availability, it’s ludicrous to consider functionality and platform in complete isolation from each other. It just is.
  • WordPress’s status as the world’s leading blogging platform is now, I’d suggest, undisputed. So if you want to run a multi-author blogging arrangement, it should be on WordPress. If you don’t believe me, maybe you could ask the Telegraph: they tried a bespoke platform, then tried a commercial product, then finally saw sense.
  • DFID are already running a multi-blogger platform, based on WordPress, and have been doing so most successfully for the last 15 months. It can do everything that you’d expect any such site to do – and more. It’s unquestionably a better system than the FCO’s. It ticks all the boxes on the FCO’s future wireframes; and if there’s anything it can’t already do, it can almost certainly be grafted on: that’s the beauty of WordPress. And we’ve proven that with them numerous times.
  • The DFID code is open source. Some of the key plugins are already available to the world on wordpress.org; I’m happy to explain and share any lower-level stuff within the templates.


  • If FCO come up with a reason why they can’t use the world-leading and lowest-cost solution, in conjunction with code already proven within government and also freely available, I sincerely look forward to hearing it. And I imagine Parliament will too.

Jimmy Leach returns to Whitehall

News from the Foreign Office: they’ve selected Jimmy Leach, former head of digital at 10 Downing Street, currently ‘Editorial Director for Digital’ at The Independent, for the recently-advertised position of FCO’s Head of Digital Engagement. He’s due to start in February.
It’ll be great to have him back: as I’ve written previously, I think he effectively kickstarted the wave of innovation around third-party services like YouTube, not to mention the e-petitions site, and did so without ever actually relaunching the No10 website.

FCO's modest redesign

The Foreign Office relaunched its corporate website over the weekend – always a brave move. You’re met by a very striking news-y homepage, with large-format high-impact (and high maintenance) imagery: it works very well indeed, but is the sort of homepage which takes a lot of editorial effort, and presumably a photo budget of some sort. There are several RSS icons dotted around the place; blog and Twitter areas on the homepage; and if you dig a little deeper, a press office blog (of sorts). It’s a homepage which clearly knows its purpose. And that’s a good thing.
Design-wise, the header feels modest and contemporary. But I’d have concerns about the presentation of text lower down the page. Whilst I’m sure a lot of the issues – inconsistent spacing, curious alignment, empty links – can probably be put down to teething troubles, I’m forced to look back to the Blogs site which started fairly messy, and hasn’t ever improved. Stephen Hale promises a new look to that site too; I sincerely hope so.
The press office ‘blog’ is a very interesting addition: running since June, it actually uses an account at Tumblr.com as its CMS, with the material being pulled into FCO chrome (presumably) via RSS feed. It’s publish-only, so no comments; and if you want anything beyond the last few items, it sends you off to Tumblr. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to like about Tumblr, a lighter-than-lightweight ‘blogging’ solution. But I don’t feel comfortable about a major department of state using it. And I wonder if they’d be doing that if their main blogging platform wasn’t a better one.
You’ll be wondering about cost, no doubt. ‘None of this work cost any extra money,’ says Stephen, ‘we’ve done it in house.’ And whilst that doesn’t mean it’s free, at least it means (one assumes) they’ve avoided the worst excesses of some previous site rebuilds.
Is it better than what went before? Yes, I think so. It feels like a much smaller, slightly better organised site. But as I said last time, we expect a lot from FCO – with a famously digitally-savvy Foreign Secretary, a communications remit and a significant budget. I still think they can do more, and do it better. We await their new appointment with interest.

FCO seeks new head of digital

Another senior digital job pops up: this time, it’s the Foreign Office looking for a Head of Digital Engagement. It’s a Senior Civil Service band 1 position, a 2-year fixed-term contract with a salary up to £90k (plus London weighting, plus 6 weeks holiday!), managing the 30-strong team based in London, Washington, New Delhi and Singapore.
But it’s not Stephen Hale‘s position – or is it? Announcing the vacancy on his FCO-hosted blog, he writes:

You might also have noticed that my own job title contains the words “Head”, “Digital” and “Engagement” in a slightly different order. This is a different job – it’s for our head of department. When the position is filled, it could change the dynamic of the team I work in. And my responsibilities (and job title) might have to change too. A lot will depend on who we recruit.

Fair enough… but I note that the ‘slug’ of the post is ‘time_to_move_on’. Hmm.
Update: Stephen emails to explain – the initial title of the piece was ‘Time to move on?’, with a question mark. (To which the answer was going to be ‘no’.) Except that, of course, the question mark got removed in the translation to a page slug. He assures me, he’s going nowhere.
Having spent the early – and probably the most productive – years of my Civil Service career at the FCO, I can vouch for it as a fine place to work; and with David Miliband as Foreign Secretary, you know there’s support for online work at the very top. If you fancy it, CVs and covering letters are due in by noon on 12 October.

Ed's Pledge: when Ministers go it alone

One of the few international set-pieces between now and the next general election is the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in mid-December. And the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is trying to drum up support among the population for – er, well, let’s not dwell on details. ‘A deal’ of some kind.
He’s launched a website, EdsPledge.com asking people to declare their support for his campaign, and spread it round their social networks. It’s a pretty modest affair… too modest, arguably. An imported feed from his Twitter account, lots of calls to action – but in terms of substance, only a 67-second YouTube video.
But you’ll need to be looking relatively closely to spot that EdsPledge.com (registered at the end of July) is actually a Labour Party website – which, in fact, sits within www.labour.org.uk. The Labour logo is in dead space in the bottom corner of the screen, and the footer text declaring the site’s ownership is light grey text on white. There’s literally zero reference to Labour in that 67 seconds of video – other than the choice of font, and who’s going to notice that? (Well, apart from me.)
Meanwhile, in the gov.uk domain, we have ActOnCopenhagen.gov.uk – proclaiming, would you believe it, ‘the UK Government’s ambition for a global deal on climate change’, a joint DECC/FCO production, hosted by FCO but ultimately using a DECC subdomain. (Hey… Miliband and Miliband. Hadn’t thought of that until now.) And guess what? It too has a clock counting down to the conference, a bit of Twitter and YouTube, and a ‘100 days’ message from Ed Miliband – plus, it has to be said, a lot more detail.
Of course it’s obvious why Labour should be trying to maximise the political potential of Copenhagen. And likewise, it sits perfectly within FCO’s wider public diplomacy remit, as well as the DECC portfolio. Nobody’s doing anything wrong per se, from a selfish perspective anyway. But I can’t help feeling we’re straying into dangerous territory here.
For decades, centuries even, the Civil Service sat as a buffer between politicians and the populace. Mass communication required budgets and infrastructure which the political parties couldn’t readily lay their hands on, or afford. But just as the music and journalism businesses have seen their previously cosy arrangements challenged by the disappearance of those barriers to entry, are we now seeing the politicians challenging the authority of their own departments for their own purposes?
There’s now nothing to stop a minister setting up his/her own website pushing his/her own line – beyond the control of The Department. In many cases, it could be much cheaper and quicker to go outside, rather than rely on the internal processes. And free from Civil Service rules on dispassionate discourse, it might be more effective too.
Now, whilst there could be tension between these two web initiatives, I suspect there won’t be in practice. Wearing my cynical hat, the Labour site seems to have two objectives – visibility for Miliband, and harvesting the contact details of potential Labour sympathisers/voters. There’s no real duplication of functionality or content, nor any inherent clash with the weighty objectives of the DECC/FCO site.
But this is the first time I’ve seen such an obvious attempt by Labour to mirror departmental responsibility; and it’s easy to imagine how other similar activity around other departments’ areas – let’s say Health? Defence? Treasury? wider foreign affairs? – might get a little more juicy. Keep an eye on it, folks.

Time called on top UK blogger

In February, The Times named the blog written by Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa, staff at the British Embasy in Zimbabwe, to be  one of the UK’s best. And rightly so. Some of the stuff they’ve written has been the most moving I’ve ever read on a blog. But while Grace is a local, Philip is part of the diplomatic staff – and in keeping with FCO policy, once three years are up, he’ll be moved on.
‘The Foreign Office is cruel,’ he writes in his final post. ‘My brain must go on to some other job, while my heart stays in Zimbabwe. How cruel to be dragged away just as recovery might begin.’ As ever, it’s stirring stuff: how the experience has changed him from an ‘arrogant and complacent British diplomat’, snapshots of the anguish and beauty in the country, expressions of optimism tinged with unspoken anger.
The blog will continue, he writes, in the hands of his colleague, ‘the incomparable Grace’. But that, in itself, takes us into intriguing territory: a Zimbabwean writing such a high-profile blog on behalf of the British diplomatic service. It’s terrible to have to write this, but I hope it goes OK for her. I was delighted to meet Philip at the FCO’s blogging seminar a few weeks back; it’ll be interesting to see if, or how he might take the blogging thing forward into his new role.

FCO blogging on blogging

It’s great to see the Foreign Office’s Stephen Hale raising his head above the parapet, and blogging about his job as ‘Head of Engagement’. (Quite a job title, by the way.) Makes sense for numerous reasons of course, not least as a means of setting a good example for colleagues. I mean, would you trust a ‘blogging expert’ who didn’t blog?
Stephen has already touched on the FCO’s choice of the rather obscure Roller blogging platform – ‘because of the ease with which we could integrate it with our web platform’. His latest post reveals something I hadn’t previously appreciated: ‘we opened up the blogs over the summer so that any member of staff with a valid business reason could start an official blog’.
That’s a remarkable move in itself, and perhaps unexpectedly, puts FCO on a par with hi-tech companies like Microsoft – but I’m still in two minds about the wisdom of people blogging in a personal capacity on an official platform (generally speaking). My instinct remains that corporate blogging is best done on a project basis, with more personal stuff (again, generally) kept separate.
In that respect, we should all be grateful to FCO for testing the water here; we’ll only find out what works – if anythying – by trying it, and they’ve certainly got the Boss most likely to give them the freedom to experiment.