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.

Full launch for Met crime maps

Wednesday saw the formal launch of London’s crime maps, which first appeared in beta only a couple of weeks back. Don’t call it ‘1.0’ though: the source code declares it’s actually ‘beta 1.02’.
As before, it shows areas colour-coded for the rates of ‘burglary, robbery and vehicle crime’, based on comparisons with ‘the average’. Yes, that’s an approach which has its limitations – my favourite being that areas containing police stations tend to rate worst for offences, because of (for example) finding drugs on someone you’ve just taken into the custody suite. But as a first step, it’s surely a good one. There are plenty of legal and logistical issues to overcome before we start putting dots on the map according to offences… and as we all know by now, if you try to sort everything out before going live, you never go live.
No mention of the total cost in the official press release, but I’ve seen a figure of £210,000 reported (eg Daily Mail). Given that it’s a fairly straightforward map mashup, using the standard infoWindows and polygons built into the (free) Google Maps interface, I’d be very interested to see a confirmation and/or breakdown of that. Fair play to Boris and his Conservative administration for getting it out the door early; but the next ‘how much did that government website cost?’ argument could be interesting.
Meanwhile, I see the Foreign Office is doing some map mashing of its own, with a cute (rather than useful) map of travel advice notices for the home nations’ World Cup qualifiers. But crucially, they’ve done it using the free ‘My Maps’ functionality; and it’s offered purely as an external link, not even an embed on the FCO page.

More Ministerial blogging

A few more developments over at the Foreign Office to note. Meg Munn, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is now blogging – making a total of 3 FCO ministers, along with Messrs Miliband and Murphy.
They’ve also been bringing in a few other Embassy staff – including the High Commissioners to Nigeria and Malta, both of whom have been running ‘blogs’ (of one form or another) on their own posts’ website until now. It’s clearly an official policy to bring these on to one central platform; one wonders what to make of comments by Our Man in Malta about ”negotiating’ (haa) their takeover’.
Speaking of which, we’re starting to see the new centralised British Embassy websites emerging. Here’s a few examples I’ve found by guessing the URLs: Malta, France, China, Belgium, Canada, Korea (S), Iran. Intriguing to note that whilst most countries are set up with password-protected ‘UKinWherever’ URLs, there’s no ‘UKinIreland’. Political sensitivity about that notion, I guess.
And while we’re in King Charles Street… I missed the recent experiment with Twitter: a dozen entries over a week, following the Projecting British Islam trip to Egypt. I wasn’t the only one to miss it, though: it only attracted a dozen ‘followers’. And I’m pretty sure one of them was not David Miliband (in-joke – sorry).

How much can a website cost?

There’s been a sudden flurry of Parliamentary Questions (PQs) landing on the Foreign Office‘s doorstep in the last couple of months, on the subject of their departmental website. When it launched in late March, I noted that the purchase of the Morello content management system alone had cost them £1.47m, to some incredulity from commenters. I now learn that figure barely scratched the surface.
The total initial cost, first mentioned in a Meg Munn written answer in January 2008 and confirmed by Jim Murphy in response to a round-robin PQ in April was (brace yourself) £9.7 million. ‘The project is on target to cost £19.2 million over five years. This includes running costs, for example hosting and support, and some staff salaries.’
This understandably attracted front-bench attention, and was followed up by William Hague. A clutch of PQs in mid-May brought a breakdown of the £9.2m spend to date:

  • consultancy (procurement, legal and business change advice): £1.631 million;
  • project management and support: £1.065 million;
  • software, development and implementation (including design and roll-out): £6.115 million; and
  • other (including training costs): £0.389 million.

Granted, it’s a big endeavour – providing a single platform for all embassies (etc) to host their websites, in all sorts of languages. And some of the content has been nothing short of sensational – I’m thinking especially of the blogging from Zimbabwe just now. But those numbers seem sky high.
And yet they aren’t the worst. As I’ve blogged previously, I know of one site with an eight-figure budget… which still isn’t live.

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? 🙂

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.

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.