Flying the nest

new governance
As I’ve written before, one of the (many) selling points of WordPress is the lack of lock-in. When the time comes for a client to take greater control of a project, or if they simply feel it’s time for a change, they aren’t stuck with all their content locked in a proprietary CMS. They’re free to export their content, and take it elsewhere – to a new WordPress expert, to a new theme, to a whole new existence.
And in a further sign of the maturity of WordPress in the marketplace, I’ll be waving goodbye to a couple of my earliest WordPress projects; I’ll also be bringing in a couple of new ones from other people.
Governance of Britain has been tweaked by someone many of you will know – but since he/she hasn’t mentioned the work publicly yet, I won’t name names. It’s been rebranded as People, Power and Politics, and features a much more web-friendly design, and the sort of ‘web 2.0’ integration that simply wasn’t practical, or even possible when the site was first built 18 months ago. I really like what’s been done with it, in a remarkably short space of time – and I wish it well. For various reasons – some practical, some political – the site didn’t really work out as we hoped. I’m hoping the new manager, located closer to the heart of things, can take it further than I could.
There are also moves to breathe new life into the Our NHS, Our Future website, mothballed since the publication of last summer’s big NHS review; again, it’ll be an internal team taking greater ownership of things. It looks like the site will be more ambitious in some ways, less so in others, and with a different, more internal-NHS focus than last time. I’ve been helping the new team with the various technicalities and practicalities; launch is a little way away, but the early signs are encouraging.
Part of me is naturally sad to see them go; but since the Puffbox cause has been to encourage government to make more use of tools like WordPress, I have to put it down as a Mission Accomplished: my work there is done. And to be perfectly honest, it’s quite a relief to free up some space – albeit temporarily! – in my diary. I’ve had more offers of work lately than I could ever fulfil; and I’ve got three major projects on the go just now, which take us well beyond the straightforward ‘WordPress as CMS’ notion. I can’t wait to tell you about them.

On being British

GoB screengrab - Fry, Rowling
It isn’t every day you get writers like Stephen Fry and JK Rowling, Oscar-winning film producers and Nobel Prize-winning scientists contributing to a government website. But it does happen.
Governance of Britain is a site I built a year ago, on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Plans and circumstances have changed a few times since then, which frankly haven’t helped with establishing the site; and there’s word that things might be changing again. But it contains a few features and functions which I’m particularly proud of.
This week saw us uploading a clutch of new contributions from high-profile public figures on what it means to be British. We’ve already had pieces from, among others, Trevor Phillips, Dame Evelyn Glennie and Nicole Cooke (pre-Beijing, by the way), as well as what you might call ‘the great and good’. A couple of them are even in video form. Comments are open; it’ll be interesting if such ‘citizen-friendly’ material can generate large volumes of feedback.
Each contributor has approached the subject in a different way. Some are short, some much longer. Some are very personal, others clearly ‘the official line’ from an organisation they represent. Some are quite academic, others quite provocative. Well worth a quick click through. I’d particularly draw your attention to Lord Puttnam‘s video: a one minute piece to camera, well-delivered by a natural communicator.

They asked, Gordon answered

Whether or not you like the answers he gives, the presentation of the ‘Ask The PM’ questions and answers on the Downing Street YouTube channel is really nice. The ‘split-screen’ treatment gives equal prominence to punter and premier; and one plays when the other finishes. Nothing too clever, but I really like it.
The second round of questions has already opened: this time, on the specific topic of health. Worth noting a tightening of the editorial criteria: nothing party political, nothing over a minute.
Meanwhile, over at the Governance of Britain site I developed with the Ministry of Justice, we’ve got the first of (what should hopefully be) a regular series of video messages, introducing debates around the constitutional renewal programme. Minister Michael Wills is great on camera: then again, he has a background in TV, and has plenty of practice.

Governance of Britain relaunched

It’s a busy couple of weeks for Puffbox, with several high-profile projects all delivering within a matter of days. First to appear is a quite radical reworking of the website for the Ministry of Justice‘s Governance of Britain project.
The site was originally built in late 2007 as a simple news hub, gathering updates on the various consultation processes and legislative processes across government. I think it’s fair to say, it was fairly modest. But things moved up a gear a few months ago, and the new site introduces some exciting new elements.
To attract attention and spark debate, the team have commissioned some ‘celebrity’ content from some extremely famous names. First contributions are from John Bird (Big Issue) and Adam Sampson (Shelter), two well-known NGO figures; and Dr Tim Edensor, an academic from Manchester Met University. Once the site beds in a bit, we’ll be posting some megastar-level contributions which are guaranteed to attract proper media attention.
Video will be a key element of the new site. Every week or two, we’ll be posting new video contributions, and inviting readers to comment blog-style. We’ll be starting with a few ‘official’ messages from Ministers and ‘famous faces’. But when I mentioned the plans in a comment on Shane McCracken’s blog earlier this week, Shane followed up by asking if we were going to accept video responses too. It was an excellent suggestion, and we’re already looking at how we could do it.
We’ve also added a Google Map showing past and future public events: some are official MOJ events; others are third-party events with Ministerial appearances; others have no MOJ connection, but are offered FYI. Nothing too clever from a technical perspective, but a nice addition nonetheless.
My own favourite part of the old site – the ‘What Others Are Saying‘ list of recommended articles from external blogs and websites, managed through a account – retains its homepage prominence. It’s a great way to demonstrate you’re listening to the wider debate, and a useful service to your readership: managed with a single mouse-click. It’s a feature I’d love to see on a lot more sites.
Obviously it’s all done through WordPress. It isn’t flashy; but I’m really excited about its potential. There’s no shortage of substance, on subjects we know people are interested in. It’s one of the first sites to use video as more than just a one-way medium. Ministers and the Comms team recognise the need to develop momentum, and I’m confident we’ll get regular involvement from senior levels. Let the debate begin.

'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 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 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 community – so if people want to tell us about pages we might want to read, they can do this via 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.