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.

Brown's big picture of the digital future

Gordon Brown’s speech, describing a vision of Britain’s digital future, is stirring stuff, with its pledges to make Britain a world leader in terms of digital jobs, public service delivery and ‘the new politics’.
The announcements and commitments came thick and fast – from the £30m to create an Institute of Web Science, to be headed by Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, to confirmation of the release of ‘a substantial package of information held by Ordnance Survey … without restrictions on reuse’, to a ‘Domesday Book for the 21st century’ listing all non-personal datasets held by government and arms-length bodies, to an iPhone app for Number10, to an API on Directgov content ‘by the end of May’.
And then there’s MyGov – ‘a radical new model making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping.’ On the face of it, this seems – finally – like recognition that citizens’ expectations have jumped ahead of government’s delivery in the last decade. There wasn’t much detail in the speech – but it sounds to me like the first hint at Vendor Relationship Management, where the citizen shares his/her data up to suppliers. That’s certainly where the Times seemed to be pointing on Saturday, when it described the creation of a ‘paperless state’:

The aim is that within a year, everybody in the country should have a personalised website through which they would be able to find out about local services and do business with the Government. A unique identifier will allow citizens to apply for a place for their child at school, book a doctor’s appointment, claim benefits, get a new passport, pay council tax or register a car from their computer at home. … Over the next three years, the secure site will be expanded to allow people to interact with their children’s teachers or ask medical advice from their doctor through a government version of Facebook.

As I’ve written here before, I’m convinced this has to happen at some point. We build up personal profiles on Facebook, and allow Amazon and Tesco to analyse our purchasing habits – in return for much improved service. I just don’t think it’s sustainable on any level for government to continue to demand that we fill in lengthy forms, whether on paper or online, to get what we’re due.
But of course, that’s a huge government IT project, isn’t it? And by definition, that’s doomed? Well, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line which suggests things might be changing:

This does not require large-scale government IT Infrastructure; the ‘open source’ technology that will make it happen is freely available. All that is required is the will and willingness of the centre to give up control.

Blimey: recognition that open source is ready to deliver the most visionary of government policy.
And with my WordPress hat on – do I ever take it off? – I can’t help smiling at his pledge that ‘no new [government] website will be allowed unless it allows feedback and engagement with citizens themselves.’
Of course, the speech has to be seen in context. Without ever mentioning the Tories, the speech was quite unashamedly party political in places: portraying the differing views of broadband expansion, or trying to match or trump Tory pledges on data transparency. It was also the speech of a Prime Minister staring at a huge public debt problem: and with neither tax rises nor spending cuts being palatable, that really only leaves technology-driven efficiency savings.
And it’s the context that’s stopping me getting too excited about it all. We’re probably a fortnight away from government pulling down the shutters for a month. In six weeks, Brown may or may not be Prime Minister, and may or may not be in a position to deliver on these promises.
Comparisons with the Tories’ technology manifesto are inevitable. In this speech, Brown blended small-scale but symbolic measures, like a Directgov API within weeks, with big-picture principles such as VRM. It’s both shorter- and longer-term than the Conservative document – attempting, perhaps, to outflank Cameron, Maude, Hunt et al on both sides at once.
But whilst they may differ on certain matters of implementation, both are heading – rushing actually – in the same basic direction. On the face of it, no matter who wins, we can’t lose.

Flogging a dead horse. Again.

I feel obliged to note that LabourSpace, Labour’s attempt to build a social network around policy discussion and campaigns, has relaunched. Again.
It’s less appalling – downplaying, quite dramatically, the voting up and down of campaign ideas which has failed over a two year period now to spark into any kind of life. But I’m genuinely amazed it’s still there at all.
Instead, the core content is now a pretty straightforward set of commentable pages, nothing you haven’t seen on a million blogs. Except that those million blogs handle it better. You don’t see the comment form until you press the ‘Leave a comment’ button… and then, you’re immediately presented with boxes for first name, surname, and email address. That’s right: no actual comment box.
Presentationally, it’s curious. It managed to spell the surname of its lead sponsor, Ed Miliband wrong at the very top of its homepage – corrected shortly after I tweeted about it, but even so. Its HTML page title and ‘hero’ graphic can’t even be consistent in the capitalisation of A Future Fair/fair for All/all. (Then again, the HTML page titles are universally awful: SEO clearly not a priority.)
(Update: there’s an interstitial page at which introduces yet another different capitalisation: ‘A future fair for all’.)
Oh, and the site logo introduces a whole different slogan – ‘Be the change’. What’s the point of launching a campaign slogan if you’re not going to use it yourself?
LabourSpace has flopped. Several times now. Surely the best thing they could have done at this point was quietly ditch it – and put the effort into a ‘manifesto blog’, or a concentrated push on Facebook. Instead they drag the dead horse out for another public flogging.

Building Britain's Future revisited

Spotted in Francis Maude’s article on Comment Is Free yesterday (8 Feb 2010):

Then came the first instance of Labour breaching the impartiality of government’s communications; we discovered that “Building Britain’s Future”, a brand conceived and promoted by the civil service, is used extensively on the Labour party’s website.

From PR Week article dated 29 October 2009:

Whitehall comms experts have denied any revolt. Permanent secretary for government communications Matt Tee insisted Building Britain’s Future was a government brand, and said he would ensure it was not used by the Labour Party… ‘I am clear that Building Britain’s Future is a government brand – if we reached a position when someone else used it, I’d have to consider the risk that citizens could be confused about where the messages are coming from.’
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) director of comms Russell Grossman said: ‘All civil servants are keen to ensure the line isn’t crossed into political sloganeering. This slogan doesn’t cross that line at all – The Labour Party hasn’t used this.’

And finally, on in July 2009:

Earlier this week, I saw this… the front page of the Labour Party website. And there it is, right up front – ‘Building Britain’s Future’ in large letters, the same logo in the corner.

Sorry Mr Maude. Sorry PR Week. Sorry Mr Grossman. Sorry Mr Tee.
It’s still there, by the way.

Labour's cheap X-Factor dig

Cameron and Osborne as Jedward
If the many series of Have I Got News For You have taught us anything, it’s that if a joke is topical, it doesn’t actually have to be funny.
With that in mind, here’s Labour’s latest online campaigning masterstroke. A badly Photoshopped picture of the two senior Opposition politicians, mocked up to look like John and Edward off the X-Factor, slapped on a page on their website. No attempt to make a deeper political point; just a stupid joke. Childish, amateur, pathetic. But it made me smile. And now I’m writing about it here.
It’s worked.

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.

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, 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 (registered at the end of July) is actually a Labour Party website – which, in fact, sits within 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 domain, we have – 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.

Should Labour share the NHS love?

I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan since he was a writer on Irish music (etc) magazine Hot Press. On Wednesday, he stuck a message up on Twitter reacting angrily against ‘rightwing wackjobs in the US lying about the NHS’. He starts using the hashtag #welovethenhs and asks celebrity chums to help spread the word. Soon it’s one of the hot hashtags on Twitter. And two days later, it still is.
All of which puts the Labour Party in a slightly tricky position. They tried – and largely failed – to stir up similar levels of pride in the NHS for its 60th anniversary. Things have unquestionably got better since they re-took power in 1997 (at a price, admittedly). Should they get involved in this spontaneous ‘grassroots’ explosion?
Initially, naturally, the involvement was as ordinary Twitter users; then yesterday, showing commendable responsiveness at least, a big splash on the Labour homepage, easy ‘tweet now!’ links to keep the momentum, plus a Facebook widget. But there have been a few expressions of concern that the Party shouldn’t be seen to hijack a grassroots thing like this.
Personally, I think they’re handling it pretty well. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often; as the cross-party support for the hashtag demonstrates, there aren’t many opportunities to get angry about the NHS in UK politics – and if any party can claim the NHS as ‘theirs’, it’s Labour. So they’re entirely within their rights to make something of it. For the most part, they’re keeping it within Twitter, where it belongs. And to be fair, in bringing it over to, the treatment is relatively neutral – no Labour branding on the embeddable Flash widget, for example.
I’m already looking forward to hearing how the party leaders explain hashtags in their big conference speeches. 🙂

Who exactly owns 'Building Britain's Future'?

BBF website
If you take any interest whatsoever in stuff the government puts out, you’ll have seen the Building Britain’s Future logo a lot lately – it’s even replaced the big 10 on the Number10 website‘s header. It’s a cross-department brand intended to show the government has a positive programme of work in these negative times.
It’s a risky strategy, given that we’re less than a year away from a general election – inviting potentially unhelpful use of the word ‘manifesto’ (eg Guardian). And yes of course, it’s sailing close to the wind, like all governments do on occasions. But in and of itself, I don’t have an inherent problem with government packaging its plans for the next year (and beyond) under a pretty logo.
Then earlier this week, I saw this:
Labour Party homepage, Jul09
That’s the front page of the Labour Party website. And there it is, right up front – ‘Building Britain’s Future’ in large letters, the same logo in the corner.
Now look, I’m not naive. Of course ‘Building Britain’s Future’ is an attempt to reinvigorate the Labour administration. Of course a governing party will always have one eye on its electoral chances, all the more in the final year of the Parliament, all the more when they’re badly behind in the polls. But this is pushing their luck too far.

The BBF website links to the Cabinet Office terms and conditions, which state quite clearly:

Copying our logos or any other third party logos from this website is not permitted without approval from the relevant copyright owner.

So is this an infringement of copyright by the Labour Party? Or a breach of the Civil Service Code, clause 14 – using official resources, specifically graphic design, for overtly party political purposes? Was permission sought to re-use the logo, and was permission granted? (I’ve emailed the Cabinet Office to ask, and will let you know if/how they reply.)
It’s fundamentally wrong that these questions should even have to be asked. Labour should do the decent thing, and get the logo off the website immediately. The Civil Service should think carefully about political impartiality, and stand up in its defence if necessary.
Update, 30 July: I’ve received the following response from the Cabinet Office: ‘We are happy for another website to highlight government initiatives, provided that it is clear that they are government initiatives. The Building Britain’s Future story has been carried by a number of third party organisations in this way.’
That doesn’t quite answer the question I posed, as to whether Labour ever asked permission. And if there’s a page explaining these different usage rules for the Building Britain’s Future logo, exempting it from the standard T&Cs, I haven’t found it.

Draper's defiant departure

draperbookI must admit, I thought he’d gone already. But finally last night, the formal resignation of Derek Draper from LabourList. It’s very revealing.
‘Of course I regret ever receiving the infamous email [from Damian McBride],’ he states in the opening paragraph – placing the blame squarely on the sender of that email, and casting himself as the victim of the piece. If that nasty man hadn’t sent poor Derek an unsolicited email out of the blue, and if someone hadn’t (allegedly) hacked into his private emails, none of this scandal would ever have happened.
And it was all going so well up to that point, wasn’t it? ‘On a much smaller note,’ he continues, ‘I also think I got the tone of LabourList wrong sometimes, being too strident, aggressive and obsessed with the “blogosphere”.’ Much smaller? In my (professional) opinion, Draper shouldn’t be resigning for his part in the Red Rag ‘scandal’. He should be resigning for his truly appalling handling of Labour’s much-needed social media push.
So what next? Deputy editor of LabourList Alex Smith takes over, and writes a magnificent – nearly perfect – piece heralding the site’s rebirth. His opening gets straight to the (entirely correct) point:

It’s easy to forget that as the parties compete with each other for support, they all share a common responsibility to prevent public disenchantment with politics in general. 40% of those eligible to vote chose not to do so at the last election – more than the number who chose to vote for the winning party… Public trust in politicians of all parties is worryingly low, and disillusionment ultimately leads to disenfranchisement. Everyone involved in politics – including on websites like ours – has a responsibility to try to arrest this decline.

The response is a sensational U-turn in tone, including the following commitment: ‘we will positively engage with – and not antagonise – the right-wing blogosphere, starting with an interview with Iain Dale and a reader debate on policy with ConservativeHome.’
I can’t applaud this enough. As I’ve said many times before, that which unites the political blogosphere is greater than that which divides it. It takes a certain kind of person, and a certain kind of perspective, to put your opinions ‘out there’ for people to analyse and criticise. Political bloggers want to put their views across, but (generally speaking) they also want to listen to others’ responses.
If LabourList does engage directly, maturely, constructively with ConservativeHome – plus, let’s hope, LibDem Voice and others too, everyone wins. All sides can offer their opinions on the great issues of the day, under Queensberry rules (one hopes), and We The Electorate can observe and decide. Isn’t that what politics is all about?