Another week, another major consultation

First it was the Programme for Government, then the public sector Spending Challenge… and now it’s Your Freedom:

We’re working to create a more open and less intrusive society through our Programme for Government. We want to restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness, and free our society of unnecessary laws and regulations – both for individuals and businesses. This site gives you the chance to submit, comment on, or vote for ideas about how we can do this. Your ideas will inform government policy and some of your proposals could end up making it into bills we bring before Parliament to change the law.

As with the Spending Challenge, it’s a concept which the LibDems tried (to a certain extent) prior to the election: they published their proposed Freedom Bill online, and invited comments on it. So for once, with concrete justification, you can argue that the government – at least part of it, anyway – knows what it wants to come out of this consultation before it starts. (Indeed, the Cabinet Office press release is quite explicit, that it will result in ‘a Freedom Bill in the autumn’.)

Update: Mark Pack makes some excellent points re the original LibDem exercise. The ‘blank sheet of paper’ approach of Your Freedom is inevitably (?) leading to some crackpot proposals. The LD approach was much more focused: here are the key repeals we’re intending to make; please tell us if you think we’ve got the detail wrong and if there’s anything similar missing.

This time, the site is running on Delib’s Plone-based Dialogue App platform. We know this because somewhat unusually, Delib have included a namecheck in the footer of each page. Whilst Plone is open source, Delib’s code doesn’t seem to be; however, there’s some suggestion among various gov people on Twitter that there should be ‘positive’ news on that front shortly.
It certainly looks a lot like the design I cobbled together for the Programme for Government site – although this time, it looks like they’ve rebuilt it from scratch. I’m now slightly worried that, in the space of a couple of hours, I may have accidentally defined a common design framework for all such sites??
Worth noting that they have a tickbox on the registration page, asking for permission to ‘contact you by email from time to time’. No specifics on what ‘time to time’ means, but at least they’ve started the exercise with that opt-in so explicit – meaning there’s no discussion later on about whether or not it’s OK to ‘spam’ people. That’s a mistake we’ve made before.
And since I haven’t mentioned it already: I also see Nick Clegg now has a separate YouTube channel of his own – although as yet, no website to speak of. But please, if you’re going to embed YouTube videos on pages, don’t set them to autoplay. We don’t need another MySpace.

Nick Clegg's off-the-shelf redesign May09 500
There’s a new look to, ‘the official Leader’s site for the Liberal Democrats’, powered – as noted previously – by WordPress. And it isn’t yellow, not in the slightest. In fact, it took me quite a while even to spot the party’s bird logo, concealed in each instance behind signatures or other graphic elements.
This isn’t like any Liberal Democrats web design you’ve seen before… because basically, it isn’t a LibDems web design. It’s an ‘out of the box’ installation of the (free) Revolution Office theme for WordPress… seen here in its raw form.
Of course, on one level, this is another reminder of the power of WordPress. Redesigning your entire website is as simple as finding a theme you like, downloading it, and pressing the ‘activate’ button. A few minutes tweaking the settings, and you’re done. So quick, so easy, so cheap. Plus, depending on the theme author, a guarantee (of sorts) that your site will keep working, no matter what changes happen in forthcoming WordPress upgrades.
But I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with ‘off the shelf’ design like this. As soon as I understood how, I stopped using third-party themes, and started coding my own. Several reasons for doing so, I think:

  • A need to understand what’s happening under the hood… in case something goes wrong, and you’re called on to fix it. I don’t think you can get that from ‘plug and play’ theming.
  • Something instinctive about branding. Your brand identity is meant to be a representation of you, what you do, and why you do it. Deep down, I don’t really believe it can be ‘you’ if you’re just pouring yourself into someone else’s mould. It can’t have soul unless it started from scratch.
  • Total customisability. No matter how good an off-the-shelf theme might be, I can’t believe it’ll cover every possible requirement a client might throw at you. So you’re going to end up getting your hands dirty with code anyway; and if it’s your own code in the first place, it should be much easier. (See point one.)
  • Fraud risk. Yes, you use off-the-shelf because it makes it much easier for you. But equally, it makes it easy – far too easy – for someone else to grab a ‘lookalike’ domain, download the same theme, and build (in effect) a ‘phishing’ site.

(The only exception is the production of sites based on Steph’s Commentariat theme: as I’ve described before, I personally think it’s important – for now at least – that these sites look deliberately similar, to make a point about code re-use in HMG.)
Maybe I’m being too precious about this. On low-budget, low-ambition projects, an off-the-shelf theme will probably be more, much more than adequate. You can have a website with top-notch functionality up and running in, let’s say, an hour. Client is happy, designer is off to the pub.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to how you see your business. Companies make money by selling lots of something cheap, or a few of something expensive. You can churn out lots of identikit sites for lots of people: that’s a perfectly valid business model, albeit pretty intensive on the sales side. Alternatively, you can try to make each one special. Puffbox opted for the latter. And so far, we’re doing OK out of it.

Two new LibDem websites (Clegg on WordPress!)

What are political party websites actually for? We’ll see which way the wind is blowing over the next couple of weeks: the LibDems unveiled a new party site earlier this week, ahead of their conference in Bournemouth; and they’ve just opened they’re on the verge of launching a new site for leader Nick Clegg too. The Tories will be relaunching their site before gathering in Birmingham; most of the attention has focused on plans for a new group blog as a complement (or competitor?) to ConservativeHome etc. No word on anything significant from Labour, although that won’t come as much of a surprise.
The new LibDem site is, I’m told, built on Ruby On Rails; there’s also a bit of Prototype-powered Ajax functionality. It plays things fairly straight: if you’re looking for party news or facts, it’s all there for you. The feel is unquestionably ‘bloggy’, with plenty of RSS icons, a prominent ‘tag cloud’, and (generally) chronological presentation. But it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to inspire, persuade or otherwise stir your emotions.
Instead, the thrust is towards the local dimension – including nice integration with their excellent Flock Together site of local events, a database of LibDem People (including inbound feeds from their blogs and They Work For You where applicable), and a selection of posts on other LibDem sites/blogs. I note with particular interest the page of Online Tools to help party activists build their own sites, including specific widgets for Blogger and WordPress, as well as instructions for Mambo/Joomla sites.
On a functional level, I think the site’s a success. It’s easy to take in, with things in logical places. The chronological presentation is becoming a given these days. I love the widespread use of inbound and outbound RSS; I look forward to seeing how this gets used. And subjectively, I like the visual approach. On the down side, there’s a lack of warmth, of personality to it: but there may be a good reason for that.
Complementing the new party site is a new personal site for LibDem leader Nick Clegg – powered by WordPress 😀 (using a customised version of the Revolution theme, and yes, they do credit it). It’s immediately warmer and more friendly: first name terms, bigger and more smiley imagery, comments enabled on the site articles (written, sadly, in the third person), and so on. There’s a prominent ‘Meet Nick’ button, listing his public appearances: a nice touch, although it does invite comparisons with the Tories’ impressive Cameron Direct.
I note the Flickr, YouTube and Twitter links on the Clegg site are all to ‘libdems’-branded accounts (although not his Friendfeed account: the exception proving the rule, I guess). It’s surely a conscious decision to put this ‘warmer’ material here. And with politics increasingly dominated by the leader’s personality rather than his/her party, it seems like a smart move; I always felt Clegg’s promise to go to court in defiance of compulsory ID cards hinted at a conscious strategy to brand the party strongly in his youthful image. (Clegg’s constituency site remains separate.)