MySociety, outsourcing and precedents

Happy birthday to MySociety: five years old, and now talking in terms of 20-year plans. Tom Steinberg’s speech at last night’s birthday party contains much to ponder.
Our agreement on the basics is a given. You can do a tremendous amount of good with relatively little money, as long as you have good people involved. People who understand the context, who have a feel for the technology, and who have a passion for what they’re doing. That’s been the very basis of MySociety’s success, and (I hope) my own here at Puffbox.
‘So long as the cult of outsourcing everything computer related continues to dominate in Whitehall,’ Tom says, ‘little is going to change. [The UK government] fired everyone who could do those things, or employed them only via horribly expensive consultancies. It is time to start bringing them back into the corridors of power.’ Hmm… depends what you mean by ‘outsourcing’, and ‘bringing them back in’.
It’s an outrageous generalisation, but what the heck – my experience over the last five or so years has been that small computer-related projects done by small companies are generally successful, whereas large projects done by large companies aren’t. So if we’re talking outsourcing to those ‘horribly expensive consultancies’, by which I guess we’re talking six, seven or even (gasp) eight-figure budgets, hear hear.
But having operated as a consultancy myself for a little while now, I actually think the outsourcing of small jobs to small external operators is beneficial to all parties.

  • The client generally deals with someone at, or certainly much closer to the coalface. No account managers, business analysts, project support officers, etc etc. All these people and processes are introduced to reduce risk; but in my experience, they actually increase the risk of not delivering.
  • There’s an inherent benefit in doing lots of small jobs for lots of different people: you inevitably learn something new on every job, which then makes the next job even better. If you’re tied to one single government department, there just won’t be that many interesting jobs in any given year.
  • ‘Coming in from outside’ gives you the right to be a bit more contrary, provocative, arrogant even. You can say the unsayable, if you like. And whilst it’s never a desirable state of affairs, you do have the right to say ‘no’ to the more insane propositions which might come your way.
  • The rigidity of government grading and payscales is actually a disincentive for ‘doers’ to remain in a civil service job. To earn a ‘market wage’, you need to seek promotion to senior management levels… and with every upward step, you move further and further away from the coalface. More talking, less doing. Trust me, I’ve been there.
  • It’s invariably cheaper, and often better quality.

Given the more commercial edge to the new MySociety website, it looks like I’m pushing at an open door there.
I’m a little intrigued by Tom’s comment about the ‘repurposing [of] generic new communications tools like blogs’. That has become the core of what Puffbox does, and I make absolutely no apology for it. It allows me to deliver powerful, intricate websites in double-quick time – giving end-users what they want, how they want it, whilst maintaining a straightforward back-end interface. It gives people cutting-edge tools to do their work, and hopefully makes them ask more difficult questions of the inevitably bespoke IT projects elsewhere in their work.
I detect a slightly pessimistic tone to Tom’s remarks, and not just on funding. ‘We’ve shifted the culture of government internet usage less than we might have hoped over the last five years,’ he concludes frankly. I’m more inclined to see the upside; it has shifted, and it is shifting – slowly.
I’ve written and spoken before about the power of precedent: and with every MySociety production, large or small, the precedents become stronger. (I hope the same can be said of Puffbox’s work too.) Yes, it’s taking time to see the ripple effect: but it’s definitely coming. Some of the projects I’m discussing with people just now are truly mouthwatering.

DFID Bloggers: tales from the front line

The latest Puffbox project gets a soft launch today, ahead of a formal (and hopefully high-profile) announcement next week. DFID Bloggers is a satellite site off the main Department for International Development website, and follows in the FCO’s footsteps of giving front-line staff a blog on which to talk about their work and experiences.
In some respects, it was an obvious thing for DFID to do. Their work isn’t generally seen by the UK taxpayers who fund it. By definition, they operate in exotic and/or difficult locations, and have powerful stories to tell. They saw the value in putting some human faces on it all; and in opening lines of communication with anyone worldwide with something to contribute. The Foreign Office had already set a helpful precedent: my brief was effectively ‘can we have what they’ve got, please?’
Using WordPress was, of course, a given; but perhaps surprisingly, I took the decision early on to use the standard version, rather than MU (Multi User). Everyone is effectively writing to the same ‘group blog’, allowing us to aggregate and consolidate the presentation (eg on the homepage, and in the main RSS feed). But the WordPress approach to output templates allows us to give each blogger a personal homepage, with a fuller biography, a filtered RSS feed and an archive of posts. The best of both worlds, if you like – with fewer concerns about the speed of updates and the compatibility of plugins.
All the standard blog functionality is in there, plus a few things you won’t have seen. The homepage shows the latest post for each ‘active’ blogger; when they haven’t written something for a fixed number of days, they’ll automatically drop down into an ‘archive’ list. There’s some customisation of the standard WordPress user profile, adding a new ‘job title’ (ie short biography) field, and incorporating Google Map functionality, for the bloggers to pinpoint their location. This geo-data gets aggregated into a Bloggers Map page, with the popup ‘speech bubbles’ showing a summary user profile, including a link to their latest blog entry.
I can’t say how pleased I am with the results. I’ve been collaborating with a couple of new contacts – my near-neighbour Tony Parsons on the design side, and Simon Wheatley (who I met at WordCamp) on the technical stuff that was beyond me. Both have been truly brilliant. And I have to say, the DFID guys have been fabulous too – giving me all the freedom I could ask for. It’s been a perfect combination, and I think it shows in the site.
In the spirit of open source, Simon W has released the custom WordPress plugins to the world via In reality, you’ll only be interested in them if you’re wanting to build a carbon-copy site; but they are now ‘out there’, and you’re welcome to them.
I’ve also been working with Shane McCracken and his Gallomanor team (including Dave Briggs and Griff Wigley), who have been tasked with training the DFID volunteers in the art of blogging. Judging by the initial posts I’ve been reading, they’ve done a great job. I’m sure they will tell their own stories in due course.
Quite honestly, I think it’s the best thing Puffbox has yet produced. Great design, great functionality on front and back end, and a client committed to doing it right. With so many great stories and pictures out there, I hope it can have a big impact.
And by the way… it’s no coincidence that the site is launching just ahead of Blog Action Day next Wednesday (15 October), when bloggers have been asked to write something about poverty and development issues.

My show-stopping session at WordCamp

A week since the inaugural WordCamp UK, and I haven’t got round to writing up my session on ‘WordPress in large organisations’ – specifically, government. Then again, with Chris Garrett and Dave Briggs doing it on my behalf, why should I? 🙂
My key message was that in many large organisations, there’s often open warfare between marketing/PR, the IT department, and Procurement. But with WordPress (price: zero) designed to be used by solo bloggers with no IT support, it effectively allowed the marketing people to sneak past the other two, and get feature-rich sites up in no time. Its ‘straight to content authoring’ interface suited the comms person mentality, and RSS would allow for seamless integration if the ‘main website’ people got annoyed.
I then talked about a few other things I could see WordPress doing in large organisations, which may not be immediately obvious. For once, if you don’t mind, I’m going to keep quiet on those; the ideas aren’t yet fully developed, and I don’t want people stealing them just yet. I’ve got a mortgage to pay.
I closed on four things I thought WordPress needed to become a stronger force in the corporate world:

  • Drag-and-drop page ordering, on the admin interface. We’ve got it for other elements, but pages would have been my priority.
  • A slightly slicker workflow. WordPress has all the ‘draft awaiting approval’ functionality it needs, but the presentation is lacking. Plugins may help, but it’s an extra layer of risk, due to…
  • The need for a new ‘Long Term Support’ version. I’ve mentioned this before. At the moment, there’s no guarantee that plugins working in the current WP version will work in any subsequent version. The official policy on security is to upgrade as soon as a new version becomes available… but that’s a risk many corporate clients won’t like. There is a ‘legacy branch’ (horrible name), but it’s based on the dated v2.0. We need a newer one, based on the v2.5+ dashboard, with a commitment to update it with security patches.
  • A proper WordPress ‘ecosystem’. There’s a lot of interest in the platform, and plenty of work to go round. But I’ve learned recently that it takes a certain expertise to get the most from WP; you can’t just give it to any PHP programmer. We need people to identify themselves as WP experts, and help each other build businesses out of this.

The highlight of my session, inevitably, was the news that 10 Downing Street would be launching shortly on WordPress. I’ve written countless times about the persuasiveness of precedents; is that a big enough precedent for you? I got a round of applause for it, too. 🙂
The scary part was when I sat down. Throughout the weekend, there was a constant stream of chatter on Twitter. It was no-holds-barred stuff at times. And as I hit ‘refresh’, I was genuinely terrified to see what would come up. Thankfully, the few comments there were, were positive, even complimentary.
And some of the participants have been really nice about me in their reports: attention-grabbing, rousing, showstopper. ‘The only session that really had everyone buzzing‘. ‘A pity that it isn’t Simon that’s running the country!’ Thank you all. (Not sure about that last one, by the way.)
Which reminds me. I haven’t had any speaking engagements in ages. If anybody in the central government world wants me to come in, and talk to staff / management about all this stuff, I’d be glad to. Just ask.
Picture credit: Richard Williams, RKW Internet.

Sneak preview of new Number10 site

Fresh from stealing the online show at the recent G8 summit, the 10 Downing Street digital comms team have given the Prime Minister’s new website its first public outing, with a few sneaky screengrabs popping up on their Flickr account. It’s quite a significant departure from the existing site, although if you’ve been following the travel-blog work I’ve been doing with them recently, you’ll instantly recognise its evolution.
The most striking element is the prominent use of video, with a large playback window – not YouTube, FYI – occupying pride of place on the homepage. (It’ll be hard to avoid comparisons with Obama’s website in that respect – but with initiatives like TelegraphTV, we’re all heading towards the same thing.) The team’s activity on third-party sites, like Flickr and Twitter, is also brought to the fore – driven by RSS feeds from the originating sites, as I’ve done on the travel-blogs.
You’ll note a much more streamlined navigation on the new designs – primarily because the new site has been stripped right back to its core functions, allowing the team to concentrate on the day-to-day work. The historic information remains popular, and keeps its place; but otherwise, it’s a sharp focus on news and communication.
If it feels a bit bloggy, there are a couple of good reasons for that. In part, it’s a recognition of the role now played by blogs in national political life. The political anoraks who are likely to visit a Downing Street site are probably spending the rest of their time on the political blogs, so it makes sense to adopt the same presentation methods. And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, the underlying technology is WordPress.
The new site has been designed and produced by New Media Maze, with occasional contributions from Puffbox. And of course, being WordPress-based, there’s plenty of scope to take the site forward in the coming months. We’re already floating ideas for new features.
The team haven’t quoted a ‘go live’ date, but my understanding is that it’s in its very final stages of development, and they aren’t afraid of a ‘public beta’ approach. Watch that space.

Puffbox sponsors WordCamp UK

I’m proud to announce that Puffbox is sponsoring the inaugural WordCamp UK, bringing about 100 devotees of WordPress to Birmingham for a weekend of code and conversation.
The event takes place on 19-20 July, at the (apparently very classy) Studio conference centre in the centre of Britain’s nominally second city. The programme covers everything from a beginner’s guide to a hardcore code surgery. We’ll also be joined by Sam from Automattic Inc, the company behind WordPress.
I’m down to lead a session called ‘WordPress is not a blog’, where I’ll talk about my work, and how I’ve managed to take WordPress right to the heart of government. It’ll be one of the less technical sessions of the weekend; I’ll be looking at how the bloggers’ approach can translate to the stuffiest corporate environments, and how I think we’re entering a post-blogging world. None of which will come as the slightest surprise to regular readers.
It’s maybe unusual for a one-man company to sponsor a fairly large conference like this. But virtually everything Puffbox does at the moment is WordPress-based. It’s the content management platform I always dreamed of… and it’s free of charge. It’s time I gave something back.
Besides, it’s in Puffbox’s interests for this gathering to take place. It’ll be an enjoyable weekend of unashamed geekery. I’m hoping to meet some interesting people, learn some interesting things, and help create a support infrastructure for WordPress in the UK. A T-shirt with a big W on the front would be a bonus.
I’m also really excited at being back in central Birmingham for the first time since I graduated 14 years ago. Gulp.

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.

No10 blogging from Brussels summit

Time to unleash another Puffbox production for 10 Downing Street. Gordon Brown’s off to Brussels to chat about this and that (mostly that, I guess), and as with the trip to the US in April, they’ve sent a member of the No10 web team to report on proceedings. I’ve been working with them to develop a blogging platform, based very much on the April site, but with a bit of Friendfeed-inspired feed aggregation.

The site, at (for reasons which will soon become apparent), is based primarily around a WordPress blog – but also attempts to bring together No10’s other activity on sites such as Flickr, YouTube and Twitter. Plus, with David Miliband also attending, we’re ready to integrate any articles he publishes on his own blog.
The plan is to try and get as much video content as possible, to give a flavour of how the European Council actually works on the ground. But as ‘Your No10 Correspondent’ acknowledges, we just don’t know what he’ll be able to get.
Once again, it was an aggressive development schedule – measured in hours rather than days! – and I’ve had to use some cheeky work-arounds. (Accessing and filtering the Foreign Office’s blog content was especially tricky, for reasons I won’t bore you with.) But I hope it’s another example of how a few RSS feeds, a bit of PHP code, and a little lateral thinking can tie up these various best-of-breed tools and services into a single coherent website.

Puffbox's onepolitics site relaunched

A few months back, I built and launched onepolitics: an automated website which pulled together the latest blog postings from the ‘proper’ political commentators. It wasn’t ever meant to be a mass-audience website: I built it for myself, but if anyone else wanted to use it, they were welcome. As I wrote at the time:

I’m finding myself looking at onepolitics during quiet moments through the day, purely to see what’s popping up. I’m kind of interested in this sort of content generally, but not enough to want to be disturbed by every new item popping up in my RSS reader.

I’ve found it really useful, so much so that I wanted it to give me more than the fairly restrictive content it offered. I was also noticing the limitations of the initial build, based on WordPress and the FeedWordPress plugin; and at the same time, realising the awesome power of pure RSS. Plus, with more political content going into YouTube, I wanted to add a video element.

So in the last day or two, I’ve rebuilt onepolitics, dropping WordPress – see? it isn’t the answer to everything! – and driving everything through RSS feeds aggregated using shared labels in Google Reader. It now includes full representation of MainStreamMedia and ‘true’ bloggers. It should be faster to update, with the latest items appearing within five minutes of publication. It also includes an Ajax-style ‘video player’, showing the latest video clips from the parties’ official YouTube accounts. There are a few cute new design touches. The only flipside is, I’ve dropped the archive aspects… but looking at the usage stats, nobody was using anything other than the ‘latest’ list anyway.
The code is almost embarrassingly straightforward: it even relies on an old-school FRAMESET, for goodness sake. But it made things much easier to put together, particularly from a cross-browser perspective, and I’ve used a few presentational tricks to smooth the usability.
As before, it’s there if you want it. It helps me keep on top of what’s happening on the political blogs, and if it helps you too… great.

@WordPress Happy Birthday!

Five years ago today, a new blogging platform was released to the world for the first time. WordPress was the successor to b2/cafelog, itself launched in June 2001 – and indeed, it’s amusing to review Cafelog’s readme from 2002, which describes many of the very same functions I’m using on a regular basis. WordPress launched with a redesigned admin interface made ‘as simple as possible, and no more’; and streamlined presentation templates ‘with the latest in simple, easy-to-understand standard XHTML and CSS’.
Five years on, it’s these very same qualities which make it – in my view – such an important piece of code today.
I can’t stress enough how much WordPress means to me. I started just over Puffbox just over a year ago, with the intention of doing mainly advisory work, and rarely getting my hands dirty. But it soon became obvious that WordPress was a platform I could work with. It took care of the ugly, complicated stuff I knew I didn’t understand, letting me get on with the top-layer stuff I knew so well. And it offered users a front-end which allowed them to do virtually everything they (really) needed, without bugging their chums in IT.
The Puffbox proposition changed overnight. Now I’m now just preaching a gospel of open source-led, low-cost, high-speed site development, I’m able to actually deliver it myself.
People come to Puffbox looking for two things. One: rapid development of small-scale websites, which can be managed without an IT department. Two: larger websites with ‘blog-esque’ or ‘2.0’ features as standard – community, comments, inbound and outbound feeds, etc. And invariably, WordPress is equal to the task.
I often reflect on the line from psychologist Abraham Maslow: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.’ Maybe there are better or neater ways to do what I do. Maybe smarter or more experienced people would do it differently. All I know is, people like what I’m delivering. It’s fast, it’s cheap and it works – often better than the million-quid solution they hate dealing with. And it’s all because of WordPress (plus a basic knowledge of PHP).
To Matt Mullenweg and the gang: thank you.
PS: I’ve finally got round to signing up for the forthcoming UK Wordcamp to be held in Birmingham in mid-July. I’ll probably offer to lead a session on what I do, including details of one h-u-g-e project currently in the works.

On tour with the PM

I hinted that there might be more online initiatives coming out of 10 Downing Street; and true enough, next out the world-famous door is a bit of on-the-spot blogging from Gordon Brown’s trip to the United States later this week.
For the first time on a foreign visit, a member of the No10 web team is joining the PM’s entourage, armed with a laptop, a camera, a fresh WordPress installation back at base, and the passwords to the Flickr and Twitter accounts. And as Downing Street announced last week, we’re mashing it all together into a ‘live’ microsite.
The plan is to cover the set-piece events – speeches, press conferences, etc – via Twitter flashes, to be followed up with a longer, more considered blog post. Pictures will be posted on Flickr, most likely a combination of agency-sourced images and snaps from our man on the spot. And it’ll all be pulled together by the power of RSS, into the custom WordPress theme I’ve built.
When a journalist does this, it’s considered cutting-edge. But when the tables are turned, and the civil servants start doing it too? Let’s see.
My favourite element is the plotting of stories on a Google Map planted on the homepage. Granted, it’s fairly crude: articles written in Washington will be assigned a WordPress category ‘washington’, then when you click on the Google Map pushpin over Washington, you’ll see the appropriate archive listing. We aren’t talking GPS coordinates or anything. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try doing it… and it works. 🙂
As with the Progressive Governance summit website, it’s experimental. We’re hoping to bring a new first-person perspective to things, but naturally it can’t be too personal: striking an appropriate balance could prove tricky. We’re banking on internet access being readily available; and it may or may not be practical for one person, with limited hands-on experience, to do all these things. But hey, there’s only one way to find out.
The fun starts late on Tuesday, or early on Wednesday, depending where you are. Please have a look, and tell us what you think.