Civil Service website moves to WordPress (at least for a bit)

I’m grateful to the GDS blog for pointing out something I’d missed last week: the relaunch of the main Civil Service corporate website, on none other than WordPress… albeit as an interim measure.

the coincidence of impending changes to Civil Service recruitment processes and the end of the existing hosting contract for the site provided us an opportunity to revisit the site’s content, design and function. We needed to make sure that it is providing a stable, value for money interim option until it can be encompassed into the ongoing Single Government Domain project.

The site was produced by the in-house team within six weeks, helped in no small measure by their use of an off-the-shelf theme which ‘fitted what [they] needed with a little customisation.’ The theme in question is called Striking, offered for sale on ThemeForest for the princely sum of $40 (or just over £25).
The post helpfully includes their rationale for selecting WordPress:

We chose to use WordPress as it offers a simple, quick (with such a short development window) and flexible open source solution to a site primarily designed for publishing content. As such it is easy to use for a wide range of content editors and, of course, provides significant cost savings for maintenance and development.

I can’t tell you how nice it is to read that paragraph on a site. The same site, of course, which earlier in the week defended its decision to code the new departmental publishing machine from scratch. But I promised to let that lie, didn’t I.
WordPress isn’t powering what is arguably the most meaningful Civil Service web content: jobs. That’s a separate platform, outsourced to someone called World Careers Network plc – ‘commissioned by the MOD and now led by HMRC’. There’s a link to their website on that jobs homepage, but you won’t see it:

Hidden text? Spammer tactics

It’s a rather dated-looking system, with a basic search facility based on a number of ‘select multiple’ form fields. It’s at its weakest when, as most people will do, you try to find a job near you. It offers an eclectic choice of 1688 city, town and village names, but not – as it happens – the respectably-sized town where I live. And there’s no intelligence to the geography: a search for jobs in Camberley just now gave me zero results, rather than recommending jobs it does have in nearby Sandhurst. There’s no facility to search by distance from a given postcode, and no map.
When I say 'nearby'...

Add to that the apparent lack of an API, or RSS feeds, and it feels like something of a backwards step, compared to the optimism around the 2009 site. But it does offer email alerts, and the application process (end to end) can be done online.
Quick update: I’ve done some investigating re the former jobs API. It used to reside at – but that address isn’t responding. To mourn what we’ve lost, have a look back at Google’s cache.

Word Up Whitehall II: bookings now [SOLD OUT]

Last week, I announced plans to host a second Word Up Whitehall event, for civil servants and their most friendly external developers to spend a day talking about WordPress. The event will take place on Monday 7 November, and will be hosted by the good folks at the Department of Health.
Last year, all the spaces were claimed within 24 hours, which I have to confess, came as quite a shock. So this year, we gave you a week’s notice, to decide who to send along. That week has now passed… so it’s time to sign up.

Remember, we ask departments to send along a maximum of 3 people: it’s not a huge space, and we’d like as many departments as possible to be represented.

Announcing Word Up Whitehall II

Pic: Julia Chandler

This time last year, we organised an event called Word Up Whitehall: a day-long seminar for people working in UK central government, who were either already using WordPress or seriously considering doing so. An opportunity to take time out, listen to people’s experiences, share some ideas, and hopefully come away inspired – or certainly, better informed.
I managed to persuade a bunch of people to stand up at the front, and share their ideas and experiences: some from inside government, but also some from the private sector, under strict instructions not to promote any commercial interests. (Well, not directly anyway.) BIS very kindly provided a venue, and numerous people generously chipped in a few quid to cover the few costs. Large quantities of donuts were ordered.
When I announced the event, the reaction was startling, and instant. All the places were snapped up within 24 hours. A waiting list began to form. People started sending me begging emails.
As for the day itself – yeah, it seemed to go pretty well, judging by the day’s tweets anyway. It was recently described by one attendee as ‘the most useful and, dare I say it, exciting (!) conference I’ve attended’. It provided ‘a moment of epiphany’ for one Whitehall department in particular, leading to them adopting WordPress as their principal online publishing platform. And even though I was worried we’d over-ordered on donuts, they all disappeared.
So – who’s up for doing it all again?
WordPress itself has moved on considerably in the last year; and departments’ use of it is becoming deeper and more sophisticated. Defra, Health and Transport are all now running their main departmental web presences on WordPress, using multisite arrangements of varying complexity. The Cabinet Office team have taken to WordPress with some gusto, with projects including the Red Tape Challenge and a reskin of the Number10 site. And in the next few weeks, we’ll be seeing another of the larger departments adopting WordPress in a big way.
But of course, the biggest news in the last twelve months has been Alphagov and the adoption of the ‘single domain’ strategy, including a ‘shared corporate publishing platform aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments’. With that work now getting properly underway, now seems like the right time to talk about where WordPress could or should fit into that picture.
Get your diary out.
Stephen Hale’s team at the Department of Health have kindly agreed to host a second Word Up Whitehall event, to take place at their Skipton House offices (Elephant & Castle) on Monday 7 November 2011.
It’ll be the exact same rules of engagement as last time:

  • We’ll start at about 10am, and finish at 4pm – giving people a bit of time to call by the office, before or after. Lunch will be provided. (As will donuts, but don’t tell DH’s five-a-day people.)
  • Space is limited, so it’s only open to central government people, and please, only two people (or three at a push) from any one department. We had this same rule last time, and people respected it beautifully.
  • If your department has done something interesting with WordPress this year, and you think other people might benefit from hearing about it, this is your moment. I will be approaching certain obvious candidates in advance, but don’t let that stop you volunteering first. It might even guarantee you a ticket.
  • Private sector people, contact me directly if you’d like to attend – terms and conditions will be applied.

I’ll be opening the ticket booking facility on Wednesday next week, 28 September. That gives you some time to think about who’s most appropriate to come along from your department. And if you’ve got something you’d like to present, let me know: the sooner the better.

UKTI's TechCityUK site: 100 WordPress pages, £53k is a website produced by UK Trade & Investment to promote the ‘entrepreneurial cluster’ of technology startups in the Shoreditch / Old Street area of east London. Judging by its blog, it launched on 19 July this year. Google currently reckons it has 89 pages. And according to an FOI response published this morning, it has already cost £53,351.
The FOI enquiry, by Milo Yiannopoulos, revealed the following breakdown:

  • £37,000 for website development and hosting
  • £9,595 for content and
  • £6,756 for security and penetration testing

The site is built on WordPress, and runs as a child theme of Twenty Eleven. On the face of it, it’s a very high figure for a fairly straightforward WordPress build – but it’s a pity the costs haven’t been broken down a bit further. Without a better breakdown, I’m reluctant to join the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the headline figure; although you’ll find plenty of that on Twitter. But I will say it poses some interesting questions, at the very least.
The stylesheet reveals that it was built by a company called Creativeworks, who list a couple of previous UKTI projects in their portfolio – but conspicuously little online work. (Good spot, Harry.) A traceroute shows it’s currently hosted at Zen Internet, seemingly on a dedicated box (according to a myipneighbors check).
Interestingly, the domain name was registered in March 2011, but was not listed among the three new websites approved by the Cabinet Office in the past year. Presumably because it uses a .com domain name. See, there it is again: the mismatch between ‘new website’ and ‘new domain’. The Cabinet Office press release of last June was quite clear:

As part of the Government’s efficiency drive, all of the existing 820 government funded websites will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better.  No new websites will be permitted except for those that pass through a stringent exceptions process for special cases, and are cleared by the Efficiency board which is co-chaired by Mr Maude and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Note: ‘no new websites’. Not ‘no new domain names’. So did the Cabinet Office approve it, and forget to mention it? Or did UKTI not seek permission? Or does that ministerial commitment not actually go any further than new domain names? – and if not, perhaps the press release could be corrected?
The one cost which is broken down sufficiently is the £6,756 spent on security and penetration testing. Or to put it another way, two weeks’ full-time work by a specialist consultant. It’s possible, I suppose, although a bit over-the-top for a fairly basic site containing (as far as I can tell) no personal or confidential information.
I wonder what they did, apart from remove the ‘generator’ line from the page header, and activate SSL on wp-admin? Would it be useful to other departments running their own WordPress installs?
Or is it – finally – time for government to step up, and provide a centrally-managed (and centrally-secured) WordPress multisite installation for such small-scale uses? The £6k security spend wouldn’t have been necessary; and I wonder how much of the £37k could have been saved, too. It’s not that government can’t afford to do this; it can’t afford not to.

WordPress in proper English

If you’ve ever felt just a little, well, awkward with WordPress’s use of American (so-called) English – color, ‘uncategorized’ and so on – I’ve got frightfully good news for you.
A brief exchange of tweets this morning between myself, Dave Coveney and Automattic’s Peter Westwood led to the creation of a proper localisation project, to ‘translate’ WordPress into the Queen’s English.
Like nearly all WordPress translations, it’s being run through the online GlotPress application – which presents you with each phrase used in WordPress core, one by one, and invites you to translate it. In this case, of course, a lot of it won’t need translating: which means, as Peter so rightly points out, we’ll never hit the magic ‘100% translated’ mark.
Will this improve anyone’s experience of WordPress, on this side of the Atlantic? I doubt it. But it’s a bit of fun, and it might actually help with bug-hunting or UI refinement in GlotPress, or WordPress itself, to have two near-identical languages for easy comparison.
It also gives me (and you?) a chance to call myself a contributor to WordPress, not just a mere user. The GlotPress system is fairly intuitive; all you’ll need to get started is a forum account.
Of course, this United Kingdom has numerous languages with official recognition (of some kind), not just English: Welsh, Gaelic (both Scottish and Irish), Scots and indeed Ulster-Scots. Putting my government hat back on, I’d love to see a situation where the relevant language promotion bodies organised, funded, or even just contributed to translation efforts on WordPress, or other online technologies of similarly wide take-up.

Dept of Health switches to WordPress

Congratulations to Stephen Hale and the team at DH for finally making the leap, and moving their corporate web presence over to WordPress.
Stephen hinted at such a move back in February, when he blogged about their successful use of WP for a number of subsites: ‘having dipped a toe in,’ he wrote, ‘it’s tempting to go a bit further than we originally planned.’ Clearly though, Stephen’s plans have moved on quite a bit since the start of the year: in a blog post last week, he described this as ‘phase 2 of 4’ (!).
As with our work for Defra, they’ve opted not to redesign the site: it still looks (broadly) the same as it did, although not identical, and the trained eye will spot a more WordPress-friendly approach to sidebars and things. Nor have they migrated most of the old content: it will remain accessible until it’s out of date, at which point it’ll be moved to an (unspecified) archive. I don’t think anyone would call that a perfect solution, but these are cash-strapped times, and it’s almost certainly good enough.
The project – driven by Steph Gray, including some input from Mike Little – is based on HealthPress, the same TwentyTen-based child theme Steph developed for those aforementioned subsites. Back in February, I wrote that the code ‘isn’t pushing the technology’s boundaries too hard’ – and really, that’s still the case. But I stress, I don’t write that as a criticism. It’s to Steph’s great credit, and that of WordPress itself of course, that he’s made the site work with just a vanilla WP instance. Amazing what you can do with posts & pages, tags & categories, a bunch of widgets, and a few ‘usual suspect’ plugins.
Stephen very kindly referenced the Word Up Whitehall event from last October as having provided ‘a moment of epiphany’: if there’s a direct line to be drawn from there to here, then I’m absolutely delighted my little get-together served its purpose. Maybe it’s time for a follow-up.
That’s now four Whitehall departments running their primary websites on WordPress: Transport, Health, Defra and the Wales Office; plus Downing Street, of course, and several – Cabinet Office, BIS, DFID, DECC – using it for secondary elements of their corporate websites.
So does that make it the most used ‘CMS’ for Whitehall departments’ primary sites? I rather think it might. 😀

The return of e-petitions; a new home for the Govt Digital Service; and an ironic footnote

Two site launches today worth noting: the return of e-petitions, and the ‘new’ Government Digital Service blog.
E-petitions used to belong to Downing Street; now it’s moved over to Directgov, and thence to individual departments, rather than landing everything on the PM’s desk. There’s very little to see just now: just a submission form, and a few information pages. We won’t be able to see or ‘sign’ other people’s petitions for another week or so.
It’s been built by the Skunkworks team, now under the more full-time management of Mark O’Neill – or to be more specific:

#epetitions was put together by an onsite agile team of 3 devs, 1 PM, 1 customer + 1 part-time analyst, over three iterations. RoR stack.
tweet by @chrismdp

… and so far, (update: nearly) everyone’s been jolly nice about it, particularly as there’s so little to see. Maybe they’ve seen what else is coming.
The e-petition’s previous incarnation became notorious when 1.8 million people signed to protest against road pricing proposals. Its successor won’t have to wait long to face a similar challenge: the Guido Fawkes blog has already lodged a petition calling for the restoration of the death penalty for child and cop killers, and is planning a special campaign to reach the magic 100,000 signature barrier, (potentially) triggering a debate in the Commons. Good luck to whoever’s desk that lands on.
One slight downer for me is that fact that it’s been redeveloped from scratch, using Ruby on Rails, rather than extending the existing MySociety-built platform (now being taken up by dozens of councils throughout the land). Tom Loosemore tells us: ‘ if [the new] code base isn’t open sourced, it won’t be for lack of will or encouragement!’ – but I just can’t see that being enough to see the application being reused more widely, particularly at local councils. Mark assures me that they did look at using WordPress, which would have guaranteed a high degree of reuse; I’m looking forward to reading his blog post about why they opted for the alternative approach.

Speaking of which… the Government Digital Service has a ‘new’ blog, or rather, it has consolidated various previous efforts (including Alphagov and the Cabinet Office Digital Engagement blog) into a new home, located at (where it joins, among others, UKTI and both the Army and Navy).
They’re using the premium Linen theme, costing them $68, with a bit of graphic customisation; and a mapped domain for a further $17/year. And as it’s on, that’s pretty much all it’s cost them. (And purely because I’ve already been asked the question: no, I didn’t have any part in its creation. Well, apart from several years of ruthless evangelism.)
Meanwhile, with more than a little irony… the Cabinet Office has also published its list of the 444 government websites still in operation, 243 of which are marked for closure. Neither of these sites is mentioned.

No10 proposal to replace press offices with a blog

The FT is getting all excited by apparent ‘proposals’ by Downing Street’s shaven-headed, shoeless strategy director Steve Hilton to abolish maternity leave and suspend consumer protection laws, in the interests of kick-starting the economy. Personally, I can’t believe either was suggested seriously: sounds more like the start of a brainstorming session.
But I can’t help smiling at one of his other reported ideas: ‘replacing hundreds of government press officers with a single person in each department who would convey all necessary information via a blog.’ – an idea which Guido Fawkes calls ‘half decent‘. I’d go further.
The fact is, it’s the logical conclusion to a process which is kinda happening already – and which started three and a half years ago. We already have Downing Street plus three Cabinet-level departments running their websites, their main public-facing presence, on (what used to be) a blogging platform, namely WordPress.
And frankly, any department which isn’t already running its News section using a blogging platform is missing a trick. I guarantee it would be easier to use, and would provide a much better service to the customer, than whatever Big Ugly Corporate CMS they’re using.
I’ve argued for a decade plus that the web would ultimately destroy press office work as we have known it: specifically, the day-to-day mechanical stuff, and most of the mundane telephone enquiries. I don’t think that means sacking every press officer: but it would certainly redefine the role of those press officers who remained, to become ‘press relations’ people. (Or is that the role fulfilled primarily – and arguably, correctly – by Special Advisors?)
Take a look at the website for COI’s News Distribution Service – and tell me why this shouldn’t be a WordPress multisite. With COI’s demise imminent, now would be the perfect time to rebuild it. And if it needs to do stuff that isn’t available ‘out of the box’ – that’s where people like Puffbox come in. The answer is almost certainly, yes it can. And yes, we’d be delighted.
If it’s true that ‘three-quarters of [Hilton’s] ideas fail to get off the drawing board’, this is one which – in some shape or form – definitely will. In fact, it already has.

WordPress-based hosting solution in final stages of Cabinet Office cost-saving contest

It’s great to see some positive coverage of the Cabinet Office’s Innovation Launchpad process at the Telegraph today; and with it, a very positive writeup for a company we’ve been building a partnership with.
CatN first came to my attention when their commercial director, Joe Gardiner blogged last year about how the Department for Transport could save more than £750,000 per year by moving its website over to WordPress, running on CatN’s vCluster platform. A man very much after my own heart, clearly. And of course, last month, Transport – quite coincidentally? – migrated their website to WordPress.
Joe worked his Transport calculations up into an entry into the Cabinet Office contest, with a tantalising promise to save government departments an average of 75% on their hosting costs – a minimum of £17.88 million per year – by moving over to WordPress. And as he tells the Telegraph in their article today, ‘one of their concerns is that we are offering to save them too much and that we can’t be a sustainable business.’
The thing is – and this won’t come as any surprise to anyone reading this blog – such savings are absolutely possible.
We’ve been working with CatN for a few months now, and we’re in no doubt that their services, costing hundreds of pounds per year, are at least a match for – and in most cases, far better than – the services departments are spending thousands on. And arguably more importantly, their heart is in it.
So we’re wholeheartedly backing Joe and CatN in their efforts next week. For all the innovation going on around WordPress in government, there isn’t yet a strategic approach to hosting. It’s an idea whose time came a good while ago.
CatN and Puffbox are both sponsors of WordCamp UK 2011, taking place this weekend in Portsmouth.

Public services white paper promises GDS 'app store'

With all the tabloid shenanigans going on yesterday, you’d be forgiven for missing the publication of the new White Paper on Open Public Services – launched complete with a WordPress-based consultation site, developed by Harry Metcalfe’s DXW, with rather cheeky advertising in the source code.
It’s worth noting a couple of references to the Government Digital Service:

7.9 We want to shift the approach of government from ‘public services all in one place’ (focused on how departments want to deliver) to ‘government services wherever you are’ (open and distributed, available where citizens want to access them). To take this forward, the Government Digital Service (GDS) will have the authority across central government to co-ordinate all government digital activity, including encouraging the commissioning of the best user-centred digital services and information at lowest cost from the most appropriate provider. This commissioning process will identify those providers who are the most appropriate to provide content on a particular topic. For example, the Department for Education has already taken this approach in funding some of its parenting support services through the voluntary and community sector – these online services provide in-depth counselling and intensive support as well as information and guidance.
7.10 The GDS will develop a digital marketplace, opening up government data, information, applications and services to other organisations, including the provision of open application program interfaces for all suitable digital services. All suitable digital transactions and information services will be available for delivery through a newly created marketplace, with accredited partners, including charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-led mutuals, all able to compete to offer high-quality digital services. In opening up this marketplace, the GDS will establish appropriate processes and consider a ‘quality mark’ to ensure that public trust in information and public sector delivery is maintained. This may go as far as including quality assurance of third-party applications.

Two concise paragraphs, but several interesting points in there.
The reference to ‘public services all in one place’ is a rather cheeky, and somewhat barbed reference to Directgov’s strapline, and is surely another nail in its coffin – well, in its current form anyway. I’m surprised to see the word ‘encourage’ for GDS’s role, as opposed to something stronger; and it’ll be intriguing to see how the trinity of best quality, lowest cost (note use of the superlative) and ‘most appropriate supplier’ plays out in practice.
The second paragraph puts some flesh on the bones of the ‘government app store’ notion. But the more I think about it, the more uneasy I get about the idea of QA’ing third-party applications. If an application hasn’t been approved, is it still permitted? Who exactly is doing the approving? Would the approval process become a bottle-neck?
I hate to bring it all back to WordPress (again), but it’s the best example I can personally think of, of a rapid, cheap and non-traditional solution being widely successful in government over the past few years. We – a word I use in the widest possible sense, covering myself and many other (rival?) suppliers – made our case, we delivered, and we didn’t let people down. The only approval we needed was the recommendation of the previous client.
We didn’t need no stinking badges. And if we’d have had to wait for delivery of our badges before being taken seriously, none of it would ever have happened.