Over the last couple of months, numerous people have got in touch to ask if there’s going to be another WordUp Whitehall this year. And although I didn’t initially think it was a good idea, I think I’ve been persuaded.
For the past two years, I’ve organised WordUp Whitehall as a kind of ‘WordCamp’ for civil servants who are already using WordPress (or are seriously considering it), and the developers/agencies they’re working with. It’s mostly a series of ‘show and tell’ sessions, aimed at sharing experiences, stimulating ideas and spreading good practice. I also try to persuade a special guest or two to come along.
Recognising that it’s a workday event, and that departments have been generous enough to offer conference facilities at no charge, we’ve enforced fairly strict rules of engagement. UK central government only, with limited numbers from each department. Outsiders by invitation only. Guaranteed confidentiality where requested. And no sales pitches. They’ve been beautifully observed, for which I’ve been most grateful.
Both previous years, we’ve had about 50 places… and both times, we’ve ‘sold out’ within 24 hours. Various senior and influential people have gone on to explicitly credit the events with helping them rethink or rewrite their digital strategies, leading in many cases to major new projects being done on WordPress. (It’s also been, ahem, flattering to see other countries and CMS communities subsequently starting to run very similar events.)
But I wasn’t sure about doing it again this year. Previously, we’ve had a handful of obvious flagship projects for people to come along and present: Health, Transport, No10, GCN, etc. But the past year or more has been dominated by the development of GOVUK, and its imminent consumption of all departmental sites. We simply haven’t had any ‘big bang’ WordPress launches post-GDS. And that made me wonder if we had enough to talk about. I’ve subsequently been persuaded that there’s definitely an appetite for another event… but perhaps a slightly different one.
We’ve already been offered a much larger venue than in previous years: so it’s probably the perfect time to extend the event beyond Whitehall – local government, arms-length bodies, perhaps friends overseas.
And if we’re short of ‘flagship’ projects to present, maybe it’s time for a slightly different agenda. Perhaps a greater number of shorter presentations, focusing on specific (little) things we’ve all done. I’m not sure the beautiful chaos of a multi-track, self-organising BarCamp / GovCamp style event is quite right, but perhaps it does.
Some things won’t change, though. It’ll still be free to attend. It’ll still take place in mid to late Autumn. Most of the ‘rules of engagement’ will still apply. And yes, there will be donuts. So… it’s over to you lot.
I’d love to hear what you, the potential attendees, think.
What level of interest is there beyond Whitehall?
Are there any ‘flagship’ projects I’ve missed somehow? Perhaps beyond Whitehall?
Does everyone have a ‘little thing’ they could present?
Do we prefer structured or chaotic?
Please leave a comment below, and let’s see where the consensus lies.
[Thanks to @JonAkwue for suggesting a vastly improved headline for this piece…]
The big moment of this year’s Word Up Whitehall came in the second presentation of the day: Gavin Dispain from the Department for Transport, telling the story of their hasty migration to WordPress.
It was already clear that we were in very different territory from last year’s inaugural event: Stephen and Francis from Health had opened with a presentation featuring the kind of technical architecture diagrams you just don’t see at WordCamps. We weren’t just talking about the potential for government departments to use WordPress, or sharing examples of little microsites they’d built: no, this was real corporate-sized heavy-duty stuff. And there, at the heart of it, increasingly so in fact, was WordPress.
Then came Gavin, and that slide. He didn’t really make a big deal of it. I think we all knew about the potential to generate massive savings. But there it was, in black and white: hundreds of thousands of real pounds, not notional pounds, saved at a stroke. With further savings to come, as more arms-length agencies come on-board. (Defra are a bit further down that track already, as David Pearson related later in the day.)
Technical architecture diagrams. PowerPoint slides with incomprehensibly large numbers on them. Weren’t these precisely the things which drove me out of ‘proper’ IT, and into the world of WordPress? What the hell were these doing at a WordPress event? For a moment I could feel myself switching off, as I’d done in countless meetings over the years.
And that’s when it all suddenly fell into place.
I’d reacted against such things in the past, because they were visions of the future – and for the most part, futures that never quite arrived. But something was different here. People weren’t talking about how they could or would do it. They were demonstrating how they had done it. Health had built that structure, and it was working. Transport had left behind one set of contracts costing £X, and were now in a new arrangement costing £Y.
To be frank, systems admin and accountancy can be a bit boring. But it’s a mark of the success of the WordPress mission1, and the potential it has unlocked, that we’re now into that business-as-usual territory. When you’re getting stuck into the ‘boring’ bits, that’s when change is really happening.
And it turns out, I don’t actually hate technical architecture diagrams and budget forecasts after all. 1 When I first drafted this, I wasn’t sure about using the word ‘mission’. But then, by sheer coincidence, Seth Godin posts a few lines on his blog, and I feel a whole lot better about it.
Just as with last year’s inaugural event, all the available places at Word Up Whitehall II were snapped up within 24 hours.
We’ll have representatives from a dozen government departments (depending on how you count the various No10/Cabinet Office connections): and once again, my thanks to everyone for obeying the informal ‘maximum three per department’ rule.
I do still have a couple of places held back, just in case anyone has missed out. But you will have to approach me directly, and make a case for why you need one of them.
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.
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.
Big day today: it’s Word Up Whitehall, the mini-WordCamp for UK central government people, which I’ve been putting together over the last month or two. I thought it might generate some interest, but I never imagined it would ‘sell out’ in just over 24 hours… and I’m nervously hearing people already talking about ‘the next one’. Gulp.
Why hold such an event? Initially, my reasoning was that there was so much stuff in the 3.0 release of WordPress which wouldn’t be immediately obvious to those who weren’t already fairly deep into the code. Features like custom post types and taxonomies have amazing potential, but many people – even those who would consider themselves ‘power users’, comfortable with themes and plugins – simply wouldn’t see it. An event like this was a chance to demo this stuff, and spark some ideas.
It was also an opportunity to build some WordPress-based connections around government, and between civil servants and government-focussed suppliers. Community is at the heart of the WordPress ethos, and it felt natural to try and foster some of that same community spirit around Whitehall… even to the extent of inviting (notional) business rivals along.
Plus, if I’m honest, I fancied having a go at curating an event like this. I’ve never done it before, and I’ve actually really enjoyed the responsibility of drawing up my own dream running order. (No pressure, guys.)
Why now? Two reasons really. One is the government spending review: it’s no coincidence that we’re doing this a week before George Osborne wields his axe. We need departments to understand that they don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands, or millions, on websites – when the WordPress-based approach will deliver equally good sites, and arguabl better, for a fraction of the price, and in a fraction of the time. Departments need to find savings, and we’re raising our hand to help.
The other is the growing interest of established agencies and The Big Consultancies in WordPress. I’ve had too many bad experiences lately, with people claiming to have WordPress expertise – based on little more than ‘well, how hard can it be?’. The fact is, to get the best from WordPress, you need a thorough knowledge of how it works. Yes, the Famous Five-Minute Install will get your personal blog up and running… but it won’t be industry-strength. The professionals I’ve gathered for the event know this, and we know what to do about it. Frankly, this event is us marking our territory.
The running order features everyone I could have hoped to get along – including Peter Westwood, one of the five WordPress lead developers, and Mike Little, who basically started it all. If anything, I’m wondering if the schedule is too good: each speaker gets just half an hour each, although we’ve got the option for them to ‘get a room!’ if there’s enough interest to extend a particular discussion.
We should have enough bloggers and twitterers in the room to ensure the best bits get thoroughly reported, for those unable to come along, or too slow to bag a ticket. Watch out for tweets with the hashtag #WordUpWhitehall during the day; and I’ll try to collate a list of blog posts after the event.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to cue up some Finnish oompah music, and put my name on a donut.