I’m not not blogging, I’m just not blogging here.
In the highly unlikely event that you’re a subscriber to this blog and not to the Government Digital Service blog, here are three posts I recently wrote there and neglected to cross-post here:
- Government corporate websites in eye-popping 3D
- Why do people need government department websites?
- The vision for government corporate websites in the single domain (with product wireframes)
I’ve a half-baked notion I might blog here about some of the more personal learnings from my work at the mo’, such as:
- Making the transition from waterfall to scrum; and from senior user to product owner
- Coping with a 50/50 split role between two biggish jobs
Odds-on, I’ll probably remain way too busy with those things and the kids to find time to write anything much here until early 2012. But stick with me, if you’re grooming your RSS feeds. This blog isn’t dead.
From tomorrow, I’ll be joining Cabinet Office to help take the alpha.gov.uk prototype forward to its next incarnation as a more fully developed public beta. In the spirit of the tagline of this blog, I’ll be splitting my time straight down the middle between my (awesomely generous and forward-thinking) employer BIS and the very different world of Tom Loosemore’s multi-disciplinary, agile and intimidatingly good GovUK team.
I’ll be leading the part of the Betagov project that deals with what becomes of central government departments’ websites in the single domain, including how all that content will get published and maintained in the really real world of busy, politically complex Whitehall departments. More than that I can’t say – mostly because I don’t yet know – but I promise to be as transparent and consultative as the timetable lets me be.
Meanwhile, I’d be interested in any answers to these questions about government’s corporate websites:
- What works well now which you most fear the single domain will break?
- What’s broken now that you most hope the single domain will fix?
Of my fellow gov webbies, I will also be asking:
- Who are your users and what do you now about why they come?
- What types of content do you publish and what are your various business reasons for publishing?
Any documents you can share like search and usage data, survey results, corporate website propositions or strategies would be most welcome.
It’s going to be fun, difficult and I’m going to need to call in a lot of favours. I can’t wait.
Shout if you want to help out.
Go there, read it.
Somewhere in my attic, buried under all the baby toys and junk, there’s a signed letter from David Miliband thanking me for building his blog. It was the first one by a Cabinet Minister, started on his own initiative at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, managed by me under the wing of Edward Venning. It felt like the start of something big and, to my delight, it followed Miliband’s career to Defra then FCO, leaving a trail of blog love (of varying duration) in his wake.
So why has it taken me* until now to launch a blog for BIS?
Well, various reasons.
- You can lead a horse to water
But you can’t make it blog. Finding a minister who wants a blog is easy. Securing time in his or her diary to write, dictate or even approve posts less so. Getting them to commit to regular posts and engage in the comments is practically impossible. And if you do find one, you’ve then got to convince his or her private office to help too. After Miliband left ODPM/CLG, we flogged at least one such thirsty horse pointlessly to death and I’ve no intention of doing that again.
- Corporate blogs can be deadly It’s hard to be interesting and manage reputation at the same time. Clearance can squeeze all that is good about a blog post dry. Arguably Ministers are the people least able to say something fresh, because anything in their name can and will be construed as policy no matter what disclaimers you wrap around it. That’s not to say it can’t work – just that the constraints make something already difficult, harder. Small wonder our focus has been on enabling specialist, topical conversations instead.
- These things take time
Truly, it is a massive timesink. Once that machine starts churning you’ve got to keep feeding it and feeding it with choice cuts of prime blog meat. People have quite reasonable doubts whether doing so will get the best return for their scarce time. If the audience is small, was all that effort worth it? If the audience is big, who is going to read and respond to all those comments? Not me, says everyone in unison.
- It still feels – actually is – a bit risky You’d be amazed at just how much buy-in there isn’t to opening up discussions on all but the nichest of niche topics on a government department’s own website. The spectre of the diary story or front page PR own-goal is ever present, and very real; the frustration for authors of unanswered comments even presenter and realer.
- It, and I, feel a bit older (possibly wiser) I don’t subscribe to any of that blogging is dead nonsense but it’s certainly true that the game has changed. Comments on posts (that once great measure of success and motivational aid to the blogger) are on the wane thanks to Twitter and Facebook, and the idea of trying to attract an audience to your site to engage with you feels archaic rather than talking to people on the blogs and sites where they already hang out.
With all that in mind, though, the benefits (I won’t regale you with those) of corporate blogging far outstrip the drawbacks and we found ourselves in something of a perfect storm of late.
Convergence towards a single BIS domain meant we needed to move some existing blogs around. Some thorny communications challenges galvanised interest in unmediated, owned channels. An appetite for raising the profile of Ministers with stakeholders gave us the opening to pitch the blog. And a supportive senior manager and some hard-to-keep-up-with Joneses helped seal the deal.
Plus we’re doing things differently. This isn’t a Vince Cable blog. This is a shared, BIS blog, where we aim to bring together many voices – ministers, guests, policymakers – to get feedback, explain how their work fits together and helps BIS deliver economic growth. That should go a long way to minimising dependency on busy Ministers, keeping it interesting, and spreading the support effort (and benefits and learning!) around different teams.
For now it’s a quiet launch. There are creases to iron out. We’ll give it our best shot and see how it goes.
And in case you are wondering, we might well follow Stephen and Jimmy’s lead in using this for official digital team blogging, which would pose interesting questions for me about what I write about here instead of there.
*It was barely me at all. I just said yes, sent some emails and made nit-picking comments. Credit belongs to Paul Melhuish and Rhys Stacker before him for warming up Ministers, press and private offices, and fighting for it to happen; Jenny Poole, Steph The Excellent and Paul Hosking for the tech, creative and ideas; plus a bunch of forward-thinking press officers, SpAds and senior communications colleagues for seeing the light.
We’re mere days away from the big reveal of Alphagov, the prototype ‘single domain’ website which will set a challenging vision of what a unified, user-focused front end to UK government could look like.
I’ve been relatively close to the project, from unofficial chats with project lead Tom Loosemore and others in dingy Lambeth North pubs before the thing had a name, to more formal advice lately on how Departments do their digital communications – and how Alphagov could help them do it better. (Though if I’m honest, an index card saying “F*** IE6” is the contribution I’m proudest of).
Without giving the game away too much, here’s a taste of what’s coming to a browser near you soon, and some speculation on the stir it will surely cause.
What can we expect?
- Beauty. You can be sure of beautiful pages full of lovely icons; elegant copy rendered in carefully chosen typefaces; and bold, intuitive layouts – bringing the look and feel of online govt bang up to date and saying instantly: this is not your traditional government website. Plenty of Alphagov loveliness has already been dribbled onto the web from lead designer Paul. But it’s words, tech and design in combination that will make the site instantly striking and enjoyable to use.
- Simplicity. With a relentless focus on use cases and top tasks, alphagov will demonstrate the potential of the web to distil multiple pages of complex information into simple, easy to use tools. And in doing so, it aims to shunt the notion of government online services on a bit – from producing text heavy pages towards crafting deceptively simple, user-centric apps and guides, served up by the state and made available for re-use wherever they are needed.
- Coherence. Above all else, the alpha site will show what is very hard to tell: namely, what Martha and Tom meant by a single domain for government. Expect to see the first ever coherent presentation of all UK government in any format – one which doesn’t require people to self-identify what mode of user they are, to know which bit of government does what, nor figure out how 820 different interfaces work. It will retain rather than obscure distinctions between government entities, while smoothing out inconsistencies in user experience. The principle I’ve heard Tom talk about here is: “learn once, use many times.” Simplification, consistency, but not homogenisation. (An approach I’m a fan of myself).
- Audacity. Make no mistake; the project sets a challenging vision. It’s unashamedly radical, unconstrained by the realities of how government creates and manages its digital information and services today. But it’s by no means a fantasy either, presenting an achievable vision as a basis for discussion and refinement. It is a given that to deliver and sustain it will take strong leadership and a skilled, multidisciplinary team with serious clout in the centre.
- Incompleteness. You can expect just a selection of stuff, not the whole shebang. The small team has built a surprising amount in short order, but the alpha will have holes (like no content alerts), will have cut corners (like accessibility) and will have made some necessarily populist choices (like redundancy and lost passports). This from the Alphagov about page: “The alpha is not intended to be an instant replacement for dozens of gov.uk sites. Neither is it in the scope to improve the quality of government’s online transactions. What it does do is show a direction for future services.” (May as well read the whole thing here).
- Reaction (and conversation). Expect some press. The team is planning a quiet launch, but the project already has a fat clippings file and the reaction and debate will be plentiful and fascinating to watch, with likely international interest this time too. The team’s blog is up and running and you can expect a series of posts on ‘the making of’ to gather and respond to feedback from users, the digital community and government stakeholders. I’d be surprised if it’s not a bit lively in there.
- Iteration. It’s an Agile project, so you can also expect some changes pretty soon in response to user feedback. Again: not your traditional government website.
So what’s not to love?
From where I’m sitting: nothing. Both in a personal capacity and as head of a central government web team, I see many more positives than negatives in the move to a single domain, for the reasons I gave before. If you started today, you would never build what we’ve got. You would build Alphagov.
More objectively though, people will have concerns – I’ve heard some aired already along the lines of it being too big to work for all users of government services, too ambitious, too much change from the familiar, or too optimistic about simplifying the long tail of government comms and customer relationships.
People might say: define government, define UK, define website. Some might ask: where’s the business case, what’s the publishing platform, what will it cost to scale up to full production? People inside government, myself included, will want to know what it means for their jobs.
All valid concerns, all questions that need answers – but let’s remember the point of the prototype is to drive out these issues, test the theory, show what’s possible, and be able to have a constructive and open discussion based on a common understanding of an actual thing rather than some ambiguous words and ideas.
Want to know more?
The alphagov blog: http://blog.alpha.gov.uk/
The alphagov twitter account: @alphagov
The alphagov team on Twitter: http://blog.alpha.gov.uk/team
These choicey posts on team members’ personal blogs: one by Paul and another by Relly.