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Guest post: Defining digital skills for government communicators

Guest post by Tony Plant, professional development manager at the Ministry of Justice, who has been leading work across Whitehall to update the digital  skills profile for government communicators. Cross-posted on Tony’s own blog at The Learning Crowd.

Government communications is radically changing, as shown by the COI review and shift to digital channels. Job roles are changing in response and staff will need to pick up new skills quickly and effectively. None more so than in digital comms.

So what are the key specialist skills for digital communications in government? Can we define them in a way that easily supports skills development for individuals and teams? What digital/social media skills can be made “mainstream” and what really are specialist capabilities?

What’s in and what’s out of digital comms is notoriously difficult to define. One reason is mission creep. Where does digital comms stop and general business and leadership acumen start? It was hard enough when there was only a website to worry about. Now we also have the proliferation of digital channels, public and employee expectations about social media and an incessant demand to transform public service delivery.

A good example is website convergence (the Ministry of Justice is reducing about 160 sites to around 10). Digital teams find themselves dealing with more than just content management and rationalisation, complex as that is. They are also drawn into IT infrastructure, stakeholder management, service contract re-negotiation and much more. Convergence can also get caught up in branding, organisation independence and other issues needing deft diplomacy rather than digital technology.

This highlights another issue, disentangling the specific digital skill (e.g. writing for web usability/accessibility) from the “common to all communicators” skill (e.g. writing clearly in plain English). Also, skills need a foundation in knowledge and behaviour. Of course, web convergence needs good editing skills. It also needs specialist and general business knowledge. All supported by key behaviours such as building relationships with stakeholders in the organisations whose websites are being targeted.

So, where to start on defining digital skills?

There is an existing GCN Core Skills Framework for Professional Communicators. However, written for a different time and comms context, it only mentions digital skills a few times in areas such as “channels and technology”. There is also some notable external “prior art”.  Steph Gray proposed an overview of government digital disciplines, nicely visualised in a Venn diagram. The Society of IT Managers (SOCITM) also did some work last year on defining skills for web professionals. This was intended as an explicit extension of the well-known SFIA framework. Unfortunately, this still seems to be stuck at the draft proposal stage.

Combined with some digital skills audits this provided enough to get some discussions and workshops started, involving digital comms specialist from across government. That generated a lot of flipchart lists and Post-it mark-ups. It also showed some big differences in apparently similar roles and functions, prompting an explicit split between:

For five different levels of experience from entry level Information Officer (IO) up to Senior Civil Servant (SCS). Additionally, thinking about the current and future trends highlighted the following key themes:

Taking these together provided a matrix of experience level against skills, knowledge and behaviour in each of the themes.

Filling out each matrix with lists from the workshops highlighted some key gaps. The majority of skills identified were in just three theme areas: managing websites, managing content and supporting communications. While they will remain important, it’s likely the future focus will be on the other areas. Exploiting data, engaging communities, gaining insight and digitally enabling government business will be key areas for individuals and digital teams to develop their skills, knowledge and behaviours. 

The next step is to get wider direct involvement from the digital community to both “fill in the blanks” in the matrices and check completeness/validity. The new Buddypress-powered GCN community site provides some useful collaboration and crowd-sourcing support for this.

Of course, the acid test will be how helpful this framework is for identifying development needs, creating specific role profiles, etc.

Watch this space.

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Experiments in shared website services

Fondue: it's fun to share

Two more sites just began sharing the BIS web platform – the National Measurement Office and the newly christened UK Space Agency – bringing our tally of live sites on the platform up to eight, and moving us one step closer to a single domain for BIS.

With eight sites now sharing our platform and more set to join soon, things have started to get really interesting for me and my digital team. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that running a growing shared platform is fundamentally changing the nature of what we do.

Having pretty much nailed the process of getting organisations’ sites and web editors onto the platform as smoothly as possible to meet convergence deadlines, we are now shifting our focus to designing an equally smooth operation for supporting live customers.

This is new but exciting territory for a government digital team. We’re having to evolve our thinking and processes rapidly and on-the-hoof in order to run this thing – balancing an expanding workload against shrinking resources in our own team and those of our customers; making sure we share and recover costs fairly; and at all times striving to keep things fluid, paperless, agile, and most of all cheap for all users.

I’ve been reading up a bit (in what spare time I can find) about best practice and pitfalls of shared service design – any recommendations for further reading would be gratefully received. But nothing I’ve found so far has been especially practical nor as instructive as trial-and-error and first hand experience.

In that vein, in case it helps others, what follows is a list of the processy things we have found it necessary to put in place so far, and some stuff we’ve recently discovered we’re missing.

The stuff we’ve got nailed down already:

The things we are now rapidly putting in place for live running:

As you can see from this long and growing list, keeping a lid on the bubbling fondue pot of shared service bureaucracy is proving quite a challenge. Yet doing so feels like the most critical thing to get right.

I’m confident that so far there’s nothing on this list that is unnecessarily bureaucratic: it’s all essential stuff to avoid wasted time and keep our heads above water. We’ve kept the documentation as light as possible, used collaborative online tools rather than paper and email, and looked hard at any new bit of process to see if it will save more time than it takes up. Without this scrutiny, you would be looking at a much longer list.

Swapping stories and approaches among those of us who are managing or consuming shared services is going to become increasingly important across the public sector. So if that sounds like you, do you fancy a coffee?

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…But I don’t like to talk about it

(Cross-posted from The Funding Network website, with thanks).

I would be lying if I said I do a lot of work for charity. But by donating slivers of time to The Funding Network (TFN), which pairs worthwhile projects with pots of money at auction-style giving events (see video below), I can just about get away with saying I’ve done a tiny bit of work for a lot of charities. Of course, I don’t like to talk about it, but for the purposes of this blog post I shall just have to force myself.

I was introduced to TFN in July last year through Media Trust – an organisation which specialises in connecting media professionals with third sector groups to help them improve the way they communicate.

TFN were after some help with their digital communications strategy, while across town in Whitehall I was looking for opportunities to broaden my experience and do my bit for civil service volunteering. Media Trust put us in touch with each other and before long I found myself on my first date with TFN’s Adizah and Sonal (in the BIS canteen – I sure know how to treat the ladies).

Not that they needed much help, mind you. My first impression was of a lean, keen and digitally savvy communications operation, already well advanced in its use of social media channels (YouTube, Twitter and Facebook) with an enthusiastic digital native to run them. Better still, the team was looking to learn and do more, and to supplement their intuition with further professional knowledge.

Since then, I’ve been advising TFN on how best to use digital tools to promote and record their unique funding events, reach and engage new and existing members and givers, curate and amplify interesting content elsewhere on the web about social change, and to tell the story of TFN as clearly as possible via this new website.

In practical terms, that has meant giving the team tips about free tools they can use like Google Reader, Tweetdeck and Inbox Listening for monitoring relevant conversations online; sharing my own guidance documents with them to help refine their social media engagement; attending website project meetings and feeding back on draft designs; and explaining how adding blogs to the website might help them to showcase social change success stories and sustain a sense of community between events.

Which brings us right up to where we are now. I hope it turns out to be good advice and that these blogs really take off . Please subscribe to be notified when new posts are published, and do tell the team what you think by adding to the comments.

But before I sign off – what do I get out of all this exactly? Well, personal development and kudos from the boss. But also the warm fuzzy feeling that just by giving a bit of time and being available at the end of a phone (or tweet), I am helping in a small way to fund numerous sustainable social change projects.

I highly recommend volunteering through Media Trust to other comms professionals, and commend the work of TFN to anyone. It really is worth talking about, whatever Mike Smash and Dave Nice might say.

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BIS digital team launches blog for Simon Hughes on

Simon Hughes blog

Today, we pressed the publish button on a new blog to support Simon Hughes’s engagement with young people and others in his role as Advocate for Access to Education.

It’s an independent, advisory role spanning DfE and BIS policy – hence the domain and HMG branding. More about the role from the site’s About page:

The appointment is for 6 months and in that time Simon will be visiting the different regions in England to discuss with students, parents, future students and teachers the new arrangements for financing higher education in England.

The blog aims to continue that engagement online, broaden his reach and share his progress openly. You might think it a bold move to open up a space for comments on this topic – something which should be applauded. The blog has a clear proposition, which will help the independent team moderate out anything off-topic without discouraging frank and honest conversation.

The build was done wholly in-house by team BIS – principally Jenny with help from Paul and John – and for relatively little technical effort. It’s a pretty rare thing that we get a commission for a straight, traditional blog. In fact, had it not been for some helpful free advice we might well have defaulted to hosting the site ourselves instead of using, which was the ideal fit for our needs in this case.

Using is a first for us, but we’re in good company. The distinct advantage over self-hosting, as well as being practically cost-free, is tapping the resilience of the mighty WordPress cloud. Which, given the subject matter, has helped our peace of mind.

Though mostly combining an out-of-the-box theme with a custom banner, there is one bit of cleverness behind the scenes. Simon and his team wanted to segment email subscribers by location to send tailored messages to the people he meets on his travels. Nothing in standard supports email subs, nor is there a way to embed a third party tool that will. So instead, we’re sending traffic off-site to a page that looks and feels like part of the blog, but isn’t. It’s a form page hooked up to our Campaign Monitor account, subscribing users to a single list and capturing their location as a free text field which can be filtered for targeted mail-outs. (The team toyed with pre-populating the list but the user experience was less good, and the list long and problematic).

So there you have it. I’m proud of what the team has done here and will be watching the blog with interest (and, if I’m honest, with my fingers slightly crossed).

Now I’d better hit publish before Simon beats me to the scoop…

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A bumper backlog of 2010 bookmarks

Lego dump truck

Without noticing, it seems I haven’t published a list of my bookmarks here for nearly a year. That’ll be partly down to subconscious choice (I’m not overly keen on link dumps on other blogs) and partly through neglect (I prefer to manually edit rather than automate these kind of posts, and haven’t found the time).

This post ought to more than make up for it though! Below is a mammoth dump of my choicier Delicious* bookmarks from Feb 2010 to date, loosely categorised for your scanning pleasure.

I’m not sure whether to resurrect these kind of semi-automated bookmark posts in future or not, and would welcome feedback on whether you find them useful, irritating or neither.

[*With speculation rife that Delicious could disappear, I've recently switched to using Pinboard. You might want to do the same.]



Interesting reads for digital professionals:

Think pieces:

Tools, tips and other useful stuff:

Gov-specific links:

BIS digital in the news:


Just for fun:

Image credit: Lego dumptruck by bucklava

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