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Whitehall in WordPress

Simon Dickson introducing WordUp Whitehall 2

The clue was in the 150pt slide Simon put up at the start of the day, but actually I think he was just catalysing a conclusion most of the participants in Whitehall’s second WordUp event came to independently: we’re on the verge of a new era of Sharing.

12 months ago, only Number 10 and Defra were running WordPress-based corporate sites. Now the Departments of Health and Transport are too, accompanied by GCN, FCO, DCMS and old hands BIS and DFID all running significant WordPress projects. Whereas last year, just launching a WordPress site in government felt brave and radical, now it’s virtually mainstream – thanks in no small part to Simon’s blog and organisation of WordUps. The environment for WordPress in Whitehall is certainly benign, with the new open source procurement toolkit, and a man in charge who thinks the old ways are, well, unacceptable.

So we’re at a new, and quite challenging frontier now. Whereas a year or two ago, we sought permission to use this little blogging tool for serious things, now we’re asking ourselves how to make it do those serious things better. How to handle a library of 60,000 legacy PDF files, or structure content across a network of sites using an agreed classification. How to run a network of 50 bloggers more efficiently, or offer users great organisation-wide search. How to build vibrant social networks of government communicators, or create tools accessible to the highest standards.

And the answer to many of these is: it’s time to tackle these challenges as a community, just as the founders of the open source project we’re all using originally intended.

Two different perspectives today came from Pete Westwood, one of only 6 WordPress Lead Developers worldwide, who talked about the philosophy and management structure of the WordPress project; and Paul Gibbs, a Core Developer of BuddyPress, who shared his journey from hobbyist to open source project leader. Whereas the rest of us mainly talked about making WordPress jump through hoops, they presented it as a project – a community, and an often personal journey – rather than just software.

And that’s the challenge for WordPress in Whitehall: whether and how to become Whitehall in WordPress.

The plugins, themes, widgets and thinking on show today were impressive, but there’s clearly scope to help solve each others’ problems more quickly, effectively and cheaply by sharing what we’ve learned and created. And if the Whitehall community can benefit, why not the wider WordPress community which has provided us with the tools we use? Collaboration – through submitting bug reports and patches, writing reviews, rating plugins, contributing plugins, creating translations and documentation – is baked into the core of WordPress, and the tools to make it easy, like Trac and the Plugin Directory, are there waiting for our input. The White House has done it, albeit for Drupal.

But it’s not a no-brainer. Money and human resource are tight. Timescales in government are often challenging, and talented developers are in demand. On the outside, those who supply WordPress to government are often small agencies and freelancers themselves, with projects to finish and new business to win.

Contributing to open source projects takes time, patience and commitment. The benefits are often indirect. It’s hard to measure the satisfaction of seeing your code appreciated and reused, and it’s a visionary boss who recognises the value in spending paid time on it.

Of course government stands to save money through greater use of open source, and it’s great to hear repeated commitments to promote reuse across the public sector. But what would be truly visionary would be to embrace the ethos of open source itself and commit the time of civil servants and part of the budget of commissioned projects to giving back to the open source projects which made them possible. That’s what Simon was on about when he caused a bit of a stir.

Sharing code on your own site is a start, and using code-sharing platforms like Github is better, but let’s go the whole hog and contribute back to the projects themselves. I’m making that my early resolution for 2012.