Helpful Tips for 2013


After a little blip last year, I’m really pleased that we’re able to bring our series of advent tips for smart digital communicators  back for 2013.

Helpful Technology was a freelance business when I first started the tips, but now we’ve grown to a gargantuan four people, so this year there are tips coming up from all the team. (The eagle-eyed may spot a few changes over on the Helpful Technology website…)

First up is Anthony’s little trick for neater YouTube embeds. Enjoy!

Whither digital communication?

If GOV.UK is delivering the website, what’s the purpose of digital communications teams in government departments?

gcn review

That’s one of the interesting issues tackled by the Cabinet Office’s Digital Communication Capability Review, whose draft report is online for public comment for another couple of days.

It’s a fine piece of work, led by some creative thinkers inside government alongside some interesting outsiders with deep and varied experience of digital (disclaimer: I was one of the people they interviewed).

The bits I like most are the principles and manifesto, which shine a light on some of the issues holding back good digital communication in central government:

  • IT networks which prevent civil servants doing their jobs with commonplace digital tools
  • The focus on Twitter, to the exclusion of other digital channels and thinking
  • The deliberate, understandable constraints that GOV.UK places on branding, content and engagement on its platform, and the need to clarify roles and responsibilities (and that digital communication is a different thing from digital service delivery)

One of the external reviewers, Max St John of Nixon McInnes, has written about the process and why rather than just coming up with worthy recommendations, they’ve drafted a manifesto and principles for change.

Three connected thoughts that occurred to me:

  • I’m not sure there is in government, even with this document, a shared understanding of what ‘good’ digital communication looks like. User-centricity and needs-driven design is part of it. Evaluation and iteration is part of it. Meaningful engagement, integration with policy and service delivery are in there too. Open source, sharing, content strategy, internal upskilling, and partnerships have a role. But nobody, including me, has quite articulated it yet.
  • As a consequence, it’s hard to be 100% behind the call to tear down digital ‘silos’ – coming from the background of one, I appreciate the complex and sophisticated craftsmanship of digital communication but also the risk of becoming the Twitter Support Team. Embedding skills across government communicators makes sense, but which skills, and to what depth, and with what support? GDS created a digital silo very effectively to focus effort, attract elite talent and achieve momentum, after all.
  • So we need to define what those necessary skills are in a bit more detail (there’s a useful general comms competency framework, I know), and think creatively about how to develop them across thousands of government communicators. I make a living partly from delivering off-the-job training courses in digital skills to this audience, but I recognise that classroom sessions are just a small piece of the jigsaw. Like criminals, government communicators need motive and opportunity as well as capability and tools, and that’s going to take a lot more mentoring, corridor chats, personal blogs, Google Analytics accounts, social media experimentation (and mistakes), email lists, teacamps, user testing observations, forum participation and encouraging emails from big cheeses.

Go tell GCN what you think, too.

Fêting failure


I’ve always suspected there’s a damn sight less success around than people claim, and a damn sight more dumb luck and hidden failure brushed under the carpet. There’s a lovely piece by John Coventry on failure over on Wonkcomms today that really struck a chord with me:

I’ve always thought that being on the frontline of communicating the work of organisations carries an odd set of pressures. We find ourselves with responsibility for a final product over which we have little control. The best we can do is make conditions as perfect as possible and let nature take its course. It’s a lot like breeding pandas, as staff at Edinburgh Zoo will tell you.

He goes on:

At we do something called the Festival of Failure. It’s a fun informal session as part of wider catch up sessions where each member of the team is encouraged to chat about something that went wrong that week. It’s funny, cathartic and reminds us that it’s only work; that even the best of us get it wrong sometimes and, most importantly, it gives other people a chance to not make the same mistake.

Being open about failure is a real organisational strength. It implies that staff trust each other to get it right – but also that a culture exists in which it’s fine to experiment, get things wrong and improve. Screw ups have traditionally been a subject reserved for the post-work pint on Friday, but I honestly think it should have a role in the office too. Failure is very real and can be incredibly de-motivating if it’s not talked about. We should embrace it and make our work better in the long run because of it.

Amen, brother.

I’ve tried in the past to write something here about failures, but never quite got it right somehow – ‘My five favourite all-time cock-ups’ remained resolutely in draft for several years. But I’m a massive believer in sharing, warts-and-all, what’s gone right and what hasn’t, though perhaps the trick is to share as a team as John’s does, rather than with the outside world.

But one thing I’ve started doing at work recently is keeping a little red notebook of cock-ups. When I screw something up and feel bad about it, I’m trying to capture that feeling, what I did, and what I’d do differently next time on paper, in a little notebook just for me. It doesn’t sound like the most uplifting read, I admit, but I’m hoping that it will help me reflect on some the patterns, impacts and lessons learned from those mistakes – cock-ups I might otherwise have tried to bury deep in my subconscious. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, take inspiration from John, and spend 5 minutes in your next team meeting talking about what we can learn from the cock-ups we each made last week, rather than puffing up the successes. Go on, I dare you.






Keeping up with our clients

HT client dashboard

Our clients do some jolly interesting things online. Of course, I would say that, but they really do: everything from podcasting about alternatives to Trident to fighting dodgy landlords, arguing for involving the public in deciding how to deal with Syria to arguing the case for reorganising A&E departments.

Like a lot of digital agencies, we plan and build sites with clients, keep them updated and working and help out when things need changing or fixing. But we can sometimes lose track of the exciting bit: what do these new tools enable our clients to do?

HT client dashboard

Our new office client dashboard helps to keep us a little bit closer to our clients, bringing in articles from their sites via RSS, as well as their tweets from a list. It’s powered by a little Android USB stick plugged into into a spare 27″ screen, with some bespoke code to wrangle RSS feeds and pictures into something intelligible. Already, it’s helped us pick up some interesting stories or announcements clients have made that we’d probably have missed otherwise – and of course, it’s a bit of a talking point generally.


What public consultation can look like

BIS Consumer Rights site

I’ve been a bit grumpy lately that use of digital tools to engage the public creatively around policy consultations has stalled. Sure, there’s some good tweeting, and some creative ministerial webchats, but not much that tackles the showstopping barriers of impenetrable language, lengthy response forms and boring or loaded questions.

What BIS has done with the consultation on the Consumer Rights Bill is magnificent, and I hope they get a response to reflect that.

They’ve created a mini-site on their existing discussion platform, to enable people to explore the key themes of the proposal, organised around questions that a real person might have. They’ve translated the Bill proposals into straightforward English:

Consumer rights - plain english


They recognise consultations are about horses for courses: if you’re in a hurry, you can vote in a quick poll, but if you want the full text of all the documents (15 I counted) so you can consult the members of your representative organisation, then go knock yourself out (on GOV.UK).

They’ve taken the discussion out into other platforms, with a minister who was clearly well up for some digital and media engagement, on BBC radio, the MoneySavingExpert forum, and – brilliantly – Wired magazine, since the proposals cover rights over digital content purchases:

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Not every consultation needs this amount of effort and creativity in forming partnerships and creating accessible content. But when something comes along with a clear consumer focus, it’s great to see an in-house team with the skills and confidence to really make something of it as a digital product:

  1. Writing questions and background material to explain the issue which ordinary people can relate to
  2. Taking the consultation out into places where people are interested in the issues
  3. Providing several routes to respond, for people with different levels of time and interest in the issue (I’d argue maybe some free-form comments on each issue might have worked well as a way of collecting stories and first-hand testimony for the policy team)
  4. Combining GOV.UK for the official content with other channels, Government-owned and third-party, where the discussion can happen

It’s going into our training courses as an example of online consultation being done right.

UPDATE: even more brilliantly, the team had already, of course, blogged at length about the project and their lessons learned from it.

What archaeology can teach us about agile web projects


These days, everyone wants to be ‘agile’. At root, it’s a project management discipline that fixes cost and quality, rather than scope – so you never face unexpected surprises at the end of a project (but may not end up with what you originally thought you wanted). That’s normally a good thing: after all, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

But like ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘digital engagement’, it’s also a buzzword risking meaninglessness having been appropriated to mean simply ‘flexible’, ‘undefined’ or ‘cheap’. Used that way, it’s something that gets clients off the hook of having to write a specification up front; and which gives crafty suppliers the ability to skip out of onerous commitments if the going gets tough. So for some people initiating these kind of ‘agile’ projects, there may indeed be some unexpected nasties to come.

The other day, I found myself talking about agile digital projects with a public sector contact who explained she’d originally trained as an archaeologist. She wasn’t familiar with the terminology of agile projects (‘user stories’, ‘backlogs’, ‘sprints’ and so on) but grasped the big picture straight away.

“It’s just like archaeology,” she said. “You don’t really know what the f*** is under the ground until you start digging.”

These days, we find relatively few digital projects that start from a clean slate. A lot of the work we do involves re-developing and re-organising websites which have a history. While you can tell something from clicking around, there’s always more that lies beneath, like fragile bones or unexploded wartime ordnance. The Chief Executive’s pet blog. The unwieldy archive of documents important to a tiny but crucial group of stakeholders. The organisational politics involved in moving a site from one server to another.

I’m no archaeologist, but I can appreciate that the discipline, patience and tools that apply to excavating historic sites can teach digital agencies a thing or two about doing ‘agile’ in the right way:

  1. be prepared to use a range of tools to check out the lay of the land before you disturb a precious relic
  2. accept that rebuilding websites – like changing the culture of organisations – takes patience and humility, and recognise you don’t really know how complicated things will be until you start
  3. respect the past, while living in the present: people who have gone before us have wrestled with decisions over content, designs and stakeholders. We can learn from their struggles and conclusions without meekly inflicting the usability compromises of the past on the users of the future

And with that, I’ll get back to my trowel.

Photo credit: rich_pickler

All the news that’s fit to print

Her Majesty Announces

It’s silly season, so here’s my contribution.

A few months ago, my mouse hand slipped and I found myself the owner of one of Berg’s Little Printers, a small thermal printer which prints on receipt paper and connects to the internet. It delivers ‘publications’ like the weather forecast, a crossword puzzle, or a quote of the day, at times you specify, as scraps of paper you take with you as you pootle around East London in your skinny jeans. Don’t ask what it’s for – I don’t think anyone who owns one can really explain. It’s interesting and unusual, and the possibilities are quite fun.

I finally got to play with it briefly this weekend, inspired by a little post on the Little Printer blog promising an easy way to create your own ‘mini-series’ publication, with a little bit of customising and some minimal PHP/CSS. My first effort – The Daily Fish – was Octonauts-inspired, delivering the Wikipedia summary for a random sea creature each day.

My second attempt is Her Majesty Announces – essentially, how a Victorian govgeek might have preferred to get their daily news from the Ministries. It’s a little publication which polls the GOV.UK Announcements Atom feed for the three latest government press releases or news stories (I have some form on this), and turns them into a mock-Victorian teleprinter feed delivered to your Little Printer.

There are more useful applications for this kind of technology, I hope. But in a responsive, strategic, social media age it’s just jolly good fun to work in a format that’s black and white, 384-pixels wide and can be folded up and put in your wallet.

5 crisis communications lessons from Captain Barnacles of the Octonauts


To those of you who don’t regularly wrangle small children on a regular basis: look away now: this won’t make a great deal of sense, I’m afraid.

The rest of you – hopefully, like me, you will have had your knowledge of the marine world vastly expanded by compulsive watching of The Octonauts, a sort of underwater Thunderbirds for the CGI generation. But there’s more to Octonauts than deep sea gigantism, marine symbiosis and the remarkable speed of sailfish: there are some very sound lessons for social media crisis handling too.

Here’s five things Captain Barnacles has taught us about how to snatch triumph from disaster – inside 15 minutes – day in, day out:

1. He’s quick to sound the Octoalert, even for minor emergencies

The best way to prepare for a crisis is to practice your response regularly (yes, I suppose I would say that). But even better than simulation is practising the process of mobilising the team for real, in different situations and at different times. Civil emergencies expert Ben Proctor tells the story of fire fighters, who will put ladders up at the front and rear and run the hose round the back of a house they have been called to, even if it turns out to have been unnecessary. Better to be safe than sorry, and keep the team well-rehearsed.

2. He brings together a multidisciplinary team and tools

Captain Barnacles has a crack team at his disposal, but they’re not all bold rescuers: he has scientists (Dashi and Shellington), an engineer (Tweak) and a medic (Peso) – not counting the vital welfare support offered by the Vegimals. Even better, he’s got a range of vehicles to call on so he can match the team and tools to the task quickly.

Kwazii with screens

3. He has excellent monitoring and analysis data at all times

Whether it’s fish swimming into the Octopod, or a tropical storm on the surface, there’s always an alert, a visualisation or a map just a click away. And when it comes to identifying strange creatures, the combination of Shellington’s wide experience and a sophisticated digital knowledge bank means the whole team is briefed quickly.

4. He operates from a central hub (but can operate without it)

octonautstv4464Sounding the Octoalert brings the team together quickly, usually in one place. The Octopod itself is a fine resource, but even better – Captain Barnacles’ octocompass lets him connect with the rest of the crew if he needs to co-ordinate a mission remotely. Lesson: you need a central hub, and the mobile tools and access to cope if it’s out of action.

5. He switches to manual control when needed

Sometimes, even the Octopod’s sophisticated systems aren’t a match for taking manual control – in Barnacles’ case: activating steering wheel. While tools and systems are great, they’re not infallible – and in managing social media response, human intervention is really important.

So there you go: those Cbeebies hours weren’t wasted after all. Octnoauts: let’s do this!

Good corporate tweeting

Train, credit @transportgovuk

Lots of people have views on the ‘right’ way to use Twitter as an organisation. I’m pretty liberal about it: I think it’s fine to use it to pump out press releases from a corporate account if that’s the expectation you set, or to have a dormant, verified account there ready for a crisis, or to encourage your teams and individual staff members to tweet about their professional work. The latter probably gives the organisation the most benefit longer term, but you need corporate accounts too in the same way that a switchboard is still useful even when everyone has a phone on their desk (or in their pocket).

But I’ve seen some promising signs that central government departments are getting smarter about how, when and what they tweet from their corporate accounts. Take this example, which landed in front of me at 8am this morning, as I chugged slowly through South London on a busy, hot train:

On the face of it, it’s just a tweeted announcement like any other, but it caught my eye for several reasons:

  • it was sent at peak commuting time, when lots of folk like me are likely to receptive to news about better trains coming soon
  • it’s got both a picture (of a cool-looking carriage that bears no resemblance to the one I’m in) and a link to more info
  • it’s shortened using a link tracker that gives some extra analytical info about the engagement it’s had, over time and by location – 250+ clicks in the first half hour isn’t too shabby for a government announcement
  • the further information itself on GOV.UK (nicely responsive on my phone, of course – remember, I’m on a train) starts off like a press release, but actually has some nice material for a wider audience too: it’s really a full-on social media news release with a CGI video (below) that bloggers or media can use, a link to a Flickr gallery of images you could use at hi-res (though a Creative Commons licence would help encourage reuse). There are loads of Top Trumps-style facts, and some neat tables showing changes to journey times thanks to the new trains
  • it looks like the team are preparing for integration with subsequent announcements around the stakeholder-oriented #ieptrains hashtag

I don’t know if the credit for this belongs with DfT’s digital team or their press office, but I suspect it’s a bit of both – well done folks. DfT aren’t alone in starting to do these things better: Defra are doing some really creative, high-impact work with partners online as part of some stunning social media PR campaigns, and there’s some great corporate tweeting going on at DfE, Number 10 and – arguably – the Home Office, who are using Twitter more fiercely than most politicians would dare, and, shall we say, certainly overcoming the ‘meh’ barrier which bedevils many civil service corporate accounts:

Corporate tweeting in Whitehall is getting bolder, smarter and more integrated. And that’s a good thing.



I’m learning a lot about salesmanship these days.

Downstairs at Helpful Towers, where the people who manage our serviced office work, there are posters on the wall celebrating great customer service and setting out the company’s model for managing the customer relationship from first contact, right through to careful ‘off-boarding’, when the client moves out. It’s an attractive and logical concept – treat people well, they’ll be your advocates even when they stop being your clients – which of course bears no relation to reality. When monthly targets and quotas come into it, it’s about protecting revenue over the next few months, as the sales guy had no qualms about saying to me earlier, while forcing me to pay six weeks extra rent for literally nothing. I’m indeed off-boarded, and not a little off-fucked too.

This evening, I dropped in to the summer party of Movement for Change, a great organisation training local people around the country to be community organisers, set up by David Miliband three years ago. I remember sitting down with the first National Director in the draughty Royal Festival Hall cafe at Christmas time 2010 to take the original website brief, registering domains names, and setting up a WordPress site which grew from a holding page, to a blog, to a BuddyPress network, and back to a blog as plans changed. Today, they migrated away to a platform based on NationBuilder, the cool political campaigning software that’s driven hundreds of US political races. I’m genuinely happy for them – it’s a better fit for what they’re doing, it looks nicer than the old site, and it will help them do more as a distributed political campaigning force. We had a nice Skype chat last week to finalise the domain switch, totted up the final hosting bill, I did a quick scrape and archive of their old site in case they need anything from it, and we’ve been chatting about hosting recommendations for their other bits and pieces. They invited me to their party, I had some nice canapés, and bumped into familiar faces. I haven’t always managed the end of client relationships so well, sadly: some have petered out rather in a fug of busyness and mismanaged expectations. If that’s you, I’m mortified about it, and sorry.

I’m going to do everything I can in the coming years to help fellow entrepreneurs avoid the trap of my serviced office company. I hope the Movement for Change guys will remember us as helpful and positive, to the end and beyond.

I think that’s what off-boarding looks like.

Photo credit: FrogStarB