On freelancing

Dan Slee (photo: Paul Henderson)

The giant of local government social media at the coalface, Dan Slee, has gone freelance.

I’m not sure why I’ve not written up Dan as one of my digital heroes here before, because he certainly is one. He’s the kind of innovator it’s hard to dismiss – someone with deep journalism and government experience, Zen-like calm and kitten-like niceness. But there must be rat-like cunning in there too, or he wouldn’t have been able to get through half as much as he has in his eight years in the public sector.

Sometimes accompanied by the man himself, in training courses over the last three years I’ve been recounting his stories of Morgan and the newts, PC Rich and the fire rumour, Supt Scobbie at the cafe and Bob of the Brownhills. One thing you’ll definitely get from a session with Dan is some marvellous stories.

I hope that Dan gets to do a lot more storytelling, and much more, now he’s puttering his formidable narrowboat on the Canals of Freelancing. You should hire him while you can (I regularly do).

A few locks and weirs away, I’m enjoying the daily instalments of Ben Proctor’s guide to How to Fail at Freelancing. Ben is another regular collaborator, and another digital hero. His so-called failures at freelancing are purely quirks of his niche market and self-effacing approach to marketing: he is quite the guru when it comes to digital communication in crisis and emergency response (a sector sadly short on generous purchase orders). His guide on how to fail is amusing and insightful, and should – ironically – be a bestselling business book by Christmas, if publishers have any sense.

But it’s got me thinking – as has Dan’s announcement today – about what my own advice would be to people going freelance. I set off four years ago with little strategy and barely any paid work in the pipeline, and thanks to many kind friends and some interesting projects things turned out OK. Then I got a little too busy, worked a lot of hours, took one on of my digital heroes and now we’re about to become a team of five. It wouldn’t impress a Den of Dragons, but it’s mainly pretty enjoyable.

My tip to new freelancers would be to choose your work. People will flatter you with prestigious unpaid gigs, and unflattering paid ones, and the trick is to work out which ones to take because it’s very hard to tell. Here’s my rule of thumb for the unpaid ones:

  • Quality time: will this gig enable you to spend quality time with people who you can help? A breakfast session with an agency on social media led to the Simulator and employee #5, but lots of conference attending and talking led mainly to nice words and new followers on Twitter
  • Equity: does this gig represent equity I’m building up with a decent fellow freelancer or potential future client, or some genuinely valuable help I can offer to a good cause? Helping friends and acquaintances is good, especially when it’s two way
  • Development: can I use this opportunity to learn something new, create a new service or develop the business in a significant way? (raising awareness doesn’t count. Awareness never counts by itself, remember)

So good luck Dan, and better luck Ben. Be tough on yourselves, but don’t rule things out just because they don’t fit with your vision of what you ought to be doing. Rule them out because they don’t fit QED.

Photo credit: Paul Henderson 

What holds people back?

What holds people back from using digital tools and techniques at work? Is it that they need someone to tell them what Twitter is for? Or is it that they couldn’t tweet if they wanted to: the system would block it and their boss would look disapproving. Maybe the Press Office runs a tight ship on the corporate channels and other people don’t know or dare to do it themselves. People are busy, and maybe it’s not something that bosses prioritise. Perhaps it’s harder to procure developers happy to work from a backlog of user stories than a big firm good at filling in PQQs and completing status reports.

There’s lots of talk in cool policy circles of wicked problems, with shifting dimensions and interlocking effects, and to an extent, digital skills fit that definition.

I started the week with a senior group of public sector leaders keen but uncertain about their role in helping their organisation engage digitally. When they intervene in internal discussions, those conversations tend to close up. Though many of their people might have the aptitude and credibility to build Dave Throup-like followings, they feel they are just a bad tweet away from serious stakeholder problems, not just some personal professional embarrassment. And yet by not engaging, they’re having to watch bias and misinformation play out in the media. It feels like a situation in which to take baby steps, launch some plucky pilots and build confidence.

Then yesterday I visited the DWP Digital Academy, now in week two of its first eight-week programme, where it’s a different story. New Digital Chief Kevin Cunnington is doing a GDS: talent-spotting to grow his own cohort of agile digital service designers and managers and tearing up the status quo (which hasn’t exactly served the organisation well in the past). They’re learning wireframing and paper prototyping, new forms of identity assurance and social media too. It’s full-on revolution not evolution, inspired and supported by GDS. In fact the Academy base in Fulham is reminiscent of the Alphagov team circa summer 2011, but with insiders rather than outsiders on the Macbook Pros – a crucial difference.

Also this week, I updated an old slide of mine from 2009, trying to apply a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy to the attitudinal progression from ignorance to excellence, and highlighting that skills training which stimulates awareness won’t change outcomes unless the other steps in the journey – IT access, formal permission, personal relevance – are also addressed:

Dig Eng needs ladder

This certainly fits the situation of that senior team I met. But watching the DWP group at work, it struck me that really there are just two things needed to get change going in large organisations: attitude and critical mass.

Attitude picks the fights, and critical mass wins them.

You need individuals unwilling to put up with bad ways of doing things and confident that there is a better way. People with a curiosity about users and courage to share and network with people they don’t know. But you also need to build a large enough group of these rebels that their energy can be harnessed, opportunities taken, occasional failures accepted, and the crucial sense of inevitability created.

The DWP Digital Academy promises to deliver against both of these, which is what makes it quite an exciting vision. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

In 2014, let’s get digital skills out of the classroom


One early morning the other week, I was in the office sorting out evaluation forms from six of the digital skills courses our team had delivered over the last few days. Responses to ‘How would you rate X as a facilitator?’, ‘Did the course meet its objectives?’, ‘What three things will you take away from the course?’ and many others swam before me. The ratings were generally excellent. Most people found the sessions ‘interesting’, ‘eye-opening’, and even ‘inspiring’. Virtually everyone enjoyed the practical exercises (where we get the group to use free social media listening tools, or translate conventional press releases into tweet and Facebook post format, using our suite of Chromebooks).

But there’s a killer question: How strongly do you agree/disagree that ‘I will be more effective at work as a result of this event’? The polite delegates agree mildly. The honest ones disagree mildly. We’ve had a pleasant few hours together discussing interesting examples and challenges and going through the popular tools, but ultimately, we’re sending the group back to their desks interested, rather than transformed. When they sit down again, they’ll face the tyranny of corporate IT policies, an overflowing inbox, and professional stigma around using social media in work time, with just an annotated handout to see them through.

In 2014, let’s find a better way to help people get the digital skills they need.

Getting started using digital tools and techniques takes more than interest and knowledge, and I think that’s because like the development of any new skill, there’s a more complex process involved:

For starters, you need opportunity: the ability to apply new skills to your day job. A barrier we come up against time and again is the reality that a large chunk of the public sector in 2013 isn’t trusted or equipped to access common digital tools. Beyond the evergreen problem of having the right kit and being able to access the right websites, changing how people work takes time and creativity, to find shortcuts, try a new approach for a specific project, and identify where digital can add value, rather than becoming just another thing to do.

There’s also the critical factor of encouragement: quite understandably, people at work do what their managers value, by and large. If your boss pays lip-service to the importance of digital (say, sending you on a half day course but not helping you lobby IT to get access to the tools you need), then you’ll fall back into traditional ways of working pretty quickly. Engaging online as a public servant is rewarding but also still quite risky, potentially: if you fear that HR or the Press Office or your line manager won’t be there for you if things go wrong, your appetite for innovation will wane.

Marilyn Booth at BIS – an early pioneer – has been blogging about the fear they’ve been helping people to overcome:

Rather than just talking at people for an hour and a half, we got them involved, asking  what their barriers to getting online were, but equally asking what we as a digital team could do to help with those issues. We didn’t find anything that necessarily surprised us, but as well as relatively normal quibbles about lack of knowledge, slow IT, perceptions that “this isn’t allowed”, we were able to identify a basket of concerns that we now label the fear.  Most are cultural, with some very peculiar to being a civil servant.

In too many places, the Communications department is becoming a gatekeeper for the organisation’s work online, rather than a mentor or guardian. If, at the dawn of 2014, the Press Office issues all the tweets from your organisation, you have a problem. Euan’s got it right.

Crucially – and maybe because of the hurdles of opportunity and encouragement – you need the right attitude to put digital skills into operation. Not everyone will JFDI off their own bat. Cultivating the spirit of persistence, experimentation, thick-skinned self-awareness and assertiveness that you need to engage online with digital tools takes time and patience. As blogging Ambassador Tom Fletcher puts it:

Where do we add most value? And what will we need to be equipped with in the 21c? As of now, a smartphone. But also the skills that have always been essential to the role: savvy, an open mind, and thick skin.  I think, like the best traditional diplomacy, iDiplomacy comes down to authenticity, engagement and purpose.

Even the best half day course can’t equip you with the opportunity, encouragement and attitude you need to do things differently with digital. To do that will take something altogether more:

  • personalised: appropriate to your job, and the relationship you have with your boss, and the controversies or people you have to deal with
  • sustained: designed to help you make small changes, and keep making them, over weeks, and then months
  • flexible: with lots of little nuggets, examples, tips, experiences and inspiration, designed to help overcome the big strategic problems and capitalise on the tactical opportunities when they come along

Face-to-face conversation is vital to seeding ideas, overcoming barriers and building confidence, but people learn in different ways. Sometimes, the Civil Service Reform Plan commitment to civil servants of five days’ learning a year is translated into five days in a classroom. Like Puffles, I’m not sure courses do it for me, but visits to see how other people do things, or discussions over coffee, or online groups do. I learn a lot though Googling and experimentation, but other people like to read books. I mean no offence to the 450 or so people we’ve trained since the summer when I say it’s horses for courses…

I’m inspired by Tim’s experiment at BIS, Stephen’s focus on embedding digital into business as usual at DH, and cheering GDS aiming to make use of low-cost digital tools more mainstream.

So my resolution for 2014 is to prod myself a bit harder to try and work out a better way of helping people develop digital skills that transform their working lives.

With our colleagues at Claremont, we’re working up a little idea we’re calling the Digital Gym: a 3 month programme of practical digital learning guided by a personal trainer. The idea is that they’ll talk to you to understand you, your role and your organisation, and recommend a package of approaches to fit – maybe an event or some coaching, a video tutorial, an online club with weekly assignments, or a classroom-based course. It will all be part of a learning plan with specific goals and deadlines, with material potentially delivered by lots of different individuals and organisations. Here’s a sneak preview of our alpha, which we’re hoping to trial with some interested organisations early in 2014:

Digital Gym

It’s a big challenge for us to see if we can make this work, both for the learners, their organisations, and for us as small businesses. I’ll give an update here next month on how its going, but do drop me a line if you’d like to get involved.

Disclosure: Although my team and I make a living partly from delivering digital skills courses, I’d prefer to feel that our time and the public sector investment delivered the maximum impact. So if classroom training fades as source of revenue for us but digital skills amongst the audience grow, I’d say that’s a good result – regardless of what that does to our revenues.


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 Change.org 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:

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 08.39.42


Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 08.39.27


Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 08.39.54


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.