20 things I learned at CommsCamp 2017

I’ve been at the annual summer CommsCamp unconference event in Birmingham today organised by the awesome Dan Slee, Emma Rogers and volunteer team.

The 20-things-I-learned format is a good one, so here goes again:

  1. The General Data Protection Regulation kicks in from May 2018 and we should all learn more about it: not least because we’ll need to rewrite those wordy T&Cs pages into something people can realistically consent to
  2. I found this handy summary of the other lawful reasons why an organisation might hold or process personal data where consent isn’t obtained
  3. The Scottish Government have a nice Individual, Social, Material model for looking at behaviour change, including the barriers which hold people within the organisation back from engaging online
  4. The Film Cafe team know their video onions, and are generous with their knowledge. You should probably book yourself onto one of their workshops with Comms2Point0
  5. A classic ‘cutaway’ in film editing is 6 seconds, as that’s apparently the conventional wisdom on how long it takes a viewer to tune into something. (In other news, six second video service Vine is no longer with us…)
  6. The optimum film length for Facebook is 21 seconds; Instagram 15 seconds; YouTube 3.5 minutes. Bear in mind though that 80% of your viewers will have tuned out/scrolled past after 30 seconds of your film, so put the key info up front rather than building up to it dramatically.
  7. 360 video and VR is pretty cool (it was fun seeing people experience it for the firs time) and you can make your own with a £150 camera. But it’s not really about gadgetry: it’s about really immersive and powerful experiences, in a world of flicking through feeds. Big implications for charity fundraising, media and public sector comms.
  8. Check out Purple Planet for royalty-free music for your film soundtracks
  9. Use lapel mics, rather than directional mics for good video sound. There are options from Rode and Tonor on Amazon for sub £10
  10. Maybe we’re returning to a new era of silent movies: so many videos on social media are viewed with subtitles on/sound off
  11. Facebook can auto-subtitle live video now (and lets you correct errors, thankfully)
  12. One organisation changed all its departments’ Twitter passwords to force them to get in touch with central Comms about purdah… and to identify which accounts which nobody was taking responsibility for in the organisation. Brutal but effective.
  13. You can be overwhelmed not just with hostility but also with supportive messages during a crisis: during the recent Manchester attack, the Fire Service had to work hard to sift through and subsequently acknowledge the sheer volume of positive feedback and encouragement (we’ll bank that idea for future simulations)
  14. Encouragingly, the multi-agency Tier 1 flooding exercise we helped support last year in Greater Manchester helped at least one organisation feel better-equipped to handle a real crisis when it hit. That unprompted feedback is great to hear.
  15. Politicians and political advisors are a growing challenge for emergency comms. The last few months have turned up the pressure on them to respond quickly, show emotion, and make the right strategic decisions. Right now, managing their information requests can be distraction for emergency responders.
  16. All is not what it seems on Twitter. I’ve followed Kate Starbird’s work on fake accounts for a while, and Andy’s example of copy/pasted statuses is intriguing (and another reason to be sceptical about numbers and automated monitoring)
  17. Sainsbury’s allegedly shot a fox near one of its stores (there’s a story that begs some questions by itself) and didn’t handle the online backlash well
  18. Facebook Groups are a challenge for digital engagement: critical to working with local/subject matter groups, don’t get picked up by monitoring tools, but hard to participate in as a professional without overwhelming your personal feed or seriously blurring the boundary between work and home. For ref, here’s the golden oldie case study I mentioned from Al Smith on turning a hostile Facebook group into a positive crowd
  19. Christian from the Scottish Govt bakes a mean brownie.
  20. And on that topic: you can eat your bodyweight in cake from the bake sale stall (thanks Kate Bentham!) and still walk away empty handed in terms of the charity shop tat raffle. Next year… *shakes fist at sky*

I had an exchange with Esko from Satori Lab about to what extent public sector comms people can really be expected to start adopting networked behaviours when so much of the world around them, from unions, to leadership, to the press office model, is so hierarchical and naturally adversarial.

But on reflection I think I was wrong – or at least, not ambitious enough.

It’s clearly good to do classic corporate comms better with more engaging video, faster crisis comms and better co-ordination of Twitter accounts. But there’s a bigger opportunity for the individuals working in organisations to properly work with each other and with citizens through digital tools. It’s the kind of community engagement I’ve been blogging about here for almost a decade, that takes courage and passion. Depressingly, that kind of digital comms is still rare and some are still being burnt as heretics in their organisations.

CommsCamp, OneTeamGov, UKGovcamp and events like it are about reinforcing the network and building our collective confidence to agitate for change, not simply to accept the status quo and our place in it.

Because if not us, then who?

Digital Hero: Stephen Hale

The thing about digital engagement is, followed to its logical conclusion, it drives a rational person to despair.

To do online consultation well, you really need to fix consultation itself, which involves rethinking the roles of Civil Servant and minister, and finding precious pockets of political will and bureaucratic opportunity, rare as hens’ teeth. Focussing on key policy priorities means walking headlong into controversial subjects and entrenched opinions, where innovation is rarely welcome. And in a world of shrinking budgets and limited patience, it almost certainly costs time and money and doesn’t deliver a saving for months or years. The best engagement truly transforms but doesn’t even deliver a shiny new URL.

Stephen Hale – who leaves government this week – seems to have managed to keep his reason and yet never give up on the dream.

I can’t believe I’ve not written about him here before, because he’s the true hero of digital engagement in central government over last decade. At the Cabinet Office, then the FCO and finally the Department of Health, he’s been the pre-eminent thinker, do-er and champion of creative, courageous, purposeful digital communication in central Government. If this were a test match, there’d be a standing ovation all around the ground.

His creativity was evident when he pioneered engagement around the London Summit in 2009 involving bloggers when the rest of the world simply feared or dismissed them. He was instrumental (along with pioneers like Shane Dillon) in some of the finest years of FCO blogging, and set up social media listening dashboards before you could even buy such things.

At the Department of Health, he’s showed stamina and strategic cunning. Before GDS won the war, he advanced the digital front by miles through a well-planned ambush on the incumbent systems integrator, recruiting lieutenants like Francis Babayemi, Sara Wood and me to help. Where other folks would have given up, Stephen sat through hours of meetings persistently asking why the department’s domain couldn’t resolve with or without the www.

In later years, Stephen’s been bold enough to wonder out loud not just about tactics, but strategy too. He set KPIs for the team’s work and introduced a digital capability programme across the Department. With smart colleagues like Susy Wootton he’s explored not just which online consultation tool to buy, but what the user needs around consultation really are. And more recently, with the Department facing stiff headcount reductions and turbulent times comms-wise, he’s ranged beyond digital to think about the shape of the wider team and ask what the role of a digital communications team should be.

I’ve never been in his team, but I’ve always admired his calm, quiet style coupled with a permanent – I reckon mischievous – glint in his eye. I’ve wished I could tune out social media like he does and enjoy reflective podcasts while walking around Westminster. And on my desert island, he’d be the bass player in my four piece fantasy digital jazz band (as long as he could keep the cheese reviewing under control, that could grate after a while). And whereas my kids have been healthy and straightforward from the off, Stephen’s been a service user of his own department’s services through some tough times, making his achievement all the more impressive.

So, farewell Stephen. Good luck with what comes next, and thanks for being a friend and inspiration over the years.

P.S. You’re still wrong about experts though.

Photo credit: Rob Pearson, by kind permission

In 2016, I…

Taking a cue from Matt Jukes and others, here’s some of my abiding memories of 2016, in pictures:

Took a bit more time to think and let things percolate on my daily commute into London. Tried looking for answers to Why (which I struggle with), as well as How (which is where I’m more comfortable). Found a few.

Dawn over the City is still pretty special

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Bowie died and Mrs G had a milestone birthday so February was pretty space-themed. I made a scary cake.

Got up early a few mornings and had Cromer Beach and Three Cliffs Bay to myself.

Scenery worth getting up early for #wales #nofilter

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Watched Gray Jr get really into coding, trying not to look excessively pleased about it.

Went to the seaside a few times to reflect and catch up with old friends (both of which I should do more).

Away day at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton, including 15 min silent reflection at the beach

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Worked as part of a genuinely nice team, doing interesting and varied work for clients who care. It’s hard to go from freelancer to leading a small business and I’ve had ups and downs this year, trying to shape a business that I’m proud of and work out my role in it. Got surprisingly into meetings, development plans, pensions and IT security.

Wandered around Venice Beach and Beverly Hills (after a passport near-miss). Hummingbirds, live gig at The Troubadour, Ubers everywhere.

Out and about in Beverly Hills

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Flew Business to Dubai in Ramadan and got a glimpse of expat life.

Had a day of chuckles and ice cream (but no booze) in Milan thanks to a drinks brand.

Without getting all #blessed about it, this week ends well…

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Mourned Brexit and Trump but more in a saying-bollocks-rather-than-crying-my-eyes-out way, if you know what I mean.

Got quite into the Euros with some back garden footy (Gray Jr still coding).

Did less blogging and tweeting, mainly because I don’t stay up late like I used to and have drifted away from the government IT scene a bit. It’s harder to blog if you do it less frequently though, and I miss the time spent reflecting on work as well as doing it.

Got quite excited as our new family office in the loft took shape and most of the remaining grungy areas of our house got sorted (eight years after moving in).

New family office taking shape nicely

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Had my share of late nights and early mornings simulating things from plane crashes and marauding gunmen to battery leaks and celebrity walkouts. First foreign language exercises in Arabic and German. Learned Cameroonian geography and slang words. Photoshopped a lot of weird shit.

Went to places you hardly ever go for work. Here’s St John’s, Newfoundland.


A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Sat in Midtown boardrooms and coworking spaces planning the incorporation of a new US business in 2017. Went from pipedream to Gantt chart pretty quickly.

Made madeleines with my team at our Christmas outing (we identified cake, karaoke and quizzes as the things that bring Helpful HQ together).

Hung out with my best mates, now more fun than ever.

Weekend picnic at Daddy's office

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

On experts and amateurs

When Stephen Hale blogs about something, I usually stroke my chin and nod approvingly. But there’s something in his latest post – about favouring expert skill over gifted amateurs, the troubles me quite a lot.

In practice, if we need graphic design, we either need an in house graphic designer to do it or we need to pay a supplier to provide those skills; if we need data science, we either need an in house data scientist or we need to pay a supplier who has those skills; if we need content, we either need an in house content designer or we need to pay a supplier to do it for us.

What we don’t want (in my opinion) is enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.

That’s why, as we reshape our department, I’ve been making the case to continue our drive to bring experts into the department, alongside our drive to mainstream new skills in all staff. Because I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.

I understand the point: digital is mainstream, expectations have rightly risen since I was doing this stuff in government, and people who tinker with free online tools or small-scale projects don’t help overcome the damaging perception that digital engagement in particular is a bit of a waste of time compared to proper things like media relations and policy analysis. The civil service has historically had a culture of favouring generalists and something of a glass ceiling for specialists, and that’s what the Minister was taking a swipe at as he moved sideways into his next generalist job. (Yay for PPE!)

I worry that making content design, or user research or community management something specialist which requires ‘experts’ makes digital skills feel less core, less attainable and ultimately less impactful than if we encouraged a bit more enthusiastic amateurism.

Stephen’s at the leading edge of developing digital capability in the wider organisation, so I don’t want to put up a straw man: clearly, there are particular skills and sometimes formal training needed to practise some digital disciplines really well; and other things which it’s easier to do from a standing start. The best writers and researchers and developers have been at it for years and don’t stop learning. But there’s satisfaction, understanding and achievement to be had in having a go, in appreciating why things are as they are, in knowing enough to scratch your head while you explain a problem to someone more knowledgeable than you.

When Michael Gove recently and notoriously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, I don’t think he was simply being anti-intellectual. I wonder if he was arguing that too many ‘experts’ overstate their true power out of hubris and ego – and there’s been plenty of that in government IT before and since GDS. Even genuinely skilled folk can come across as condescending and tribal, and that’s not a good way to improve things at scale.

At my kids’ school, the focus is on ‘mastery’ of maths concepts – the ability to do something creatively, fluently and to a high standard. For me, I think achieving that kind of mastery or professional growth in the workplace needs opportunity, encouragement and feedback.

Effective feedback in particular is what big organisations like the civil service find hard. I’ve frequently avoided tackling poor performance around me as a manager and it’s easy to do that in larger teams. With some help, it’s something we’ve been focussing on as a small team over the last six months, both to help in the short term with how we feel about work and clients, but in the longer term as a way for us all to grow professionally. As a boss, I certainly don’t want things to be done badly, but I often find expertise and passion in unexpected places around the team and in our clients. We need to use the term expert carefully, to avoid missing out on some of that potential.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 23.35.04

And yes, it is the Helpful business model I suppose, as a place business and public sector organisations turn to for help with digital. But our big focus now – and how we’re swimming against the tide in a way – is on helping clients to do digital for themselves: demystifying what seems complex, building confidence amongst those far behind the cutting edge, trying to answer every ‘Please could you…’ Zendesk ticket we get with a ‘Sure, and here’s how to do it next time…’

So I suppose I’m saying I don’t have a problem with government of gifted amateurs, so much as with amateurs who don’t know it, don’t seek help and don’t get better. Organisations need specialists, and there’s plenty of specialist skills in digital. Let’s not build a wall around them.

A better website brief


As someone who runs an agency offering WordPress website development, I get quite a lot of website development briefs in my inbox. Some are excellent: they give me and the team a clear sense of what’s required. Typically, they’re documents under 20 pages long which talk quite a lot about users and goals and priorities, about what’s good and bad about the current site, what’s known and unknown, what needs to change and why. They ask for our ideas and suggestions about how the digital platform and they way we develop it together can help solve strategic questions for the organisation.

Other briefs are less helpful. They’re invariably longer, start with the procurement process, talk little about users or content but in great detail about must-have features (which frequently aren’t really features). They ask us to explain – and these are genuine examples, I promise – how we’ll foster improved race relations through the CMS build process or the margin we apply to subcontractors’ day rates or to confirm we’ll run Gateway meetings at the end of each ‘AGILE’ sprint. I’m not sure what kind of suppliers happily fill in those templates and earnestly tailor their response to the weighted percentage scoring system described, but I suspect they aren’t the ones who build the best websites. If you require those things as a client, you’re just asking to be lied to.

I understand that it’s hard to go shopping for a new website, especially if you’ve not worked in that field. Procurement colleagues frequently don’t help, with their convoluted templates and inhuman portals. I don’t blame the clients who issue bad briefs, but I would like to help them write better ones, based on 15 years’ experience both dishing out briefs and trying to respond to them.

So here’s a template – a set of questions we look for answers to as suppliers of this kind of thing, to help us cost a job. Briefs that give us this information will get a more useful, precise proposal from us, and almost certainly a more competitive price since there’s so much less risk involved for us to cost in.

I’d really appreciate thoughts and comments from others on the Google Doc.

Direct link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tlNuVhw44-5MVj48iewhNHGAYp_7r8iqNUc3r8xNjiE/edit

The bottom line is that you don’t have to know exactly what you need, but you should be able to talk about what’s important to you and why. The best briefs are up-front about this: they say what’s known and what isn’t, and give us the opportunity to recommend a proper discovery phase to scope out the user needs, content, constraints and technology so that together we can focus the budget on what’s most likely to work.

Photo Credit: Hegemony77 clothes for dolls and 1/6 figures via Compfight cc

20 things I learned at #CommsCamp15

CommsCamp15 cakes

I’ve spent a really lovely day at CommsCamp in Birmingham, recharging my batteries after a busy few weeks. Spending time listening to (mainly) public sector comms people doing interesting things in their organisations has taught me loads about what’s happening at the cutting edge. It’s also reminded me just how powerful the unconference format is with the right mix of people. I went to five sessions, all interesting, all different, none of which would have worked without the infrastructure the organisers Dan, Darren, Emma and Kate brought to the event, and all of which would have failed if they’d tried to structure it more. It’s really a magical format for professional development, and the comms2point0 team deserves a medal.

Someone once invented a useful ’20 things I learned at…’ format for post-event blogging, so here goes:

  1. I can vouch for the fact that Manzil’s is very nice
  2. The Radisson Blu, Birmingham is one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in, and good value
  3. The Defamation Act 2013 is worth knowing about: amongst other things, it defines that publishers online can’t be sued for libel more than 12 months after a piece of content is first uploaded (h/t @DBanksy)
  4. There’s no legal precedent yet for whether organisations are liable for libellous comments left on their Facebook page. That’s an interesting one.
  5. Don’t wait: if you get your correction/apology in early, you’ll save big time on libel action costs, apparently, in terms of correcting any harm considered to be done
  6. There’s no-win-no-fee style changes coming in November as part of the reforms to press regulation: 2 or more people publishing news content online are considered publishers, and if they aren’t in a Royal Charter-endorsed regulated body, they’re liable for costs of legal actions against them. Time to check that group blog over just in case.
  7. The Privilege defence in libel actions gives public sector organisations justification to talk about their work if they can defend it as fair, accurate, relevant and without malicious intent (that last one matters)
  8. You can use WhatsApp on the web (and @colebagski did, at Birmingham City Council during the last election period)
  9. On WhatsApp, you can share video and infographics to a Broadcast List of up to 256 recipients – and the resulting comments are surprisingly civilised
  10. Intranets stir up strong feelings, and we need to show & tell more to share the cultural lessons learned or there’s a risk of getting stuck in religious wars between platforms
  11. Uploading a video directly on Facebook is much better for engagement and functionality than sharing a YouTube link (it autoplays, and shows closed captions amongst other useful tips, from @AlbFreeman. More about video beyond YouTube here.)
  12. Iconosquare lets you access more analytics for your Instagram account, and search tags neatly (h/t @DaveMusson)
  13. …and Instagram hashtags do matter to build audience since that’s how a lot of people find stuff. You can add up to 30 per post.
  14. ‘IGers’ are local groups of Instagram users who you could give exclusive, behind the scenes access to your organisation to engage a whole new audience
  15. You can regram
  16. Orcid identifiers help you identify as an author online (h/t Andy Mabbett)
  17. Christine Townsend used to police my old hometown of Hastings
  18. The Children’s Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD-ROM runs to 7 discs
  19. You can have three different kinds of lemon drizzle cake, all of which are lovely
  20. The chaps of Govdelivery make a fine Victoria sponge and coffee & walnut cake (and have 5m UK subscribers to boot)

If there’s a common theme running through the (non food-related) points above, it’s that we’re at at interesting and confusing inflection point in corporate social media use. Newer channels like WhatsApp, Instagram and Periscope are challenging comms people, IT managers, news organisations and lawyers to confront questions about public vs private spaces, niche vs numbers, and publishers vs participants. Mistakes will and need to be made as we discover where those lines are drawn, and intelligent people like the CommsCampers need the space and opportunity to make them.

I’ve not enjoyed myself or learned so much in ages.

Five years down the road

Five years ago this weekend, I packed up my things at BIS, waved goodbye to the Civil Service and set up Helpful Technology as a freelance business.

As with so much in life, I think former Friends star Jennifer Aniston says it best:

When you accept a role in a pilot, you automatically sign up for five years. You think it’s scary to walk down the aisle? Try signing a five-year contract for a show you may not want to be part of down the road.
— Jennifer Aniston

There have been a few times over the last five years when I’ve wondered if I’d picked the right show, particularly watching old friends set up the highly impressive Government Digital Service, seeing the mainstreaming of social media in Departments, and following the exciting work of people like Matt at the ONS. Sometimes I miss having my own ‘thing’.

Then I watch Kelly, Mark, Phil, Luke and Anthony crafting a new client’s website, or Tim, Al and Claire pushing leaders of a Comms team to be bolder and braver with their digital, or Chris, Howard and Justine inflicting the wrath of social media on major charity or global FMCG firm – then I realise just how far we’ve come.

The Helpful/Social Simulator crew is ten strong now, plus friends. We have role descriptions and staff handbooks, Zendesk tickets and planning meetings, a lovely mezzanine office in Clerkenwell, a fridge stocked with beer and mini Magnums.

It feels like I’m still just figuring out what my job actually is, not least because it’s different every day.

This is my thing, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in my career so far.

Even the Zendesk tickets.


Digital people by the ounce

Pan balance

Five years ago, I remember being in Government trying to buy an enterprise licence for Huddle, an innovative UK cloud-based project management tool. In those days, the technical co-founder himself would pop round our office to sort things out, and it took days of internal negotiation with IT colleagues to reassure them that using a secure website to share files wouldn’t spell disaster. In the end, the only way we bought it was thanks to help from the Interactive Services team at COI, who heroically persuaded their own procurement team it could be done, despite them being very dubious. They were more used to buying digital design services in ad agency-style pitches, and selecting an unique tool off the internet that you wanted to buy directly on an annual licence sounded deeply iffy. I found it easier to contract the services of The Dextrous Web Ltd, comprised of a youthful Harry Metcalfe and James Darling, than the server to host their team’s code on.

These days, it’s the other way round.

Harry’s right, of course, when he lays into the nonsense that is the Digital Services Framework, which instead of making it easier to buy good digital services, in fact makes it harder.

We’ve been on the first iteration of the Digital Services Framework, and it’s been a largely pointless experience and a considerable waste of time and email.

Like Harry’s team, my firm is a small team with a mix of skills – our main back-end developer has a passion for UX and training; our front-ender can also design etc – which never fitted into DSF’s strict whole-numbers-only allocation of Resources.

Though we’ll travel, we’re based in London, and can’t spend weeks on end in Warrington or Newcastle.

We’ve not perfected it yet, but we’re gradually improving our processes, our sharing of knowledge, our team culture and our support processes. We don’t have to be in the same room to work well together, but we need to be in touch throughout the day as well as maintain some institutional memory and client relationships. It’s daft to pretend an agency team of people creating and supporting digital services can work in any other way.

It’s equally daft to procure those people in a ‘reverse auction’ where suppliers are told the 50 bidders with the lowest rates will be appointed to the framework. I remember watching the day rate on the screen in front of me drop and drop until it was a good 40% below our regular (pretty competitive) one, and then giving up. I’m still confused how we ended up winning a place on the framework at all. Still, it’s not led to anything useful since, apart from lots of email.

G-Cloud works much better for us (though I do miss the simple logic of the old COI competitive tenders with a handful of shortlisted suppliers and a logical brief). As Harry puts it:

We need a framework that nurtures suppliers who share the culture and approach of GDS, helping them to grow, thrive and multiply. We need a framework that’s designed to serve the user needs of buyers and suppliers who are getting things done.

We need to build on the shining example of the G-Cloud framework, using short contracts, open standards, flexible terms and financial transparency to manage cost and commercial risk. Heavy-handed procurement process should be a thing of the past.

We reviewed the paperwork for the second iteration of the Digital Services Framework before Christmas: assessed the effort involved, and the slim prospect of suitable, enjoyable, commercially-viable work arising from it, and decided it wasn’t worth the bother this time.

So much about the government digital landscape has been positively transformed in the last few years, it’s a shame SME procurement still hasn’t been fixed. You don’t buy good digital people by the ounce.

Photo credit: Matt Smith

Day 1

Lord Drayson, in an electric car

I was sorry to see the Science & Innovation minister get the chop.

Over the previous few months, we’d done some remarkably creative things: one of the early commentable policy documents, and a properly digital consultation on a White Paper. I’ll admit to being somewhat starstruck by ministers on the whole, so it felt like we’d built up familiarity and a licence to be more creative, and would have to start again with whoever the new minister turned out to be. Rumour was that he was a Lord, a businessman and party donor parachuted in for the last 18 months or so before the election. Damn.

But Lord Drayson turned out to be a more interesting character than I’d expected. A few days later, I trotted off with my boss to his room in the House of Lords to brief him on our digital work. I’d prepped some slides: the potential for social media to help the Department talk to our stakeholders, how we were using Twitter, how blogs might help shine a light on interesting stories which the media didn’t tend to cover etc. He turned up grumpy as I recall, and didn’t give much away as I launched enthusiastically into my material. After a while he interrupted: “Do I look like I need to be convinced about this stuff?”

It took the wind out of my sails, and he told me about how he’d been using social to promote his racing team, and how he felt government should be doing much bolder things than just running corporate Twitter feeds of press releases. The case for science funding needed to be made more strongly, in public, mobilising the constituency of blogging scientists and engineers. In the months that followed, he self-podcasted his ministerial visits, took on bloggers in head-to-heads, ran ad hoc Twitter Q&As around the budget, took the sting out of social media crises with a deft and timely tweet or two, and challenged the Department to handle public enquiries through social media.

The lesson I learned was that I hadn’t researched Lord Drayson properly: a cursory look through his Wikipedia page told me about his PHD in Robotics and £80m in the bank from a medical technology business he’d sold, but didn’t tell me the most important thing: he was in government to do a job for UK science, and he wasn’t going to fuck about playing it safe.

Over the coming months, he proved to be one of those really important ministers in digital engagement terms: the impatient, creative and sometimes brave ones who see the digital world for what it is: just the regular world, but easier to talk to. David Miliband encouraged a youthful Neil Williams into setting up a wiki at Defra ODPM, and later drove the growth of Stephen Hale & team’s Digital Diplomacy group at the FCO. Tom Watson pushed the Cabinet Office to consult in the open, and more recently, tweeting ministers like Jo Swinson or Matthew Hancock have pushed for active engagement in online communities or real-time web publishing of their speeches.

Whoever walks into ministerial offices after the 7th May, it’s likely there will be new faces with big ambitions and even higher expectations about how digital tools can help them win stakeholder, media and public support. We’re working at the moment with several organisations getting their leaders and teams ready for Day 1: whatever a new breed of ministers, SpAds and others across the public sector may be expecting in terms of the digital support at their disposal.

In five years, the tools and platforms have moved on, and like Lord Drayson, there’s less need now to convince leaders of the importance of digital and social media. But the challenge remains helping ministers, leaders and people in policy and operational roles to apply the right techniques and content intelligently to what they do as part of a sensible plan with plenty of lateral thinking. We’re doing some of this through supporting digital engagement pilots and pioneer groups, and through our Digital Action Plan, which blends face-to-face and self-paced online practice.

So far it’s looking promising, though the real test will come in a few months’ time when the fresh faces arrive to pick up their red boxes and find out what their civil servants can do for them.

Photo credit: BIS