Personal blogging by Steph Gray, former digital agency founder and erstwhile bureaucrat

Hold the front page

Imagine – hypothetically – you go to work on a Friday morning, and by 5pm (after a busy day of coffee and muffins), your organisation technically doesn’t exist any more.

After the initial flurry of rebranding, you decide you need a holding website of some sort, to tell people about the newly-branded organisation while you sort out the heavy wiring.

Puffbox’s work for the Wales Office showed that WordPress can handle simple corporate government sites. My own experience with it on our Science and Society consultation convinced me it worked well as a mini-CMS as well as a blog, and that it’s flexible enough to re-engineer into something quite different as and when you need it.

So the new digital management at BIS are predictably rather keen on WordPress, both from the former BERR and DIUS sides. When we decided as a group on Monday lunchtime that a holding site was the way forward, we had a rough wireframe together within the hour, a fairly robust approach to hosting in train that afternoon, and a working prototype site in WordPress within about 12 hours. From idea to live site took less than 72 hours, including signoffs – a thoroughly enjoyable collaboration between former DIUS and BERR people, led by Neil.

BIS holding page is explicitly a holding site while we sort out the back end infrastructure. It’s got branding, press releases and an about page, but a few nice extras too:

Starting with WordPress accelerates the development process massively. Find a theme close enough to the wireframe (in our case, Straightforward), and then just tweak styles and templates. Because it’s WordPress, you have built-in RSS for everything (e.g. our announcements), full site search, helpful categorisation and tagging, and widgets to make your sidebars easy to populate with HTML and incoming RSS feeds.

Dapper + Pipes: I wanted to get two sets of speeches into a single RSS feed. Snag: one of the sites doesn’t have a speeches RSS feed (and neither – outrageously – does our new NDS press releases page). Dapper to the rescue: create a new Dapp, point it at the speeches listing page, click on the parts of the page which compose the RSS feed fields, and Dapper generates the RSS feed for you. With Pipes, you can merge two feeds into one, and sort them by date. A WordPress widget then displays the latest items from the combined feed in your sidebar. It’s the beauty of that Heath-Robinson combination of disruptive tools that I find so exciting; a seemingly impossible task takes about 15 minutes.

Civil Service Jobs Online: the cross-government recruitment site was quick to rebrand BIS jobs, and their API lets you get structured XML from their database. So with less than a hundred lines of PHP (<- feel free to use and adapt however you wish), we can get all the BIS jobs they list, generate an RSS feed or simple web page list, and put it into a WordPress sidebar widget. Lovely.

Google Custom Search Engine: two legacy websites mean two separate sets of searches, right? Not with a Google Custom Search Engine. Like Dave Briggs’ LGSearch which searches local authority sites, in about 5 minutes you can set up a bespoke version of Google which returns results from just the sites you want – in this case DIUS and BERR. Their new AJAX widget displays them on-site in a rather neat way.

FriendFeed: Though rebranding Twitter accounts was thankfully fairly quick, it’ll take us a little while to get round to fully merging two sets of social media channels. For now, Friendfeed lets us set up a simple way of aggregating all the BERR, DIUS and now BIS channel content in a simple way with aggregated RSS feeds.

It won’t win any design awards, and the downside to Heath Robinson web development will no doubt be some quirks in reliability. But happily, we can say we haven’t spent a penny on external web development or licencing costs, and we got something up within 3 days. Compared to the static, hand-coded site DIUS had for the first 18 months of its life, it’s a start, and a little bit innovative too.

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27 comments on “Hold the front page

  1. Joss Winn says:

    Congratulations, Steph and everyone else. Very impressive work and nicely documented here, too. We need more example of how Government is responding to change quickly, effectively and economically. You don’t need to make any excuses about the ‘Heath Robinson’ approach. The benefits of this ‘agile’ approach are clear to see.

  2. Congrats on putting this together so quickly – particularly getting it all signed off in those time scales that is quite remarkable 🙂

    I remember the static DIUS site well (and it got a far longer airing than the new CMS driven version in the end) so its impressive to see how far things have moved on in a relatively short space of time.

  3. Russell Tanner says:

    In a word – brilliant!

  4. Excellent! When you get down to it, WordPress is truly a very flexible platform and ideal for rapid development. Plus the lack of licensing costs (should) help local gov developers cut through red tape with not having to go through laborious procurement and specifications processes. I have at least four WordPress powered satelite sites to roll out from the site this year alone and hopefully the technology will get more people on board to push services in this way…

  5. Simon Pauley says:

    3 days for a government website, this must be UK record! Great work!

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  6. Effective and cheap, but most of all effective. Very, very well done…

    To quote Harry M:

    “Once upon a time, the web was a lumbering behemoth: now it’s agile, social and programmable.

    “Fully-featured, rich websites can be produced in days, rather than months.”

  7. Dan says:

    Not keen on the jaunty angle 😉

    Like the clean look. Slightly worried about the possible confusion of and, particularly as the latter is oft abbreviated to verbally…

  8. Brilliant. Totally, unquestionably brilliant. Bless you both.

    See, everyone else, I told you so. 😉

  9. I was having a play around with the site last night. It really is b****y excellent.

    Great example of what can be done (wonder though if it would have been possible a year or two back with the use of feeds and aggregators). Really points towards a very focused and unencumbered future corporate web presence too and what content really matters.

    Fantastic write up too.

  10. Jon Worth says:

    Does that mean that BERR’s old Rythmyx powered monstrosity is not going to be live any longer and everything will move over to WordPress…?

    This comment was originally posted on

  11. Steph Gray says:

    And though you don’t say it here, you did tell us so, back when DIUS was first set up and needed a site in a hurry. So while your advice wasn’t heeded then, I think there’s been enough change in digital thinking around Whitehall since to make WordPress a palatable option now, which is in no small part your influence.

    @Jon: it’s too early to say. To be honest, I’m still not convinced that a WordPress-powered site on the scale that would be needed is feasible, but we’ll be looking at CMS infrastructures of course as the two organisations complete the merger. But as I’m always saying, it’s not all about the corporate site these days, is it?

    This comment was originally posted on

  12. […] out the full story from the two of the team involved – Steph Gray and Neil Williams – and when reading their accounts remember that these guys did this against the […]

  13. Ann - says:

    Well done guys – saw via Twitter earlier.

    excellent job with short notice and I’m sure heaps of pressure.

    This comment was originally posted on Mission Creep | Neil Williams

  14. Simon says:

    I think WordPress can do it, but only if you embrace the blogging metaphor.

    The top layer could be 50% navigation, 50% ‘general corporate information’ (including news/press); beneath that, you’d effectively have a series of ‘team blogs’, ‘project blogs’, etc. And in fact, since those lower pages are generally only of interest to subject geeks who will want to have a chronological presentation of latest news, and will want to contribute and participate, it’s probably the right thing to do anyway.

    This comment was originally posted on

  15. Chris Keene says:

    Pipes, Google Custom Search, Dapper, FriendFeed, WordPress… you’ve used just about every cool website out there for creating your holding page. 🙂

    Glad that you didn’t pick up the phone to your counter part in BERR and say ‘hi lets meet up and work on a new merged site and holding page. we can use cool web technologies, apis, web2.0, open source, etc’, and then get the reply ‘We only ever use expensive (and slow, and ugly) Oracle Solutions on a Windows platform don;t like any of this open source web2.0 nonsense’

  16. Jon Worth says:

    Depends to what extent the e-comms people win (hence WP would be enough), or to what extent the rest of the staff win (i.e. each wanting their own info on the site, even if no-one reads it) – if it’s the latter then WP might be complex.

    This might be one for some investment for both of you two: program a page management plugin for WP (I don’t think one exists) that makes the management of hundreds of pages easier in the backend. That’s the real strength of Typo3, my open source business orientated CMS of choice. Happy to provide logins for a demo site if it would be of any use to you.

    This comment was originally posted on

  17. That Rythmyx monstrosity (your words, I couldn’t possibly comment!) was for the scrapheap anyway. Before BIS happened, BERR was in the middle of a re-tender. Technology is a relatively small part of good content management I’d say, though. Business processes and responsive, cost-effective support come higher on the list. And against the backdrop of web convergence, I’m not sure WP is features-rich and scaleable enough to provide the solid web 1.0 backbone you need for enterprise use.

    But I am a huge fan, and WP was perfect for this interim site – and perfect for many other uses beyond plain old blogging, to which both BERR and DIUS were putting it and BIS will continue to do so long as I (or, clearly, Steph) have anything to do with it.

    This comment was originally posted on

  18. […] a corporate website set up, within days of the creation of the department, all thanks to WordPress. Steph explains how. Neil Williams also played a big part as the other half of the BIS digital dream […]

  19. Inspiring story of building out BIS’ new site in just 72 hours with WordPress

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  20. Great work on the BIS site! I like the Web 2.0 and simplicity as well. It helps make for easy reading.

    WordPress really is a great tool for helping agencies of all sizes get started with before moving onto larger scale web content management systems like TYPO3.

    This comment was originally posted on

  21. Twitter Comment

    bookmarked: Why agile is important in public sector communications: One of the themes I keep banging .. [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  22. Very impressive fact that you managed to put this together so quickly – particularly getting it all signed off in those time scales that is quite remarkable.

    This comment was originally posted on Mission Creep | Neil Williams

  23. […] BIS was created, we were pretty chuffed to have got a solid website built and launched in 72 hours. But as the weeks passed and the organisation started to build up achievements and an identity of […]

  24. Bowling Tips says:

    Great stuff, very interesting indeed. You cant really say whether your sources of information are from the correct people after reading this, thanks for the eye opener! cheers!

    This comment was originally posted on Mission Creep | Neil Williams

  25. Interesting article, its been very nicely put together, clearly you’ve done your research! thanks for sharing man! cheers

    This comment was originally posted on Mission Creep | Neil Williams