The great offices of State

I’m something of a closet nerd when it comes to Government buildings. I’ve been in and out of dozens of them for over a decade now: agency-side, at the late-lamented COI and as an assiduous, networking civil servant. I once set up a Flickr group of Creative Commons-licensed images of Whitehall HQs. Above all, I love the fact of the Tudor wine cellars under the MoD, the panoramic cafe of Kemble St, the falcon retained as a mouse-catcher at the FCO, and – my favourite – rumours of a civil service nail bar under a major department’s building.

So I was always going to be interested – and a tad dew-eyed I must admit – at the Government Estates Strategy announcement which the Cabinet Office put out last week, detailing how much space and money has been saved by the estates rationalisation programme since 2010. It’s niche stuff by any standard, but the kind of thing I think digital channels can help bring to life.

I’ve written here previously about rendering unto Buzzfeed that which is Buzzfeed’s, so I was impressed by the form of this announcement as much as its content:

#govsavings infographic

My colleague Al – a fiend for evaluation – would raise a quizzical eyebrow at this point and ask about the purpose and impact of all this digital shizzle. And it’s a fair criticism, as the reach and reaction numbers look a little low.

There’s a little push at the end of the GOV.UK story for the Government’s Space for Growth programme (offering unused government office space to SMEs) which could be bolder, but all in all, I reckon it’s a really nice digital package that puts things in the right places to reach a wider potential audience than a conventional announcement and helps the team hone expertise they can apply to a more high-profile announcement in future.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reminisce over a pile of rubble…

The digital comms planner

whiteboard flow

At Helpful HQ we’re a big fan of tools like the Lean Canvas or our friends Comms2Point0’s Comms Planning tool (PDF). A simple plan on a page or two that sets out what you’re trying to achieve, how you’ll know if you’ll achieve it, and what you’ll do to get there is more useful than a fistful of social media policies and gives senior colleagues the confidence that Things Have Been Thought Through.

So Al and I have been developing a little canvas-style planning tool which we’re using now as part of our training and coaching. Here it is (and as a downloadable PDF):

digital comms planner

We reckon you can boil a project down to three main elements:

1. What:

  • The ultimate goal of the project, normally an offline thing you want to change or create
  • How communication can help as part of this, towards the ultimate goal
  • What the specific steps are that you’d like people to take online, and therefore what your digital calls to action should be
  • How you’ll know if you’ve achieved these goals

2. Who:

  • The audience you’d like to reach. Nul points for ‘the general public’
  • Who can help you to find and talk to those people
  • How you’ll get things done, and who’ll do the work (or where you’ll commission it from)
  • What the reaction will be from those people if things go as you intend

3. How:

  • Which channels and tools you’ll use in combination to achieve the goal, including how digital will work with offline methods
  • What you’ll use those tools and channels for in order to get the response you’re looking for: stories, examples, funnies, pictures, answers?
  • What specific constraints you need to work around, what risks need managing, and what opportunities you want to seize
  • What successfully reaching your audiences will look like and what kind of things you’ll track to measure that

Importantly, there’s a start and end timescale box too, as finite plans normally make for happier teams.

What do you think, is there anything you’d add into the mix?

Buzzfeed, Lego and government communication

Every Scot would be £1,400 better off each year by staying part of the UK, Government analysis shows, apparently.

Some people feel it’s wrong that civil service communicators are campaigning against a ‘Yes’ vote in this autumn’s referendum. Though it makes me feel a little queasy*, that’s OK, it’s UK Government policy. That’s what they’re there to communicate, exactly as Alex Aiken says:

Some people feel it’s wrong that it’s been posted on Buzzfeed, and illustrated with Lego pictures. Though I find it striking, I think that’s a good sign: creative thinking, hopefully backed by a comms strategy using that content style and that channel to talk to a demographic who aren’t consuming traditional media. I’m all for illustration and humour in public sector comms, as I blogged about the other day over at comms2point0. Buzzfeed offers a channel to tell quite powerful stories, as the FCO showed over Ukraine and the Social Market Foundation did brilliantly about growth (of all abstract things).

I’m confused about why it’s been repeated as an announcement on GOV.UK. If the audience is on Buzzfeed, and the content has been crafted to match, why force the same material into the somewhat utilitarian environment of GOV.UK?

It looks like a rare reverse example of what a wise former colleague once described as the ‘matching luggage’ fallacy of social media: that a single piece of content is signed off once and pushed out to lots of channels, often inappropriately, where it flops. A ministerial speech needs to live on GOV.UK, but makes for tedious YouTube viewing. Social media spaces and online communities are different from Government spaces, and therein lies the exciting opportunity to listen and engage, and sometimes provoke.

In our digital marketing training, we explore content strategy and introduce the concept of ‘library’ and ‘café’ content.

Library content answers questions. It’s your ‘stock’, that you build up, hone and organise to help people complete a task quickly. It has credibility, and a certain longevity, if maintained appropriately. These days, GOV.UK is the natural home for most library content in central government.

Café content is what you create to get people talking. It’s how you participate in a conversation online, tapping into the power of social media as a place where people share, react, respond and take action. It’s a fast-moving ‘flow’ to be fed with fresh stuff, and your café content has a short shelf-life of just a few hours. It’s the infographic or pithy chart, the smart batch of tweets at the right time, the Vine video that makes a sharp, memorable point, and yes, the Buzzfeed article that gets in front of the 34-year-old who rarely reads a newspaper. Your café content needs to exist in the context of a solid strategy, and often will point people to your library content where they can find out more, sign up for something, join a campaign or give you their feedback.

So, queasy or not, it’s right that civil servants are Buzzfeeding policy announcements within the bounds of propriety rules – avoiding polemical communication etc – but unwise to be doing it on GOV.UK, I’d argue. Keep the library and the cafe distinct spaces, and find out how best to make them work together.

Update: The Lego is gone from the GOV.UK release

*but not as queasy as the imaginable situation in 18 months’ time when a Conservative/UKIP coalition asks civil servants to campaign for exit from the EU…

Photo credit: Flickr: paulspace / Via Paul Albertella on Flickr Flickr: paulspace

Doing the right thing right


Our office partners, Claremont, have a new motto: Do the right thing right. It’s annoying, because it’s probably what I’d choose if I were choosing a motto for what we do. More than kudos, more than money, more than publicity, the sense of craft in building a really good website or delivering some really useful training for the good guys is what I enjoy, I’m coming to realise.

So briefly – because I should really be doing something else – I’m bursting with pride at the craftsmanship that the team have put into our largest website redevelopment project to date which has just gone live.

Grantham theme

Our work for the Committee on Climate Change brought us to the attention of the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and we’ve been working with the team there since January, following a competitive pitch. It’s a big site, but absolutely the kind of thing we do well: cross-referencing news stories and publications, bringing out the quality of the Institute’s people with rich, live profiles, search that really works, and hopefully saving the team hundreds of publishing hours each year through the magic of WordPress implemented properly.

It’s our best-looking site (on a range of devices) thanks to Anthony, and one of our cleverest thanks to Luke, and has faithfully copied across hundreds of documents and stories thanks to our team of content wizards. We’ve kept in close touch as a project team, and tested extensively with users throughout the process, from card sorting which helped the team make radical decisions on information architecture, through rounds of accompanied browsing, to online Chalkmark tests.

Here’s to the team, who’ve put their talents to good use, and done the right thing right.



Four more years

Team at the RA

Four years ago, I left the Civil Service and started trading, rather than simply blogging, as Helpful Technology.

This time last year, we’d become a team of three, and by this July, we’ll be six strong. A business that started out as some optimistic freelancing has become something that pays people’s mortgages. It’s all got rather serious.

Paul McElvaney of Learning Pool has a lovely description of himself as an idiot entrepreneur – a phrase which really captures my approach to business over the last few years. I’ve bumbled around chatting to folks, emails have materialised in my inbox, proposals been agreed, and invoices despatched. It’s worked quite well, albeit at a small scale – a sort of ‘freelance-plus’ model. But it’s felt increasingly terrifying not having much of a plan beyond tomorrow’s inbox. The Something Always Turns Up (SATU) school of business management.

So I commissioned a bit of consultancy help from Matthew Cain, author of the excellent Made to Fail and founder of two startups himself. He put me through a ‘small business MOT’, helping me to work out what I’m not doing in terms of managing the business, benchmark myself against my peers, and give me some tough love about my freelance-plus ways.

It’s been a richly productive experience with lots for me to digest. It also made me realise, both in how I manage things, but also in how I explain what we do to people, how much of it is backward-looking: to the last four years, but even more so my years before that as a civil servant. They’ve been great years, but it’s time to look ahead.

I’m not about to radically shake up the pleasant shambles that’s served me well so far, nor launch an aggressive sales and marketing push. But there are three things I’ve not been doing, which I’m resolving to work on now, to set the foundation for a bolder and smarter next four years.


The SATU school of new business is certainly low-effort, and has a rather good success rate. We’ve worked with some really tremendous organisations and individuals in recent years, from the Royal Academy (team pictured above on a visit to our iPad app in situ at the recent Sensing Spaces exhibition) to the FCO and the Big Lottery Fund; Heathrow Airport to the Singapore Government.

The team is full of ideas and experience, and it’s time we made some connections with the inspiring organisations we can really help, and move on from the projects and tasks for which we’re not such a good fit – and which we don’t really enjoy either. It’s not about dumping the small and medium-sized client organisations which have got us this far: if anything, they’re often the ones we’re best suited to help.


I’m making some more time for myself to look ahead financially and in terms of planning new business and product development. It’s embarrassing how little of this I’ve got away with so far.

We’re also hoping to plan day to day life a bit more – like lots of small agencies, the struggle of balancing ongoing support against project and product work risks driving us into the ground without some proper scheduling. And just as important, we all need a bit more time off the clock to learn and experiment, participate and tidy up – and planning makes the space for that to be possible.


As a freelancer, you see the links between projects and people naturally. But as the team grows, it becomes more important to link up. We’ve tended to run our social media crisis simulation work entirely separately from our digital skills training and tools, which is a little daft.

The civil servant in me finds the concept of cross-selling somewhat alien and a little distateful, and I can’t picture myself doing it anytime soon. But our clients’ worlds have changed over the last few years (accelerated by the Government Digital Service for sure, and the rise in management interest in social media) and the line between websites and training, content and campaigns, consultancy and knowledge transfer have blurred quite a bit.

We’re a team with a great mix of skills now, with lots of smart friends and associates, and we can help people in lots of ways that – walking out of Westminster on that sunny day in May 2010 – I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

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!