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

Simpler, clearer, fairer

Digital Government Review launch

I attended the launch of Labour’s Digital Government Review tonight: the culmination of a few days’ fiddling and some heroic web publishing by my colleague Al, helping the Review team get the report online in commentable form. I didn’t have anything to do with the content, but I think there’s some interesting ideas contained within it.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, political philosopher John Rawls developed the concept of a ‘veil of ignorance’: imagine suspending the self-interest that colours your normal worldview and imagine that you choose the organising principles society without knowledge of your wealth, disabilities or privileges. With that in mind, you determine what you’d be willing to accept as the basis for the distribution of wealth and other goods. For me, his most interesting conclusion is that it would rational in those circumstances to demand that a test of any new principle be that it should offer the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society. After all, that could very well be you.

Back in the real world, digital services from government and others suit me rather well, though I might feel differently if I were old or rural or dependent on libraries to access my email.

I’m not sure I agree that GDS is wrong to focus initially on taking cost out of big online transactions like car tax renewal that can better be spent elsewhere, but I do like the idea that the social value and impact of digital services should be given more priority. Assisted Digital efforts are important, but feel small-scale right now in the context of the powerful and strengthening factors working against the least well-off.

I also enjoyed Will Perrin’s contributions, which I suspect include a fine section on the need to nurture, engage with and where appropriate catalyse digital communities to support offline services and for open policymaking (UPDATE: I understand credit should also go to Jeni Tennison and the Newcastle Uni Digital Civics programme). I remember helping Will put the Power of Information Taskforce online in commentable form five years ago, and it’s encouraging that we’re starting to hear stories from people in our training courses these days of links they’ve built with forums and bloggers, and that we’re being commissioned by public sector clients to help them develop their approach to doing this.

The other thing that came out of the Power of Information Taskforce project was the open sourcing we did of the tool itself, which ended up being used in other Whitehall departments, and found its way to Australian local government thanks to the magic of the internet. There’s a bold idea in the report about ‘digital factories’ for local government, where council teams come together to solve local problems and open source the solutions, which feels to me troublingly close to the lumbering, Ozymandian National Projects of a decade ago, minus the wadge of cash. Usefully open sourcing your work is hard – it takes commitment and patience and lots of otherwise billable time supporting sometimes ungrateful users. Commit-to-Github-and-they-will-come is an optimistic approach.

But two somewhat technical points got me nodding. Firstly, the need to look at why so much spend goes through G-Cloud’s Lot 4 (cloud services) and whether that’s a sign of a missing framework (yes it is: we need a way to buy and sell bespoke digital build services and advice). Secondly, the lack of career paths in government for digital specialists.

It’s a long document, and a fair bit of the mud thrown at current government digital delivery models doesn’t really stick I think – because GDS does so much right, and the bias from the top towards SME procurement, agile techniques and a user-led approach to service design has genuinely begun to transform things in the last few years.

But the central idea remains powerful. What would digital services – and the principles for handling of data about us – look like if they were based more on social value and fairness, rather than mainly about economic costs or market opportunity? And would we then endorse them no matter how disconnected or disenfranchised we happen to be?

Photo credit: Giuseppe Solazzo

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.