Agent O

September 2012: five years ago.

The paralympic and olympic champions were parading down the Strand. David Cameron and Nick Clegg were crowdsourcing ways to cut red tape. GOV.UK was still an alpha.

Luke Oatham quit his newly permanent civil service job to come and work with me. Like all good business decisions, neither of us had much of a plan for what we might do next, but we reckoned it would be interesting.

As I explained at the time, I hired Luke because he exemplified for me – and still does – what a digital hero is. He’s a creative user of cheap, simple technology to solve problems people actually have. He’s a natural tinkerer, explorer and geek. He’s no loudmouth but he’s chatty enough one to one, helping dig someone out of a hole or teaching them a new skill. He’s modest to a fault. His blog posts aren’t boastful case studies; they’re cathartic, useful sharing. His knowledge of the back catalogue of Kate Bush at karaoke outings is… impressive.

In our first year in our tiny office off Trafalgar Square, Luke and I built websites for the Audit Commission, Wilton Park and the Committee on Climate Change amongst others – big, complex ones that I’d never done before in WordPress. We ran UX training and crisis simulations (though trolling on fake-Twitter is more my cup of tea than his). But most importantly, we started building a brand as a small company, not just a freelancer with connections. From I to a proper We. In the years since he joined, Luke’s had a key part in some epic creations, from the British Antarctic Survey to the Grantham Research Institute.

But as a former intranet manager, when the brief came in from DCMS to re-do the departmental intranet in the style of GOV.UK, Luke was all over it. The result was a task-focussed intranet platform, GovIntranet, which tens of thousands of people use today, in organisations all over the world. Luke’s led it not just as a company product but as an open source platform which has been extended and refined by developers from charities to police departments, churches to media agencies. That makes it sound glamorous, and understates the endless forum replies, pull requests, Zendesk tickets and late nights that Luke has put in to help users get the best from it. Because intranets, and good internal comms generally, are His Thing.

And from today, they’re his business.

We’re saying goodbye, on good terms, and Luke is gradually taking the intranet work formerly part of our business off into his own, Agento Digital Ltd. On the build side of our work, we’ll be focussing on our policy and engagement website clients, alongside our digital capability work. The range of work we do and they way we do it has changed hugely since those early days, but we’re fundamentally about the same principle: giving people the confidence to use digital tools and techniques for themselves.

We’ve been breaking the news to our intranet clients over the last couple of months, which has been a more emotional experience than I was expecting. The people we’ve spoken to are full of warmth for Luke and how he’s helped them over the years. They’re buzzing with ideas for their intranets and questions for Luke. And like me, I think they’re intrigued to see what he does next now he’s able to work solely on his passion. You’ll have to stay tuned to his blog to find out more about that.

For now, farewell Agent Oatham. You’ve been the heart and conscience of Helpful these five years. Good luck.


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

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 

Farewell @neillyneil

you'd recognise this anywhere, right?

So he’s off. Neil Williams, head of digital at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills today swaps pinstripes for his dress-down trademark hoody and joins the growing team at GDS.

To be fair, he’s been there on and off for nearly a year (as his colleague remarked to me yesterday: ’emotionally, he’s been gone for ages’), but at least now he’s free to work full-time on devising a platform for government to communicate its corporate content better online. That’s a job every bit as big as the Citizen & Business product, but then he knows that.

He’s made a hell of an impact in government websites, and social media too in his time in government so far. The first Miliblog. The Ministerial webchats. And that Twitter policy.

The thing about Neil, and why he’s such a bonus for GDS, is that he doesn’t just do the sexy stuff. When Neil and team pushed to build a shared service platform to save £2.5m over 3 years, the process wasn’t exactly Agile. He’s managed a big team, in tough times, and still kept them creative, motivated and (largely) cheerful, from what I can see.

So good luck Neil. I look forward to your conversion to fully-fledged Shoreditch hipster. I suspect I’ll see you around 🙂

p.s. You can probably turn on again now, right? Bernard Matthews can’t sue you again now.

Digital heroes: Dafydd Vaughan (and Jenny Poole)

It’s been a while since I did one of my slots profiling some of the heroes working on web stuff inside the public sector, but as there seem to have been a few people moves announced recently, I thought I’d celebrate a bit of a phenomenon.

dafydd vaughan

Dafydd Vaughan announced this week that he’s leaving Consumer Focus, where he’s been building the kind of digital projects you don’t see elsewhere in government. As part of the Consumer Focus Labs team, he’s made things like, which lets you track product warnings and recalls across Europe, and which lets you opt out of all the myriad junk mail blocking services with a single request. He’s built apps about post offices and complaints about mail which visualise the organisation’s mission and make it useful. He’s a developer, but also a fantastic visual and information designer, in a sector that’s hungry for exactly those skills.

But perhaps what I like most about Dafydd is that he has the mentality of a startup entrepreneur with the dedication of a craftsman. He’s battled dodgy servers at weekends and fought his fair share of corporate bureaucracy. And even as he prepared to leave Consumer Focus this week, he tweeted:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/dafyddbach/status/111528652600115201″]

I think it’s fair to say Dafydd was inspired working with Richard Pope, now lead developer product lead on Betagov, in the early days of CF Labs, and he’s apparently heeded the call of the wild to rejoin the herd tackling, well, everything, as they build the Betagov product in time for spring next year. It’s sad news for Joe and colleagues at Consumer Focus, but hopefully something very exciting for Betagov. It’s an unusual but smart move for them to import talent like Dafydd from within government as they build their awesome team.

jenny poole

Next week will see Jenny Poole from BIS moving to pastures new, working on digital comms in the newly-combined Number 10 & Cabinet Office digital team. I’ve celebrated Jenny here before:

She introduced herself as a former speechwriter and came clean about her lack of technical nowse – asking why they don’t just sack her from the digital team. The fact is, these teams need bridges to people in the rest of the organisation in communications and policy functions, and as her new boss says, every team should have one.

Jenny’s been doing digital engagement for not far off three years now, and it’s great to see that she’s part of the hoovering-up of talent, enthusiasm and experience that Number 10 seem to be doing, hiring from Nick Jones at COI and Allan Ross & Helen Cook from the Home Office. That place, with the formidable developer Mizan at the keyboard, is going to be an exciting one to watch.

Speaking of watching, here’s one of my lasting memories of working with Jenny: the brief was to create something for our new digital-led campaign on fair staff tipping policies in bars and restaurants, and Jenny led the team on a furtive lunchtime trip into the back alleys of Westminster. They came back, having produced a film that will always bring a smile to my face:

Photos: Janet Davis & Jenny Poole

Digital Heroine: Cass Martin

Cass has been quietly, but effectively, behind a lot of really effective digital engagement activity in government, both in her current role in the Digital team at the Department for Energy & Climate Change, and before that, as Web Manager at UK Trade & Investment.

At UKTI – an organisation which takes its digital very seriously – she was instrumental in building up probably the best UK government example of engagement via LinkedIn, creating a vibrant community over 5,000 strong of exporters, potential exporters, advisors and government folk, which buzzes with ideas and enthusiasm.

I’m pretty sure she had a big hand in UKTI’s excellent but low-profile group blog, which showcases some great stories about international trade and markets, and even better, integrates them with the practical support UKTI has been offering for years. For quite a while, the blog lived quietly on the cheap hosted service, which was probably a first for a major corporate presence like that.

And when my venue for Meet The Communities fell through late in the day, Cass was one of the first to put her hand up (on Twitter) to help host the event at DECC, where she and colleagues David, Ian and Rachel there took care of all the logistics and produced some great video footage, even sending me a copy of the hashtagged tweets when I was too slow to extract them from Twitter myself.

Three cheers for Cass.

Digital Heroes: Simon Everest, David Pearson

Sometimes I jokingly describe BIS as the ‘middle east of central government’: renamed/merged/split/reformed more than its fair share of the time. To be fair, Defra might have a claim to the same title, having been, within recent memory, bits of MAFF, DTLR, DETR, and DECC, plus more than its fair share of quangos.

In that turbulent terrain, Simon Everest, Head of Digital Engagement at Defra, and his colleague David Pearson are camped out defiantly on land they know is theirs, with a bazooka pointed at the hills of overgrown content and bloated IT.

Until last month, this major department of state with its ten-year, £400m IT contract with IBM had a website powered by Dreamweaver, struggling to keep a soup of tens of thousands of static pages organised, alongside the pressures to converge superfluous microsites and be innovative in its use of digital channels.

Simon, David and their team are waving, not drowning in this soup. A while back, they hived off consultations onto a WordPress-based platform to enable online discussion – and more importantly, they kept the pressure up internally on policy teams to join in with that discussion and leave their own comments. There’s an uncharacteristically (for government) striking-looking blog for Defra’s Third Sector work. And more recently, they went the whole hog and moved their entire corporate site to WordPress, using the change of government as a useful opportunity to rethink the purpose and architecture of the site.

Simon and David clearly aren’t afraid of some technical heavy lifting, but they’re also not afraid to challenge content owners. Government sites are huge not simply because government is big, but because web teams often don’t have the clout to push back against colleagues who want to build vast libraries of unmanaged content. Not so in Defra, where the new site has a slim 130-odd pages of content, re-written with the audience in mind.

Using WordPress has given the team a platform that can do a lot more, not least providing a very low cost offer to partner organisations needing their own compliant website. At the recent WordUp Whitehall event, Simon talked about how they were considering using WordPress’ built-in comments system as a private feedback mechanism, using a regular comment form to provide ‘Send us feedback on this page’ functionality, and using that feedback internally rather than publishing comments the traditional way. It’s a brilliant piece of lateral thinking which had a few jaws dropping around the room.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this team, and why they really qualify as digital heroes, is that they haven’t taken the barriers of outsourced IT lying down. They’ve used talented small suppliers like Puffbox and Sweet Interaction, boxed clever for hosting, finding an entirely new enterprise-strength hosting option for less than the price of a Land Rover each year, all the while negotiating the intricacies of their IT contract. It’s hard to say quite how much money they’ve saved taxpayers, as Defra web costs are combined with other things. But I’m going to guess it’s either six figures or seven, and what’s more, Defra has a hugely more capable, well-organised, and well thought-through site as a consequence.

Three cheers Simon and David (and their colleagues).

Digital Heroine: Jenny Poole

Sir Phillip Green, efficiency advisor to the government, recently reportedly challenged public sector workers to treat public money as their own.

One person who’s been doing this for a while is Jenny Poole, Head of Digital Engagement at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. She’s a former team member, and now client, of mine, but I’m not embarrassed in the slightest to add her to my pantheon of digital heroes and heroines on this blog.

At yesterday’s Word Up Whitehall event, she introduced herself as a former speechwriter and came clean about her lack of technical nowse – asking why they don’t just sack her from the digital team. The fact is, these teams need bridges to people in the rest of the organisation in communications and policy functions, and as her new boss says, every team should have one.

Take this week as an example. Lord Browne’s independent review of Higher Education finance has been supported by a dedicated secretariat in BIS for the past few months. As the date of publication neared, the team were commissioning designs and planning the launch, and had a five-figure proposal on the table for a new WordPress site to promote the report.

Jenny told them there was another way, and figured out how.

Together, we tidied up the existing WordPress site, and in a couple of hours, built a static page for the report itself, using a bit of TypeKit magic to tie the online typography into the offline design. Jenny co-ordinated me and various other technical colleagues – basically the equivalent of herding geek cats – into a solid plan for scaling up a site which saw a 25-fold spike in traffic on launch day, with headline coverage in all the mainstream media. Still, she was up at 6am to make sure it worked.

Better still, she planted the idea of an online Q&A on The Student Room in the mind of Lord Browne, which became one of the best examples I’ve seen of that discussion format, and which Lord Browne seems to have enjoyed.

Three cheers for Jenny.

Digital Hero: Luke Oatham

As part of an occasional series on this blog, I want to introduce you to a few of the digital heroes and heroines doing great work inside the UK public sector.

It’s not often my jaw literally drops open while reading a blog post, but it did when I read through Luke Oatham’s piece on his Intranet Diary blog about his work to redevelop his organisation’s intranet. I’ve met Luke briefly at TeaCamp and he’s an unassuming guy, but his blog showcases some of the tremendous stuff he’s been doing to revamp not just the look-and-feel but the fundamental structure and relevance of his organisation’s intranet. Now, a lot of people might run an internal focus group or two, or perhaps stick a feedback form up somewhere on the intranet to gather views – and ultimately make the decision based on the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion. Not Luke:

For the initial test page which all participants landed on, I used Google Website Optimiser, setting up an A/B test which redirected participants to one of 12 different pages. Each of the 12 pages started an individual test containing 20 questions. The purpose of Website Optimiser is usually to find the best combination of elements or wording on a page to drive a particular outcome. In this instance, I just took advantage of Website Optimiser’s method of evenly distributing tests.

From the tools he’s used – Google Website Optimiser, Google Analytics, online card sorting etc – to the understanding of human nature that lies behind it (make participating in tests something perceived to be scarce and fun) – he’s applying innovation, dedication and some serious skillz to one of the digital world’s less sexy challenges. And frankly, if I were Google, I’d make him offer he couldn’t refuse, because he’s applying exactly the same scientific method that’s made them into the hugely successful business they are.

Luke’s organisation has 80,000 staff. If half of them save 10 seconds a day as a result of Luke’s testing and improvements, that’s the equivalent of 20 full-time posts, or nearly half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money saved.

We need more Lukes.