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

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

bis.gov.uk 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.

The year of living (slightly) dangerously

Kingsgate House

(Image: Google Street View, DIUS Kingsgate House, London)

This week marked a year since I joined DIUS as the first permanent member of staff working exclusively on social media, and roughly a year or so since Justin’s pioneering social media strategy started to take shape.

It’s been a fantastic year. From being a ‘Team Leader’ of a one person team, having merged with another team and picked up some great talents along the way, we’re now briefly a team of eight (give or take). Growth isn’t everything, but it means we can do more interesting things, more quickly, across a wider swathe of policy areas, and is hopefully a good sign.

Some of the highlights of this last year for me:

Exploring what we can do with consultation: The work Michelle did on the Innovation Nation white paper supported by a Commentpress site taught us a lot about the potential for niche engagement, and we’re taking the learnings from the ups and downs of Science and Society and the HE Debate into future projects which challenge the old slap-a-PDF-on-the-website, 12-week approach.

Maintaining a JFDI attitude: I’m proud that we’ve overcome the treacle of well-meaning bureaucracy and delivered quite so many projects – some relatively successful, others undoubtedly flops – whilst remaining on good terms with IT, finance, comms and policy. We’ve taken measured risks… and the sky didn’t fall on our heads. Yet. Best of all, we’ve given courage to a few others to do some of the same, only better.

Taking the broad view of engagement: Though based in Comms as most digital teams are, we’ve consistently argued that digital engagement has a wider role, from customer insight and consultation through to marketing and press – the Mature Students project in partnership with The Student Room is perhaps the most lovely illustration.

Open sourcing our stuff: A key plank of Justin’s strategy was open innovation through sharing of our tools and experiences – I’m pleased with just what shameless cross-government networkers we’ve become, and the open sourcing of Commentariat and Bookmarklist which seem to be helping others already.

The picture isn’t entirely rosy, of course. Some days, I feel like we’ve done little more than waste time, money or – even worse – opportunity. We certainly haven’t embedded digital engagement in everyday thinking yet. When push comes to shove, many apparent enthusiasts are still sceptics at heart. We still haven’t nailed some of the basics like evaluation, the business case or routinely procuring the right kind of suppliers (with some honourable exceptions, of course). And we’re still very much feeling our way as a combined online/offline engagement team. Three months into 2009, we still need to work harder to support pioneers within the organisation to stand any chance of scaling up the impact of our work.

As I’ve posted over on Emma’s blog, the lessons of the last year have taught us:

  1. Interactive websites need interactive organisations. Don’t embark on digital engagement projects without recognition from all involved that they need to actively engage with feedback – and then do something with the outputs.
  2. Focus on the content, not the platform. Don’t get too hung up on the tool, or even online as a whole. People engage with issues, so try and bring those to life and don’t let the medium become the message.
  3. Find and support the pioneers and champions. There is enormous latent enthusiasm and goodwill towards digital engagement within big organisations – find these people, get them the permission they need, and support them to do digital engagement for themselves. (Though self-evident, I’ve found this one tough to put into practice.)
  4. Be honest about scope and boundaries. Find out up front what is up for discussion, and what’s been decided. You’ll defuse arguments and minimise hostility if you’re open about identity, remit and agendas.
  5. Protect information that needs to be protected. Manage the risks of digital engagement – not just in terms of reputation, but in terms of how the tools are used, data storage and archiving.
  6. Integrate with other partners and channels. Combine things: be nervous if a project is based on a single platform or organisation. Build it and they won’t necessarily come. Be smart about your online PR.
  7. Make it enjoyable and interesting for your different audiences. Policy discussions work at different levels: facilitate a credible, interesting discussion for the experts, but also something more accessible and – dammit – fun for public/younger groups. And we’re generally not the best people to decide what constitutes ‘fun’.
  8. Enable remixing & co-design: ask who can help us do this? Providing open data lets other people do what we can’t yet imagine, or with a frankness we simply can’t say ourselves.
  9. Enhance progressively: build from inclusive and accessible base of information. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t a tickbox, and it isn’t pass/fail either. Choose social media platforms wisely but pragmatically, on the basis of publishing core information which is multimodal, customisable and platform-neutral.
  10. Evaluate intelligently and share openly. Write down what you’re trying to achieve, work out if you achieved it, and tell people what your learned.

Thanks to everyone who has helped us on our way so far: you know who you are. Here’s to Year Two.

digitalgovuk: Tracking social media innovation in government

I  get asked from time to time for examples of how social media is being used in government, not just at DIUS but elsewhere. From mentions on Twitter or in blogs I follow, I can generally reel off two or three examples of X. But for a while I’ve wanted to have a more structured list of good examples of social media innovation by government – a bit like the Power of Information Review wiki does for online communities and mashups outside government.

So as a side project, I’ve knocked something together in the DIUS Sandbox.

digitalgovuk is primarily a Delicious.com tag. I’ve mentioned before why I think social bookmarking tools like Delicious are so useful. In this case, Delicious makes it possible to run a sort of collaborative database of URLs and browse and filter them as a set. Even better, it offers an RSS feed with up to 100 items for that tag, which you can do more or less interesting things with. I’ve added a slightly rough-and-ready Thumbshots site preview thumbnail to help illustrate the list a bit, along with Disqus-powered commenting and a UserVoice tab for feature suggestions and bug reports, plus one or two things to protect against spam tagging.

I’m hoping the tool will be able to help me (and potentially anyone) answer questions like:

The last point depends on the tool making the leap to become a truly ‘social’ list, and this is where your help is needed. If you know of a good use of social media by a government organisation with a public URL which isn’t on the list, please tag it in Delicious with ‘blog’ or ‘localauthority’ or whatever and add the special tag ‘digitalgovuk’. And if you’re involved in launching one yourself, tag it so that others subscribed to the RSS feed can hear about it.

If you have any feedback or suggestions, please let me know.

The power of unconference

I think it was clear it was going to be a good day during the introductions. Around fifty youth workers, technologists and others with an interest in youth participation from as far away as Lancashire, Devon, Norfolk and Wiltshire had gathered at DIUS on a Saturday morning for UKYouthOnline, organised by Tim Davies. With that much enthusiasm and experience in the room, Tim’s gamble on the open space conference methodology was sure to pay off – even if only about a third of the participants had ever attended an unconference before.

Social Media game at UKYouthOnline

Tim’s a phenomenal facilitator, motivator and organiser, and I think that’s what really made the unconference model work: having just enough structure and infrastructure to enable the interesting, serendipitous conversations, demonstrations and one-to-one meetings to take place.

It was also the first time I’d played the infamous social media game, in a great session run by Dave Briggs (taking time out from tending to the needy and applying creams and lotions in his Social Media clinic). If you have a group of people interested in using social media tools for engagement but not sure which ones to choose or where to start, it’s a good way of thinking through some of the strategic choices involved.

I learnt a whole bunch of things:

  • Examples of how the Facebook MyOffice application is being used as a collaboration platform between youth workers and young people: a great example of going to where the audience is, rather than building a new and unfamiliar platform for them to use
  • Sprout, a widget-building application. Probably best for prototyping since there are some question marks over accessibility
  • The fascinating work being done in organisations with different but parallel challenges to my own: Oxfam GB, The National Trust and the British Youth Council, amongst others
  • The sophistication of youth work on social networking services: for example, the subtle enhancements to privacy in user profiles introduced by the new Facebook
  • Ultimately, the value of truly co-designed online projects, especially when it comes to services designed to be used by young people. I’m still too inclined to go it alone, when I think the lesson of youth work generally is to find appropriate ways to put the power to develop solutions in the hands of young people themselves. I wonder what a co-designed online consultation might look like if we were to bring in the stakeholders, scientists, employers, learners and front-line staff that we want to hear from?

It was also really encouraging to see the enthusiasm and help I got from facilities colleagues and others in DIUS transforming a run-of-the-mill government building into a really good unconference venue with wifi, pizza and the works in terms of AV equipment, registration desk etc – all on a shoestring budget. I’d really encourage others in government to think about what their central London buildings could help to make possible on a weekend. Thanks are due to DIUS colleagues or alumni Justin Kerr-Stevens (for wifi), Michelle Lyons (for social reporting), Jo Simmons and Kim Worts (my boss and a senior civil servant, hopefully now a convert to unconferences).

I presented some analysis we commissioned from Forrester on how young people are using the internet, social media and social networking services – it led to an interesting discussion about issues of gender, and how we design for the social aspect of using the internet with friends (as opposed to a solitary experience) and recognise the challenge of media fragmentation and continuous partial attention. More to come on that one in a future post, I’m sure. For now, here are the slides:

Thanks again to Tim and everyone who came along for their inspiration and ideas.