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

All the news that’s fit to print

Her Majesty Announces

It’s silly season, so here’s my contribution.

A few months ago, my mouse hand slipped and I found myself the owner of one of Berg’s Little Printers, a small thermal printer which prints on receipt paper and connects to the internet. It delivers ‘publications’ like the weather forecast, a crossword puzzle, or a quote of the day, at times you specify, as scraps of paper you take with you as you pootle around East London in your skinny jeans. Don’t ask what it’s for – I don’t think anyone who owns one can really explain. It’s interesting and unusual, and the possibilities are quite fun.

I finally got to play with it briefly this weekend, inspired by a little post on the Little Printer blog promising an easy way to create your own ‘mini-series’ publication, with a little bit of customising and some minimal PHP/CSS. My first effort – The Daily Fish – was Octonauts-inspired, delivering the Wikipedia summary for a random sea creature each day.

My second attempt is Her Majesty Announces – essentially, how a Victorian govgeek might have preferred to get their daily news from the Ministries. It’s a little publication which polls the GOV.UK Announcements Atom feed for the three latest government press releases or news stories (I have some form on this), and turns them into a mock-Victorian teleprinter feed delivered to your Little Printer.

There are more useful applications for this kind of technology, I hope. But in a responsive, strategic, social media age it’s just jolly good fun to work in a format that’s black and white, 384-pixels wide and can be folded up and put in your wallet.

The next step

In May last year, emerged blinking into the limelight. It was the product of a true skunkworks operation – a few guys (and they were mainly guys) – tucked away on a disused floor of a government building in south London. The site had rough edges, but it pointed in an exciting direction:

  • Satisfy common requirements first
  • Use fewer, better words
  • Hire developers, don’t contract systems integrators
  • Know – better still, create – your tools and technology stack
  • Think about design and typography
  • Engage with feedback as intelligent human beings

Tonight, its successor, (beta) was revealed. While it looks different, for sure, it’s still closer to than in scope, and you’d be forgiven for wondering what’s really changed in eight months. But lots has, even visible from the outside.

First, it’s not a skunkworks project. The Government Digital Service team responsible for now is unrecognisable from the team in Hercules House even three or four months ago. It’s a proper organisation in a nice building, led by someone with clout, and staffed with headhunted external expertise and carefully-winnowed survivors from the projects it has taken over. There’s pace and optimism and pride in the air over there, in more concentrated form than I’ve encountered in any other part of the public sector in the last year or so.

Second: Alpha, the team behind it, and the political context into which it was born, determined that this new approach won the three-way battle of influence, leaving Directgov/The Club and Business Link/Serco effectively knocked out for the count. That victory wasn’t a given, by any means. But it matters hugely, as the internal debate switches from whether to how.

Third: the tentacles are spreading. The tweets of people like Paul Annett and Stefan Czerniawski suggest that GDSers aren’t just building the core information site now. They’re starting to get out there in the government buildings across the UK where online transactions get built for real out of monstrous Oracle databases and J2EE middleware. It’s there that the money gets wasted and the user experience for millions of people gets sacrificed, even more so than in the convoluted circumlocutions of Whitehall press releases. It’s not visible on yet, but it’s coming.

So, it must be a fantastic feeling for the GDS team to have got this far, having built something truly elegant – designed, in the real sense of the word – in a way that government’s digital presence often hasn’t been.

But they’ll know too just how far there is to go:

  • it has to scale, assimilating more of the online experience end-to-end,  for businesses as well as citizens, somehow providing an elegant solution for edge cases as well as the popular ones. Revolutionising how news and policy content is created and opened up for public participation is in itself a huge challenge.
  • it needs to practice selective deafness, smiling at but ignoring those with apparently reasonable but ultimately harmful requests to pull the project in a thousand different directions.
  • it needs to box clever, now there’s a big target painted on its rear, and find ways of persuading those in and around government’s existing online services that the vision can include them, will benefit from their experience, and that they’ll benefit from being involved (with judicious use of a bit of my-road-or-the-high-road)
  • it needs to turn digital by default from a slogan to a fact of life within government, overcoming decades of reliance on advertising, grid-led communications and reluctance to let daylight in upon magic both in terms of process and policy. I’m conscious of straying close to cliché there, but ultimately GDS needs to show that decisions based on analytical data and user-centred design lead to better outcomes than those based on seniority or consensual expediency, and that alone is a huge challenge. is a stake in the ground – a signpost to something better and some examples of what that looks like, as much in terms of process and culture as in terms of pixels. If it can manage the transition to the next stage, it’ll be onto a winner and we’ll all be the better for it.