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?

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.

Whither digital communication?

If GOV.UK is delivering the website, what’s the purpose of digital communications teams in government departments?

gcn review

That’s one of the interesting issues tackled by the Cabinet Office’s Digital Communication Capability Review, whose draft report is online for public comment for another couple of days.

It’s a fine piece of work, led by some creative thinkers inside government alongside some interesting outsiders with deep and varied experience of digital (disclaimer: I was one of the people they interviewed).

The bits I like most are the principles and manifesto, which shine a light on some of the issues holding back good digital communication in central government:

  • IT networks which prevent civil servants doing their jobs with commonplace digital tools
  • The focus on Twitter, to the exclusion of other digital channels and thinking
  • The deliberate, understandable constraints that GOV.UK places on branding, content and engagement on its platform, and the need to clarify roles and responsibilities (and that digital communication is a different thing from digital service delivery)

One of the external reviewers, Max St John of Nixon McInnes, has written about the process and why rather than just coming up with worthy recommendations, they’ve drafted a manifesto and principles for change.

Three connected thoughts that occurred to me:

  • I’m not sure there is in government, even with this document, a shared understanding of what ‘good’ digital communication looks like. User-centricity and needs-driven design is part of it. Evaluation and iteration is part of it. Meaningful engagement, integration with policy and service delivery are in there too. Open source, sharing, content strategy, internal upskilling, and partnerships have a role. But nobody, including me, has quite articulated it yet.
  • As a consequence, it’s hard to be 100% behind the call to tear down digital ‘silos’ – coming from the background of one, I appreciate the complex and sophisticated craftsmanship of digital communication but also the risk of becoming the Twitter Support Team. Embedding skills across government communicators makes sense, but which skills, and to what depth, and with what support? GDS created a digital silo very effectively to focus effort, attract elite talent and achieve momentum, after all.
  • So we need to define what those necessary skills are in a bit more detail (there’s a useful general comms competency framework, I know), and think creatively about how to develop them across thousands of government communicators. I make a living partly from delivering off-the-job training courses in digital skills to this audience, but I recognise that classroom sessions are just a small piece of the jigsaw. Like criminals, government communicators need motive and opportunity as well as capability and tools, and that’s going to take a lot more mentoring, corridor chats, personal blogs, Google Analytics accounts, social media experimentation (and mistakes), email lists, teacamps, user testing observations, forum participation and encouraging emails from big cheeses.

Go tell GCN what you think, too.

What archaeology can teach us about agile web projects

These days, everyone wants to be ‘agile’. At root, it’s a project management discipline that fixes cost and quality, rather than scope – so you never face unexpected surprises at the end of a project (but may not end up with what you originally thought you wanted). That’s normally a good thing: after all, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

But like ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘digital engagement’, it’s also a buzzword risking meaninglessness having been appropriated to mean simply ‘flexible’, ‘undefined’ or ‘cheap’. Used that way, it’s something that gets clients off the hook of having to write a specification up front; and which gives crafty suppliers the ability to skip out of onerous commitments if the going gets tough. So for some people initiating these kind of ‘agile’ projects, there may indeed be some unexpected nasties to come.

The other day, I found myself talking about agile digital projects with a public sector contact who explained she’d originally trained as an archaeologist. She wasn’t familiar with the terminology of agile projects (‘user stories’, ‘backlogs’, ‘sprints’ and so on) but grasped the big picture straight away.

“It’s just like archaeology,” she said. “You don’t really know what the f*** is under the ground until you start digging.”

These days, we find relatively few digital projects that start from a clean slate. A lot of the work we do involves re-developing and re-organising websites which have a history. While you can tell something from clicking around, there’s always more that lies beneath, like fragile bones or unexploded wartime ordnance. The Chief Executive’s pet blog. The unwieldy archive of documents important to a tiny but crucial group of stakeholders. The organisational politics involved in moving a site from one server to another.

I’m no archaeologist, but I can appreciate that the discipline, patience and tools that apply to excavating historic sites can teach digital agencies a thing or two about doing ‘agile’ in the right way:

  1. be prepared to use a range of tools to check out the lay of the land before you disturb a precious relic
  2. accept that rebuilding websites – like changing the culture of organisations – takes patience and humility, and recognise you don’t really know how complicated things will be until you start
  3. respect the past, while living in the present: people who have gone before us have wrestled with decisions over content, designs and stakeholders. We can learn from their struggles and conclusions without meekly inflicting the usability compromises of the past on the users of the future

And with that, I’ll get back to my trowel.

Photo credit: rich_pickler



I’m learning a lot about salesmanship these days.

Downstairs at Helpful Towers, where the people who manage our serviced office work, there are posters on the wall celebrating great customer service and setting out the company’s model for managing the customer relationship from first contact, right through to careful ‘off-boarding’, when the client moves out. It’s an attractive and logical concept – treat people well, they’ll be your advocates even when they stop being your clients – which of course bears no relation to reality. When monthly targets and quotas come into it, it’s about protecting revenue over the next few months, as the sales guy had no qualms about saying to me earlier, while forcing me to pay six weeks extra rent for literally nothing. I’m indeed off-boarded, and not a little off-fucked too.

This evening, I dropped in to the summer party of Movement for Change, a great organisation training local people around the country to be community organisers, set up by David Miliband three years ago. I remember sitting down with the first National Director in the draughty Royal Festival Hall cafe at Christmas time 2010 to take the original website brief, registering domains names, and setting up a WordPress site which grew from a holding page, to a blog, to a BuddyPress network, and back to a blog as plans changed. Today, they migrated away to a platform based on NationBuilder, the cool political campaigning software that’s driven hundreds of US political races. I’m genuinely happy for them – it’s a better fit for what they’re doing, it looks nicer than the old site, and it will help them do more as a distributed political campaigning force. We had a nice Skype chat last week to finalise the domain switch, totted up the final hosting bill, I did a quick scrape and archive of their old site in case they need anything from it, and we’ve been chatting about hosting recommendations for their other bits and pieces. They invited me to their party, I had some nice canapés, and bumped into familiar faces. I haven’t always managed the end of client relationships so well, sadly: some have petered out rather in a fug of busyness and mismanaged expectations. If that’s you, I’m mortified about it, and sorry.

I’m going to do everything I can in the coming years to help fellow entrepreneurs avoid the trap of my serviced office company. I hope the Movement for Change guys will remember us as helpful and positive, to the end and beyond.

I think that’s what off-boarding looks like.

Photo credit: FrogStarB

How mature is your organisation’s approach to digital?

Nick Halliday is asking another of his interesting questions:

And here’s his Google Doc so far as he starts to answer it. I think the concept of a flexible, down to earth maturity model could be a really useful method for assessing how well an organisation is using digital across the breadth of its work, extending some of the principles GDS has published as part of the Digital by Default Service Standard (which is a bit more focussed on a specific service).

Readers with good memories will remember this was something I wrote about here too, about 18 months ago:

One topic I’d like to think about at this week’s UKGovcamp on Saturday (the ‘doing’ day) is whether we can come up with a way of thinking about public sector digital activity in terms of a maturity or capability model, that could be applied to help teams and individuals set goals and maybe even benchmark their effectiveness. For instance, it might:

  • Help teams to think about how sophisticated the organisation is at adopting and managing social media as part of official Communications and day to day communication

  • Provide some material for people thinking about their CMS features and procurement, to factor in the kinds of activities and processes those tools should be supporting in 2012

  • Offer insights into team size and structure, what the roles are in managing digital projects effectively (I’m deliberately not saying ‘digital communication’, for now)

  • Give everyone some ready-made benchmarks to help evaluate impact, and if not hard numbers, then at least an open-source process for getting to an assessment of digital effectiveness

We had a useful session at UKGovcamp 2012 (see the notes here) and I did a bit of thinking afterwards to try and structure it into a model, but it’s taken Nick’s recent question to get me to actually write it up.

So here’s my contribution to Nick’s call for ideas – a structure for a maturity model based on four areas of digital:

  1. Digital service delivery
  2. Corporate & marketing communiciations
  3. Social media engagement
  4. Internal communications and collaboration

Within each, the assessment (maybe a 1-4 scale?) would look at:

  • Vision
  • Process
  • Tools
  • Skills

And use a number of criteria or question areas to establish maturity:

  • Ownership & leadership
  • Strategy & planning
  • Technology
  • User focus
  • Embedded culture
  • Risk management
  • Community management
  • Openness

If you’ve got any thoughts or queries, do let me (or better still, Nick) have them.

The 5-point ROI calculator



If you’re anything like me, you’ll have been paying lip service to the concept of ROI for years. I’m generally sceptical of the validity of most ROI calculations, but don’t have a credible argument for why we shouldn’t attempt them. I generally mumble something about ‘qualitative’ data and look a bit sheepish.

So in yesterday’s post on ten things to look for in a digital channel as part of a 21st century ‘beating the bounds’ visit, point 10 was about attempting a simple ROI assessment for the channel, to see whether it is worthy of further scrutiny with a view to making it more productive for the organisation. Here’s a quick suggestion for how you might attempt that.

Take three dimensions:

  1. Significance: how important is this channel to the organisation? This might relate to whether people would reasonably question its absence (e.g. a corporate website), its role in delivering important goals for the organisation, or its importance to senior management (but don’t over-egg the last one if it’s just a vanity channel).
  2. Resource: how much time and financial resource do we put – or should we be putting – into maintaining this? Just a sense of effort/cost, no hard numbers needed.
  3. Value: what does it provide us with in terms of helping to meet the goals we’ve set for it? This might be a cash saving, it could be a sustained increase in useful feedback received to a consultation, or might be the enthusiasm from colleagues for the insights they get from it – be open-minded.

For each of those dimensions, give then channel a High, Medium or Low score – it’s more important to complete the exercise than generate numbers. Be honest, be decisive.

Then apply this matrix:

Measure: High: Medium: Low:
Significance 1 point 2 points 3 points
Resource 3 points 2 points 1 point
Value 1 point 2 points 3 points

If anything scores 5 points or more, put it on a watch list of channels to be made more useful or less resource-intensive to maintain. 7 points or more? Put it top of the list. Anything score 3 points? Make a note of it for the business case next time you’re asked to demonstrate your team’s efficiency.

Finally, here’s a Google Doc version of the matrix, in case that helps (download the sheet to put in your own numbers):


Beating the bounds: a starter for ten

old fence

I really enjoyed a recent post by Tim Lloyd, head of digital at BIS, applying the principles of the ancient custom of ‘beating the bounds‘ to the process of managing a government department’s digital estate:

Like those dignitaries beating the bounds, I don’t think it’s about owning every part of the estate, but it is important to be aware of what’s going on:

  • listening to relevant conversations
  • re-purposing the things that aren’t working
  • developing the better channels or ideas
  • making sure there’s some kind of consistency of experience, for people passing through or visiting the fringes

It’s something I’ve approached from a different angle here before. That was very much about real-time awareness of what’s going on across the estate, but what Tim reminded me was that there’s an important role in doing periodic reviews of not just the what, but also the why.

So I started jotting down the kinds of things that one might look for on a modern-day bounds-beating tour of one’s digital estate, and came up with this list:

  1. Vision and ownership: who is responsible this channel? do they have a coherent plan describing the goals and purpose it serves?
  2. Audience insight: is usage tracked in some way? is there a mechanism for feedback – if so, what comes back? what is known about the audience?
  3. Content: how much material is there here? What proportion is redundant, outdated or trivial? do the production values or style match the goals and audience?
  4. Engagement: does the channel help achieve the intended outcomes – stimulating discussion, promoting take-up, enabling self-service or encouraging enquiries?
  5. Compliance: does the channel meet requirements for government channels, particularly on privacy and data protection and accessibility?
  6. Security: who has access to manage the channel, and is this done in a sensible way (strong passwords, over secure connections, access details recorded in a secure location in case someone is away or leaves?)
  7. Consistency and design: does the channel reflect brand guidelines and/or provide visual consistency with the organisation’s other channels? Is it consistent in its messaging  with things being said on other channels?
  8. Integration: how is the channel currently promoted? from where else is it linked to, and which other channels does it help promote? how does it perform in search engines?
  9. Preservation: is the content of the channel archived in some way, e.g. via The National Archives? Is it a channel for FOI requests or a database to be searched for the purpose of answering them?
  10. ROI: how does it score in a simple assessment of return on investment given the time and budget required to maintain it?

Point 10 deserves a little blog post of its own.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s missing from the list, and what might be on yours.

Update: in the comments on his post, Tim raises another point for the list:

I guess the only thing I might add is ‘sustainability’, which sort of falls between number 9 and number 1 (responsibility). I often find people are happy to ‘own’ channels – especially when the channel is working well – but it takes lots of graft to maintain an effective channel and keep it going over months and years.