Background to the new Ministry of Justice website part 2
Before I jump back into the issue of the permissive environment required for civil servants to blog, I thought I had better finish off the story of the building of the new Ministry of Justice (MoJ) website (part 1 here).
But the truth is, we had no inside knowledge nor prior warning that an announcement was going to be made. Our information came from the speculation in newspapers and online.
We were worried because many previous machinery of government changes have been announced at the moment of implementation. There was no way that we could react if that happened – domains would need to be registered, server space allocated, access created, designs made etc etc. This stuff all takes time, even simple adjustments to our IT generally take ten working days to turn around with our suppliers.
So we took a flyer. Not knowing the likely name of the department (would it be Department for, surely not Ministry of?!) we registered the pretty flexible justice.gov.uk as a catch all. We created some early designs that would allow us to test user feedback but also enable us to create an ’emergency’ site if an announcement came out of the blue.
For about six weeks before the announcement, as speculation grew, we feverishly developed the designs, expecting at any time to be given three hours notice to launch a site. We quickly realised that nobody really knew what was going on, and those that thought they did had to be ignored otherwise we would go insane.
The web team at MoJ is quite small – eleven of us in total managing editorial, design, build and maintenance of both the main internet and corporate intranet. Compared to other departments it’s ‘compact’ – especially as all our creative work is done in-house. Despite our best efforts we couldn’t do everything, we were still updating DCA internet/intranet sites as well as designing their replacements. Some visual design work was outsourced to freelancers to ensure we got the look right.
But what really helped us was the announcement on March 29th. Suddenly everybody around the department flicked into overdrive. We were finally able to commission content from policy colleagues. Equally importantly we were able to turn down all requests to publish information online unless they were business critical, so that we could focus on the task in hand.
Things moved very quickly. We brought in two short-term staff to assist us on the site builds bringing with them specialist coding skills that we lacked (wish we could have kept them on 😦 ). The timetable was very challenging, we wanted to build the new site in our content management system (Red Dot) but the functionality was tricky to build. So we had a contingency plan to build a launch version in flat html if it all went horribly wrong during the build phase. Luckily that wasn’t required.
Commissioned content came back in a fairly orderly fashion, thanks to our project manager Jane who made sure everyone did what they had said they would do when they had said they would do it (muttering ‘I wish I hadn’t made that promise’ under their breath…).
There were a fair few bad moments. Our lead developer, Harj, announced mid-way through that he had got a new job – starting on May 9th. Luckily we managed to persuade him to work across the bank holiday weekend before launch to fix things for us. Another member of the team had a serious family illness to contend with. Tempers frayed, frequently. The phrase ‘this is never going to work’ was heard on many occasions.
We all worked the May Day bank holiday weekend – long, lonely hours with lots of loud music to keep us awake. Coffee and doughnuts consumed to overdose levels, a fair few glasses of wine too.
We had hoped to ‘flash’ the site up onto the live domain for a few hours over the weekend to check it actually worked but we discovered several sites already linking to the domain name so had to change our plans. As it was, across the weekend, over 1000 attempts were made to access ‘hidden’ pages on the live server (sorry guys, there weren’t any – but there were several interesting attempts to guess what the name of the folder might be). Instead we played around on a development server for the duration of the build.
Come the evening of Tuesday 8th we were frazzled but ready to go. All the content was completed and technical fixes done. The six unlucky volunteers popped out for a bite to eat, confident that the new intranet and internet sites would be fine. We celebrated and hoped.
Back in the office a while later and the deadline crept closer. At 11.30 we suddenly realised we didn’t have an image to use for ‘corporate’ messages. Illustrations for all news and announcements are an intrinsic part of the new site design. Most of the news items would be led by a minister so naturally we would use their picture but what about the No 10 announcement of the ministerial team? There wouldn’t be a photocall until the next morning. I dashed downstairs (well, took the lift – it is nine floors to ground level after all) and took a quick shot of the new departmental logo that had just been put on the wall in the lobby with my mobile phone.
Midnight came, buttons were pressed and a few minutes later the site appeared to the outside world. The intranet took a bit longer – at one point appearing and disappearing every few seconds. That’s internal networks for you… But it soon stablised (a few stiff drinks and ‘strong’ language seemed to persuade the servers to behave).
And that is pretty much it. The team did a magnificent job and every single contribution was crucial to the sites launching on time and to plenty of internal (and some outside) acclaim.
We know there is plenty to do still. The RSS feeds are quite working the way we want them to yet. There is content missing from the site that we want to publish as soon as we can and we need to do some proper user evaluation to make sure the things we thought would work behave properly with real users.
If you notice anything that doesn’t look quite right, please do let me know. This is only the beginning of the site’s development and we are bound to have missed something.