Archive for the ‘ website management ’ Category

It’s been a while – I fancied a change

I wrote the first entry on this ‘ere ol’ blog on 29 April 2007. If you’d told me then that I’d still be posting here (albeit sporadically) I’d would have laughed. In fact I wonder how it keeps going on a weekly basis, but I suppose that is the magic isn’t it?

Anyway, a lot has gone on in the last sixteen months or so. So much that’s been recounted here, and much that hasn’t. No doubt there is plenty more to come.

Then last weekend we moved offices. With a new view (see above) I thought it was probably time to give this site a refresh too. I’m no techie so I’m reliant on the templates that WordPress provides. I was glad to see there are many more to choose from since I started Whitehall Webby.

So I changed it. It could probably do with a bit of tweaking, but that can happen over time.

Anyway, that’s it. For now.

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It’s data, not documents, dummy

There’s been so much interesting, stimulating stuff going on recently that sometimes its difficult to know what to make of it all.

In the last few months I’ve been to a number of events such as GeeKyoto, Interesting08, and 2gether. All great in their own way and all have generated lots of thoughts in my head about innovating around my day job stuff.

The key message from all this for me has been: stop prevaricating, stop strategising. Just do something, lots of small things, and know that some of them will pay off (though not necessarily the ones you expect).

The Power of Information taskforce has also been busy, launching a competition to generate ideas about making better use of public information (wish my department had thought of that..). Now OPSI has created an ‘unlocking’ service for people to request the availability of government data in usable formats.

All this stuff, all these ideas, are great. Its not all ‘sexy’ social media (thank goodness), some of it is more fundamental than that.

I’ve been deliberating for a while about how we publish information online. On a daily basis we produce a fair number of documents in pdf format, not ideal but given the limited time (and various commitments that have been made) we have its often all we can do to get the information up on the website.

On Saturday I went along to Opentech08. Another inspiring event, but for very different reasons. Instead of being evangelist in approach it was very techie (I was well out of my depth there, chairing a session on openID – about which I know nothing). But there was a lot of talk about data feeds, mash ups etc. Luckily John Sheridan from OPSI gave me a quick five minute noddy guide to the whole area over lunch (I still don’t understand it, but I did smile a lot).

Anyway, from all that, and conversations I’ve been having with all sorts of people, its become clear to me that we could do better in how we make the information available – making it available as usable data rather than a document.

Changing what we already do is not easy, there are all sorts of constraints and barriers. But lets take the regular publication of statistical releases. We produce quite a few of these and, although we have started to make some data available in excel format to support the actual documents, its not ideal.

So I’m wondering, is there anyone who could help me do two things?:

  • First, how can we turn excel documents into useful and usable data feeds (RDF was mentioned to me, whatever that means…). Are there tools that can do this easily? What would I need? Can anyone set this up for me?
  • Second, how do I sell this to the powers that be? I understand conceptually that we should be doing it, but I don’t know how to articulate it well enough. It can’t just be about goodwill or the right thing to do – what is the ‘business’ benefit (remember it still costs us to do this stuff, so it needs to involve almost no extra work)?

Unlike the Power of Information taskforce, I don’t have big bags of money to dish out as a reward. But if you can help me, I promise you at least a pie and a pint, maybe more if I can get some money for development.

If you know how to explain it, or can help me do it, please let me know (email address is on the about me page if you don’t want to leave a comment here).

What gov webbies can do to improve awareness of their published consultations

I had the good fortune to meet Harry Metcalfe recently. Harry told me that he was building a web service that would aggregating information about all government consultations published online. By pulling the information into his site, he was going to be able to generate email alerts and RSS feeds for either user defined search phrases or individual organisations.

“Why are you doing this?”, I asked. ‘Because I can,” he replied, “and because its not always easy for people to find government consultations online.” I took a look at the early iteration of his site and immediately subscribed to a feed for consultations published by my employer. It worked very nicely.

I’d love for us to publish our own RSS feed for consultations we release. I know its not that hard, its just that other things always get in the way of feature development and they inevitably take a back seat when the pressure is on.

Now Harry’s pride and joy is live in beta and working rather nicely. You should take a look around, its really good.

I bumped into Harry again a few weeks after our first encounter. He said to me, “If you made a few small changes to the way you present information about consultations on your site, it will make it much easier for me to extract the data for mine.” So he came in and talked to my editorial and technical colleagues about making this happen.

Why are we doing this? Not to make Harry’s site better. At least not only for that reason. We’re improving the way we create the pages – tagging relevant items of data like the consultation name, opening and closing dates, contact details etc – for a number of really good reasons that we hadn’t thought of before Harry suggested it:

  • It will make it easier for anyone to screen scrape the data if they so wish and republish it elsewhere
  • It makes the content on, and behind, the page more appetising for search engines, thus increasing the visibility of the consultations in search results
  • We can learn from this small in itself exercise and apply the same rigour to other classes of content published on our site
  • When we are in a position to implement more syndication tools on the site (e.g. fixed and user-defined RSS feeds) the content will already be in a format that makes the process work easier.

Why is this all important? Because we cannot rely on people coming to our websites to find out what we are doing. By making the content more attractive for syndication, we can increase our potential reach substantially and automatically update interested parties when consultations relevant to them are published. The Power of Information review touched on this, and its regularly a subject of conversation around Whitehall.

TellThemWhatYouThink is in its early days. But its already received plenty of coverage inside and outside Whitehall. It doesn’t (yet?) apply itself to the more difficult issue of making participation in online consultation easier. But maybe that’s not far away.

When we’ve finished improving our own consultation pages, I’ll let you know. I’m also hoping that Harry can come along to the next Whitehall heads of e-communications meeting so that we can sell the benefit of our approach. Its a small thing in itself to implement, but if we all do it the consequences could be much bigger.

Talking to energetic volunteers like Harry can produce all sorts of unexpected results. I never realised that by making a few tweaks to our page templates we could really improve how people can use and re-broadcast important government information. The barcamp and subsequent events are really starting to bear fruit…

At the public sector web management group conference

Back from Birmingham, and from solving a few ‘local difficulties’ with my broadband supplier, with some observations on attending the inaugural meeting of the public sector web management group.

I travelled up the evening before on the back of a pretty grotty illness so I wasn’t expecting much in terms of my contribution or what I would pick up. I was right on the former but on the latter, the event was very enlightening.

The key (but I suppose unsurprising) thing was how much central government and local government webbies have got in common – similar concerns (central control, lack of budget or resources, great desire to improve things for the citizen) and a great deal of goodwill about sharing knowledge and expertise. Whilst our perspectives might be different our aims are pretty aligned.

It was good to finally meet up with people I only knew previously from their websites, blogs or rants and get their slant on the issues affecting public sector web. There was a genuine commitment to  try and improve our lot collectively and a small committee has formed to try and harness the goodwill and  keep the momentum going.

The things that stood out for me:

  • Strong desire to use our collective voice for putting forward an ‘industry view’ on matters of consultation and debate around the development of public sector online
  • Revelation from one of the speakers that the next stage of their intranet development is ‘turning it off in three years time’ – an obvious extension of the ‘corporate website is increasingly irrelevant‘ mantra
  • Good mix of visionaries and pragmatists – ‘Second Life is the future, you should give it a go’ vs ‘You cannot justify spending a single penny in Second Life until you get your email distribution and website usability right’ (couldn’t agree more…)

All in all, an excellent event. Credit to Dan Champion and Public Sector Forums for putting it on. Hopefully next time I won’t feel so crap and remember to take more notes.

Going to the public sector web management forum?

I mentioned a while back that a public sector web management group is being set up to try and promote good practice and share experience.

Its an offshoot, though independent of, Public Sector Forums, the community primarily aimed at local government webbies and scourge of Direct Gov amongst others.

They’re holding their inaugural event in Birmingham on October 10th. Details are on the Public Sector Forums site (You have to be registered to see the details, though not a problem if you have a .gov.uk email address (not much of a problem if you don’t as I understand it, as long as you can prove you work in the sector)).

There’s a lot local and central government webbies can share and work together on to make our lives (and our digital communications) better. But because of Public Sector Forum’s core membership, the proposed agenda at the moment is a bit skewed towards local government. webbies. I know of a few other central government webbies planning to go. If there’s enough of us, perhaps we could have a breakout session at some point in the day to reflect on issues more pertinant to working in central government environments.

I think its important that we (central government webbies) support this event, and try to work together with our local government counterparts to drive up standards and best practice guidelines. If you’re thinking about going, its only £165 + vat to attend (or 3 for £330). If you can make it, please leave a comment here to let me know; that you’re coming, if there are any central govt specific issues that you think are worth discussing, whether you are planning to stay up the night before – it would be good if we could arrange a drink or two beforehand.

Can’t we all try and work together?

Its easy to take a dig at the efforts others in the public sector web world. Direct Gov is a good example. Its a pretty prominent shadow hanging over the rest of us in central and local government for all sorts of reasons. But its also an easy target because of its size, and the importance it has been given as the result of transformational government and the website ‘rationalisation’ cull.

I sometimes wonder if they don’t help themselves enough by not being more open about their work or answering critics. However they are quite a small team considering the importance of Direct Gov, with limited resources, and they can’t do everything.

Case in point is Public Sector Forums (PSF). Direct Gov is a particular target of theirs and I always enjoy their take on things. PSF is primarily for webbies working in local government. I know very little about their world, my perception is that they are way more sophisticated than central government in delivering e-government because they have faced very stretching targets over the last few years to deliver services online. Webbies in Whitehall have a lot to learn from them.

Equally I can only guess their sense of frustration and what might be perceived as Whitehall-imposed initatives. Sometimes it can be frustrating enough for us in government departments and we’re a lot closer to the centre geographically and psychologically.

PSF ran a piece while I was away on holiday taking a dig at Direct Gov and COI after discovering their respective del.icio.us accounts (The article is only available to subscribers so you’ll have to join if you want to view it). As holiday reading (I know, I really should have left the laptop at home..) it made perfect amusing reading. A few samples:

“We don’t want to ‘analyse’ the list of reading material in too much detail. We’ll leave that to one web ‘expert’ who we trust to have a good grip on these things, and who is perhaps best left anonymous, whose verdict on the reading lists was: “It’s not cutting edge, more catch up” ”

“All the news on Google over the past months and there’s only one link, which is negative. Also practically nothing on usability and accessibility.”

But on reflection I thought, isn’t it a shame that we spend so much time criticising each other and taking little pot shots? Aren’t we all striving for the same thing, improving online government provision for the citizen? Personally I’m glad that COI and Direct Gov are using tools like del.icio.us to share knowledge with their teams. Goodness knows that there is so much to learn about out there, I applaud their adoption of tools like this. They could have kept the accounts private but they chose to share them instead. Wouldn’t it be great if all public sector webbies followed their lead and used a common tag such as ‘govweb’  to mark out information of interest for all of us?

I’m not knocking PSF, as I said I enjoy their coverage and take on things. In fact I applaud the recent initative they are promoting to establish a public sector web management group (PWSMG). Initatives such as this can only help to share the knowledge and experience of the community of webbies to improve our work. I’m involved in a few different forums but without the backing and momentum of an organisation or energised individual it is very hard to gain traction.

I’m really glad that PSF are helping PSWMG to get going. I’m hoping to attend their inaugural event in October. Wouldn’t it be great if someone from Direct Gov was their too to be part of the community of public sector webbies?

Almost recess, but already silly season for webbies

All over whitehall, officials are getting ready to breathe a sigh of relief. Recess starts at the end of this week and that means MPs and ministers will go off on their holidays, things will get a bit quieter, and everyone can get some well earned R&R.

Unfortunately, the week or so before recess is a nightmare for people running government websites. Policy officials all over the department suddenly remember that they were supposed to have something published online months ago and they’re going on holiday for three weeks at half four.

‘It simply must be published’ , ‘It’s one of the department’s priorities’, ‘The minister has insisted that it goes on the website today’, are all commonly heard phrases from anxious harassed officials on the phone during weeks like this.

To be fair to them, sometimes policy decisions are made late in the day as ministers clear their boxes before they go off on hols. The problem is the officials conveniently forget to tell us that something might be coming our way until they’ve got that magic signature on the submission. Then insist that something must be done that instant. If we calmly explain that, ‘we are already dealing with twenty similar requests, we’ll try to fit them in but it might not be until tomorrow’, you can bet your bottom dollar that their manager will call back in five minutes insisting that their pronouncement is more important than anyone elses.

They often forget to tell us that they are also going on holiday tonight. But we always know the underlying reason.  Case in point. Last summer one of my staff took an ‘urgent’ call early on Friday morning. Usual story, the world will end if this is not published by the end of today, the minister had read the runes blah blah blah.

(us) ‘Alright, we’ll do our best, can you send us the documents in question together with the form we send out for all publication jobs’ (this covers things like metadata, where on the site it should go etc etc).

Nothing heard back by lunchtime. We called them – out to lunch. Left messages, still nothing.

Finally made contact at around 3pm. (them) ‘Why haven’t you published it yet?’ – (us) ‘You haven’t sent the documents to us’.

Wait a bit longer, call back – (us) ‘Is this still happening, we assume its not as you haven’t sent anything’ – (them) ‘I’ll send it in five minutes’.

Forty five minutes later, the email arrives. No documents attached. Try calling back, no reply. Send an urgent email ‘we tried calling you, need the documents urgently’. Twenty seconds later, we get an out of office message, on holiday for three weeks. Urgently tried calling, eventually somebody else picks up the phone, ‘Sorry he’s gone, don’t know anything about the documents’.

Three weeks later, (them) ‘why didn’t you do that thing I asked you?’ (us) ‘you didn’t send it’.

Its the same every time… Still next week it will be a little quieter.