Digital packs for policy teams: one week on

The packs that I wrote about last week have all been delivered to recipients.

I’ve had to keep reminding myself that this is only an experiment. At the very least, there will be five copies of Euan Semple’s book floating around BIS, for others to pick up and think about.

Some of the flaws that I have already identified with this approach:

  • Including a tablet may be misleading. I’ve received a few emails from recipients telling me that they are looking forward to road testing the device. I am grateful for the loan of the device as much as they are, I’m not particularly looking for five hardware reviews at the end.
  • One pack was passed on to a colleague of one of the intended recipients, because the original recipient told me she did not have time. That’s fine, because at least it tells me that we are still starting at an extremely low level of understanding regarding digital and civil service reform. And it may well be that in the letter I enclosed there wasn’t enough ‘take it or leave it’ and therefore people feel like it is a major commitment, rather than a gift.
  • The t-bomb was dropped by one recipient earlier this week. Again this is fine, because to a certain extent this person’s audience can be found and engaged with usefully on Twitter. A subsequent exchange of emails reminded me that it’s too easy to skip the basics with networks like Twitter. I was able to remind my colleague that Twitter is about conversations: look for some and join in. Don’t feel compelled to come up with original status updates all the time.

Finally, I have received loads of great feedback following my original blog post, and a few cautious responses too.

  • It’s worth reiterating that this is a very simple, low key experiment and just one of lots of different activities that the team are running.
  • I am definitely not looking for five new faces on Twitter as a result. This is not a drive to get people on social media, but listening to their audience online and thinking about how they and their colleagues can contribute.

I have made the letter template open access, so you can see how this was pitched and re-use, if you think it is useful.

I don’t expect to hear much more from my colleagues now, until after Christmas. I will be providing a gentle nudge in the first week of January, to see how they are getting on.

Happy Birthday

Can it really be a year since was officially launched? Yes it can.

October 17 2012 feels like a very long time ago. Goodness knows what it must feel like for the Government Digital Service.

I am grateful every day that I do not have to run a big corporate website anymore. We obviously have to take responsibility for content on, but aside from a couple of cheeky campaign sites, there’s no more worries about hosting, security and contracts. None of which makes me want to leap out of bed in the morning.

Instead, digital teams like ours are free to use the rest of the web to better effect: for communicating policy, listening to our audiences and sharing content in different ways.

This, along with a revolution in editorial content, huge consolidation of costs and, most importantly, a much improved user experience, is what has delivered in the past 12 months.

There’s also much greater transparency around content. Gone are the days when departments could publish content in odd places. And we have a whole raft of very clever and talented new people to work with and learn from.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. For me, the real story behind GDS’s achievements will be the cultural shift inflicted on the civil service by Unfortunately that story isn’t complete yet, which means that the past 12 months have been spent trying to quickly help colleagues less focussed on user need to understand – and accept – how people use the web. We definitely haven’t got there yet.

In an effort to help people understand and love, it feels like there has been the odd compromise along the way, which is understandable but also a bit of a shame. The original vision was so pure, but the home page, certain landing pages, use of video content and so on, have diluted this.

Sometimes I also have a sense of unease about the volume of work has created outside of GDS. I guess this is inevitable when an organisation and its product grows, but I feel that as the numbers of emails, meetings and paperwork goes up, the passion with which I can speak about the site is slightly diminished.

All of which is pretty irrelevant in the context of what has been achieved for the British public. I will be putting my own user needs first on 17 October, and visiting the pub. But I’ll be sure to raise a glass to and GDS.

If you have a WordPress problem, and no-one else can help, maybe you should hire…

We’re going to lose a much-valued member of the team soon, and its a real shame. Anthony O’Malley has been with us for 12 months, helping to run our bit of web estate that hasn’t yet made it to

He’s done a brilliant job of managing the BIS digital estate: archiving, converging and pruning a plethora of websites, updating campaign pages and setting up some clean-looking blogs for our policy teams.

The best bit is that he has done most of this on his own, calling on Helpful and dxw if needed. When I’ve thrown my arms up and fled into Victoria Street, Anthony has calmly sat down with people, filtered their requests and ideas, and come up with stuff that works.

It won’t feel at all comfortable without Anthony around. But he’s leaving us a neat platform to get on with, and continues to offer us more of what we need.

Unlike the A-Team, Anthony doesn’t reside in the Los Angeles underground. You can hire him here. And I recommend that you do.

A year at BIS

Westminster Abbey
The view from my office is a big improvement on previous locations

Well, almost a year.

I started drafting this post on the eve of switching off and launching It feels like a critical point in my first 12 months.

Moving to has, in fact, been the relatively easy part, mainly because everyone else has done the hard work. All credit to John Turnbull and the rest of his team, and GDS for providing the simplest CMS ever, and loads of support.

The hard part has been everything that isn’t about The Website: social media, policy engagement, digital capability (within the digital team and across the rest of the department) and setting some clear priorities. We’ve also lost a few people along the way.

The best days have been those that involved a specific piece of activity, such as one of our webchats, or training colleagues, for instance during Social Media Week. I’ve enjoyed getting stuck in to the BIS digital strategy and thinking about better use of digital tools for open policymaking.

There’s even been some progress on delivering a new intranet, and its been good to see other members of the team blogging.


I’m not sure the team is known well enough within our own department. As one of my colleagues said the other day: ‘we’re better known outside the department than within’. I don’t want our team to have profile just for the sake of it, but colleagues need to know we are here, if we’re to support the commitments made in the digital strategy.

We’re better at owning up when we try things that don’t work out, but we will need to do more of this if we are to keep improving, and not forget to celebrate success either.

And while the team is lucky to have lots of people with specialist digital skills, we’re lacking a baseline for everyone.

In the past I’ve been good at dreaming about digital press offices. I now have a chance to make this a reality.

All of which is a rather long-winded and unconventional way of summarising my objectives for 2013. Advice, hints and tips gratefully received.

Go forth and Google

Working in government can sometimes feel a bit like working in an academic institution. There's a lot of thinking, strategising and knowledge sharing, which is fine and often necessary.

But if we are to become digital by default, then civil servants need to get their hands dirty. Digital works best when people are trying for themselves: making things and testing ideas or approaches. I really struggle to help colleagues with digital when they can't make the link between the channels they might use at home, and the needs of their audiences at work.

No matter your depth of knowledge about your users, you have to be prepared to start from the beginning just like they do.

  • Glance at a poster for your service or campaign, in the rain, remember just 10% of the words on there, and Google them from a phone, 48 hours a later.
  • Speak to your local under-the-arches mechanic or coffee shop about what digital channels they use (if any), and then work out how you can reach them, and thousands more like them.
  • Talk to your daughter, niece or nephew about how they interact with Facebook, the boards they look at on Pinterest, and the hashtags they follow.
  • Re-tax your car online, contact your local council or book an appointment at your local health centre.
  • And if you want to hear what people are saying online (and you do, right? Because you care about your work) you have to join the conversation. That means setting up your own profiles, establishing a tone and purpose, and getting stuck in.

There's normally plenty of people to help you get started, but no amount of paperwork or thinking will make you any more prepared.

Yes, you can commission research from an agency, and run user testing sessions: these are useful resources in their own right. But if we are to develop capability from the ground up, then people need to get their hands dirty as well.

And nothing beats the feeling of speaking directly to your target audience, having an honest, open conversation, hearing feedback, or, better yet, understanding just how painful it is to have to make that extra click or complete another field.

We're about to do more of this; talking to employers, but its overdue and just the tip of the iceberg.

Big organisations like Government departments need to do plenty to 'embed' digital, but I'm becoming less sympathetic to the argument that this is all about confidence and empowerment: staff simply need to start Googling for themselves and their users.

Am I being too harsh?





Do civil servants need to be good at selling things?

Traditionally a civil servant provides advice and recommendations, which I suppose are a form of 'sell', by way of a carefully crafted submission. Internal comms team might be expected to promote values and ways of working, and policy teams may wish to raise the profile of their work with colleagues.

What about other changes within Government organisations? I am, of course, thinking about a single website for Government. is all about users. It needs to work for them, not for civil servants.

But for the project to really fly, it needs civil servants to come with it. The people who will continue to make policy and deliver information. For those people who have been comfortable with a fairly direct write-and-publish model, largely unchallenged, the idea that there will be a new way of doing things isn't entirely comfortable. A bit like when organisations are told they have to hot desk. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is disruptive and a break from convention.

Some seem to like just because it's new. Others aren't bothered either way. Some are cautious, but accepting. And for some the change brings uncertainty, which isn't comfortable.

How do you get colleagues on board?

The case for a single website is strong. But it still needs selling to bring people with it, and selling requires confidence. Confidence in the knowledge you have, and the product. Confidence that this is the *right* thing.

These talking points seem to work best, and enthuse colleagues about

  • Users first: no-one will tell you that they don't care about their audience. is user focused so there's very little not to agree with here.
  • Evidence and best practice: the research has been done, the user testing is constant. Google is most people's starting point.
  • It's personal: talk about real examples of tools and services that are better in a world. Think tax discs, red tape and crisis loans.
  • Everyone can be a part of it and provide feed back (but they need to look at it first, before commenting).
  • Reassure people that content won't just disappear from the web forever.
  • There's more to life than websites. We need to break the old fashioned 'write once, publish once' model. Where should we be telling people about this policy/service/consultation? There's a whole world of digital opportunity out there, to help us meet the needs of our audiences. Websites are only one part of that.

This may be too simplistic for some, but there's plenty more detail elsewhere for those who want it.

Do civil servants need to be good at selling things? If we want progress, then yes.