Blogging in Government | September 7, 2005

Today I had the pleasure of giving a talk to members of the governments e-communications network, part of the larger Government Communication Network. In the first of a series of events, the group invited a number of people from the web design community to discuss the subjects of accessibility and blogging. Along with Joe Clark, Alastair Campbell, Patrick Lauke and Tom Coates, I was given the honour of being asked to speak.

I headed up to London this morning and met up with Tom in Starbucks to go through our slides. Joe, Patrick and Alastair were talking about web accessibility, while myself and Tom were discussing how blogging could be used in government. We had divided our subjects evenly, with me talking about the history and culture of weblogging, as well as possible internal application, and Tom discussing external applications and how to handle staff with blogs.

After running though our notes and realising we had far too much material, we wandered through Westminster and met up with the other speakers. First up were Joe, Alastair and Patrick on the accessibility panel. Joe gave an excellent introduction to the topic of web accessibility, focussing heavily on the use of standards complaint code. Alastair then talked about the WCAG and touched on content management systems. Lastly Patrick discussed how organisations needed to see accessibility in terms of people as opposed to simply another series of checkpoint and guidelines to meet.

There was some lively discussion afterward, particularly on the subject of accessible content management systems. One of the audience members was currently trying to procure an off the shelf CMS and none of the vendors were able to provide one that met the double-A standard. Tom quite rightly pointed out that there is a huge market for good, accessible and standards based CMS systems out there.

We broke for a brief buffet lunch and a chance to chat with some of the attendees. After a suitable break we reconvened with mine and Toms’ part of the presentation. Our topic was on blogging and how it could be used in government. I started off by canvassing the audience about their knowledge and experience of blogs. Most people knew what a blog was and about half said that they read blogs on a regular basis. Unlike most conferences I attend, only three people in the audience actually had a personal blog and none used a blog for work. When asked if anybody knew of any governmental blogs, only one person did, and apparently that blog got abandoned after only a couple of weeks due to lack of time and commitment from the author.

I began by discussing what blogs were, how they came about and how they were currently being used and perceived by people and organisations. I then discussed how blogs could be used internally as a communication tool, a way of knowledge sharing and a project management platform. I ended on some of the institutional issues that large organisations face when trying to use blogs such as relaxing the inherent control culture. If you are interested, my note are available online.

Tom then picked up where I left off, discussing how blogging culture was impacting the world and how you were either part of the conversation on not. Tom discussed how blogs could be used just for their technical abilities such as using RSS for press releases or for more B2B style communications. However the main benefit of governmental weblogging was the ability to communicate directly with the community, bypassing both internal and news based editorial control. Tom talked about how governmental weblogs could give a human face to often monolithic organisations and mentioned how Robert Scoble had helped change the public perception of Microsoft. Tom wrapped up by discussing how large organisations should treat the personal weblogs of staff. Tom suggested that rather than taking a draconian standpoint, organisations should have clear usage policies in place and treat staff weblogs like any other public conversation.

Tom Coates presenting at the Home Office

The post talk discussion was very interesting and ranged from questions about possible internal applications through to comments about the cultural barriers within government that could possibly inhibit the use of external weblogs, such as editorial control or legal accountability. I think people were genuinely interested and enthused by the idea of governmental weblogs, especially for internal communication management. I personally don’t expect to see a rush of publicly facing weblogs in the near future for organisational culture reasons. However I do think the seed has been planted and as the internal culture starts to change over the next few years I see the potential for some very interesting and useful weblogs to develop.

[Updated] I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about blogging in government? Do you think it is a good idea and if so, how would you utilise it? What do you think the benefits are and also what are the pitfalls? Is your government beginning to utilise blogs, and if so, are they doing a good job?

Posted at September 7, 2005 12:31 AM

Comments

Ryan Thrash said on September 7, 2005 2:12 AM

When you say:

… there is a huge market for good, accessible and standards based CMs systems out there, so I would love to see more developers building such systems.

What’s keeping CMSes from acheiving this? Is it the templating systems they use? Forced modes of putting pages together? It just doesn’t make sense to me…

I would think that our little project (MODx) would fit the bill quite nicely because it’s an outstanding system for putting out exactly what you put in. That can be used for no so spectacular results (i.e. GIGO), or for very accessible results. Tweak a bit of menu generating code here, add some skip links there (amongst other things of course), and it provides a pretty solid solution.

Heck, the topic of this post was partly the reason why we embarked on the development journey almost a year ago. We could find no good standards compliant, really flexible, non YAPS (Yet Another Portal System) solution that would run on virtually any shared hosting provider.

Please let me know if I’m way off base, ‘cause I’d really like to make our project the first Open Source project that really fits the bill. Also feel free to email me at ryan.at.vertexworks.com if you want to know more. Or just post on our forums .

Mike Rundle said on September 7, 2005 3:39 AM

Nice!

Big time congrats Andy, it seems like this could be yet another step in right direction for you and your career. Can’t wait to hear what becomes of this.

Gordon said on September 7, 2005 8:42 AM

Certainly seems like blogging is maturing at an exponential rate at the moment.

And I’ll be pointing some people from my company at your notes - excellent stuff, thank you so much for posting them!

Dan Zambonini said on September 7, 2005 9:08 AM

It depends what was meant by ‘Accessible CMS’. I think there are plenty that produce accessible code (e.g. our product, Amaxus has produced multiple accessibilty award winning sites). However, the real problem (is this what was meant?) is with creating a CMS whose administration interface is accessible.

I think one of the problems is with the public sector being unrealistic. Their tender documents will ask that the CMS administration interface is ‘accessible’, but still require WYSIWYG interfaces, Word integration, and other advanced functionality that can usually only be achieved (in web browsers) using some in-accessible technology (e.g. Active X plug-ins).

Patrick H. Lauke said on September 7, 2005 9:50 AM

a pleasure to meet up with you, as always, although you darned bloggers stole the show ;)

let me know once the photos are government approved, so i can add them to our little staff magazine article (the joy!)

Faruk Ateş said on September 7, 2005 9:54 AM

Ryan,

I don’t know the extent of accessibility that was discussed for CMS’s, but our CMS is only fully accessible on the front-end. The admin panel is still, due to some inevitable necessities, not entirely double-A accessible.

Patrick H. Lauke said on September 7, 2005 10:00 AM

also worth mentioning: joe noted that CMS backends should not only comply with WCAG, but also the Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)…and practically none do (even looking at the open source offerings of WordPress and co.)

Andy Budd said on September 7, 2005 10:01 AM

I believe the discussion was about both the public facing pages and the internal administration system. However Joe pointed out that the administration system would really come under the accessibility authoring guidelines rather than the content accessibility guidelines, and as such would be almost impossible to pass.

Richard Conyard said on September 7, 2005 10:38 AM

Nice work Andy and Redux :-)

I don’t suppose you’ve the name of the authority that wanted an off the shelf accessible CMS ;-)

I can’t believe they are having that much trouble though. They are around, Amaxus which was mentioned earlier seems to be very impressive, there is QneCMS for smaller sites and of course our Colony (ATAG A going on AA when we sort out the additional instructions on accessibility).

Karl D said on September 7, 2005 10:46 AM

Excellent stuff, we’re actually looking into using a blog for internal comms (LGA partner) here so this is very timely indeed. Well done everyone!

Dan said on September 7, 2005 11:05 AM

Australia has a blogging senator named Andrew Bartlett. His blog’s rather good.

Lee said on September 7, 2005 12:16 PM

Having worked for the IT section of a civil service department I can say that they’re fairly well behind in the web world. We were considered fairly advanced as we had a website (and one that wasn’t knocked up in FrontPage).

The problem with blogging externally for these sorts of agencies is that you have a strong approval system before you can put out comments. The reason for this is simple: unlike being mistaken for the company view, what you write can be misinterpreted as the position for the whole government.

This checking and approval, plus only having usually one or two people authorised to express opinions outside the company means everything takes an age and sounds dull.

Maxine said on September 7, 2005 12:16 PM

Daniel must have just beat me to pointing out Senator Andrew Bartlett’s blog. I think it’s an excellent example of a blog, but a terrible example of a government blog in some ways. Bartlett has become over the years a true maverick, and the candour with which he expresses himself on his blog is an example of this. It’s unimaginable that a politician from “within the fold” would express such ideas.

He’s a good guy though: he even changed his color scheme after I wrote to him of the perils of white text, black background, and all that purple.

Simon R Jones said on September 7, 2005 12:55 PM

very interesting entry Andy.

as with many here, we’re currently working on a CMS (for a government agency) that we intend to meet both the WCAG and ATAG. Accessibility in a CMS does take effort, but is well worth it.

I’ve passed your site to friends who work in government to spread the good word

Ted Drake said on September 7, 2005 4:05 PM

Hi Andy
Did anyone mention the problem of export control in government blogs. This is the control of information from one country or division to another. It may not be a big deal for the councilmember of a town to discuss pothole repair. But when they talk about plans for a new navy base, there may be some legal ramifications.

How is this going to be controlled in a government blog? Perhaps Tom covered this issue.

Dan Champion said on September 7, 2005 4:15 PM

It’s nice to see the GCN knows what’s what - they certainly invited the right people. We can only hope they talk to their colleagues in the e-gov unit.

We’ve been using a blog internally for a year or so now, primarily as a comms tool to record and share links to online documents and articles. It’s been a limited success, with the main problem being lack of time, both for posting and reading. It’s viable where the person responsible for the blog is also responsible for the dissemination of information, otherwise there always seems to be higher priorities.

We’re about to expand the blog to a wider internal audience, which I hope will be a success, but I’m skeptical about the demnand for or utility of externally accessible government blogs. I can’t imagine the authors having the requisite honesty, or leaving themselves open to comment from all and sundry. I’m with Maxine on this - Senator Bartlett is the exception, not the rule.

Rob McMichael said on September 7, 2005 7:55 PM

Great stuff Andy. Good to head that the government are concerned and getting the right people in (rather than some Microsoft rep promoting the latest version of front page with uber tool tip text).

Tony Bittan said on September 7, 2005 8:36 PM

Hi Andy,

As you know I work in the NHS. I have been waving the web standards banner and trying to get my managers interested in inviting yourself and people like Jeremy Keith to come and talk to us.(I spoke to my manager last week and he was receptive to the idea). I have also mentioned the idea of “corporate blogging” as a communication tool. Generally the reponse to such ideas seems to be Roger Moore eyebrows and I’m left with the feeling that people think I am insane. We also suffer from lack of investment in IT and IT training - I think this contributes to the “behind the times” attitudes. I think things are changing but it’s a slow process.

Michael said on September 8, 2005 12:53 AM

Great to hear some input in this area Andy! I work for a government department (education) here in Australia, and was really thankful to read your reflections and slides.

I’d love to hear about other peoples strategies for culture change towards open discussions and criticism within government sectors! I recently found a student (not of mine!) with some excellent reflections and criticisms of her TAFE course (http://www.absoludity.net/blog/students-reflecting-on-their-tafe-experience/) and think this kind of open critisim and discussion could be invaluable for improving public education.

JaX said on September 8, 2005 6:59 AM

Man, I totally respect you, Andy. You’re an awesome web designer. Maybe someday I’ll be as distinguished as you. Keep up the great work, dude =D

Michael G said on September 8, 2005 9:20 PM

Congrats Andy (& others)

I know our local PM has her own blog…
Sandra Gidley

Carlos Guadian said on September 8, 2005 9:58 PM

Dear Andy I based my speech in the last edition of Internet Global Congress (Barcelona) on this topic. I agree with you, I see a lot of opportunities to develop blogs en government.
I also write regularly on my blog mainly on e-government topics. You can acces by http://k-government-en.blogspot.com/2005/07/blogs-in-e-administration-and.html where you can find a reference to the article that I wrote about this topic (is available for download only in Spanish version) but if you or any other people are interested in you can ask me for one on carlosguadian @ yahoo es with subject “blog on e-government”

Steve Castledine said on September 9, 2005 1:16 PM

I know UK Government uses Lotus Notes/Domino in a lot of departments - so they may find the Lotus Notes blog tool at DominoBlog of use.

This is fully templated for both admin and user front end - so full standards can be achieved for both.

Ian Lloyd said on September 10, 2005 12:47 AM

Glad to hear it went OK guys. I was disappointed I couldn’t make it, but the other half’s birthday has to come first. Besides, had I not attended that, I would not have made my rather unfortunate hand gesture in Germany. And then I’d be short of little stories to tell raconteur style at future dinner parties.

H said on September 13, 2005 4:50 PM

Oh man… govt. seems to have an obsession with CMSs which seems to dwarf its interest in publishing processes, user research, meeting user needs and task fit / usability etc. Every time I see a govt. site with more navigation than content, of which everything is as important as everything else (making nothing important), with crufty URLs and “click here? links (yet still claiming WAI level three compliance), another little bit of my soul dies.

Just a quick question for those creating / selling CMSs with web based interfaces. Why would I choose your solution as opposed to say, Contribute by Macromedia? Bare in mind that Contribute produces valid and accessible code when configured properly, has access control, a WYSIWYG editor that works(!) and is backed up by a very successful company that does very effective user research and has a large usamajility budget. And it probably costs less per licence. And it has Undo / Redo. And it plays nice with PHP / JSP / whatever. And it has workflow. And you don’t get locked in. Etc.

Granted it’s not web based so you can’t access it anywhere, but I struggle to see the advantages of web-based interfaces for complex work such as publishing. And if I want blogging I’ll use Wordpress. Perhaps I’ve missed something?

Rick Mason said on September 24, 2005 9:17 PM

Government blogs would be useful - no doubt about it.

There are several hundred authorities all over the UK all trying to tackle the same problems, working to the same deadlines, trying to understand the same government standards and targets, and if we were to talk more it would make the whole thing a lot easier.

I suspect the reason there aren’t more UK government blogs is a cultural one. I just can’t see official blogging like Microsoft’s happening any time soon. Personal blogging could work though, I would think.

We’re just down the road from you Andy, and we’re using Microsoft’s CMS to produce an accessible website - but it didn’t do it out of the box. By default you get the same kind of HTML you get from Word, which is awful. But it has the flexibilty to add code to strip out the dross, which is what I did. (In hindsight, I could’ve just plugged in HTML Tidy!)

Jason Kitcat said on October 24, 2005 9:08 PM

One of the most attractive aspects of blogs is their out-of-the box nature. With very little work you can get a searchable, categorisable, online multi-user publishing / knowledge-management system. That’s really really cool considering how 6-7 years ago that sort of thing seemed totally unattainable without a giant budget.

Blogging as a tool to catalyse cultural change is exciting too… But it’s understandable that civil servants are cautious about what goes up in public. Politicians on the other hand are often quick to see the benefits of blogging, particularly if they’re not in power and so less likely to get the media spotlight. Blogs offer them opportunities to express themselves unfiltered and unedited.

A good blog helps to make those with influence seem more human and approachable, which is a “good thing” for democracy I feel.

If fears over accountability can be dealt with I hope that government blogging could help inter-departmental learning which is often so difficult offline.