Little victories

The Environment Agency, blogging about the release of a service going into beta, using video on the GOV.UK blogging platform.

Environment Agency blog

I’ve visited a few bits of the civil service, with Ali, Russell and others, and there are things we take for granted about how we communicate at GDS that blows others away; videos, public blogs, senior management taking the time to talk to staff, staff sharing how they work with their colleagues… the lot. And the thing is, it’s all relatively easy for us. We’ve had the freedom to define how we do that stuff.

The really hard work, whether at GDS, EA or wherever, is in the graft of building a service. Obviously. But from the little corner of the office responsible for posters and powerpoint (or key-frames and keynote, if you like) stuff like this looks like success too. Well done them.

Printing out blog posts

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed a few blog posts from the GOV.UK blogging platform and sent them to print.

We’re about a month away from the volume of blogging over there getting too big to keep track of. We need to explore different ways of collating that stuff for people, and I thought a ‘best of the month’ in print might be an interesting experiment.


It doesn’t work. At all.

The lag between sending something to print and getting it back – whether with Newspaper Club or Lulu or anywhere else – makes it way easier to put some distance between whatever creative spark prompts the work and the actual final thing. That distancing effect was even greater when I realised I’d fucked up the file before I exported it (the front page header was utterly wrecked).



Many pieces are too ‘of the moment’ and don’t stand up to a monthly schedule. The ones that do work well could actually just as well be collected in a year or so – it doesn’t really matter when.

Still and all, it’s a useful thing. What we did end up mulling over is how a PDF collection, or epub version, might work. Something not a million miles away from what Aly‘s getting people to do for the Transition readers, just downloadable. For people to ‘take offline’.

Basically, it’d be nice to get some of these stories in front of people in a format that doesn’t remind them of work. I like the idea of a few curators – for service managers, designers or delivery managers – picking their highlights and packaging up the URLs for people to read over a weekend, or on the train home.


A brilliant thing I didn’t do

Inside Inside Gov is the clunkily-named tumblr run by one of the teams at GDS. Of the many important things done at GDS that I have had nothing to do with, it’s the one I’m most impressed by.

If you don’t work with me you’ll almost certainly have zero interest in it or why I like it.

‘Inside Government’ was the name given to the section of GOV.UK which plays host to the corporate publishing of government departments. It recently moved the 24th ministerial department over the platform, and has made some headway into moving more than 300 others over.

To get a scale of what that means, the work done now has involved publishing 50,000 documents, closing 222 sub-domains, and rewriting 223 policies in clear, human-readable language.

Doing that is an epic undertaking; communicating with that many stakeholders moreso.

Neil and the team started the Tumblr account as a means of publishing updates about progress, answering questions and describing new features and research instead of emailing that stuff on an ad-hoc basis to thousands of people. It was a very sensible decision. ‘Publish, don’t send’ – have one canonical place to point people at and say ‘Look! Here are the answers to all of your questions! Here is the one true thing, until it is replaced with the next true thing!’ Saying a thing well once has much more power than saying it quickly a hundred times.

What has impressed me, for a few months now, is (basically) Neil. His tone of voice has always been pitch-perfect, and it’s set a standard the rest of the team have done brilliantly to match. This post, published when the last of the ministerial departments moved over, had every right to be valedictory and tubthumping. But it wasn’t. It was humble, to the point, and honest about the challenges his team face. So too this one, a post telling people off.

I don’t know if Neil writes or clears everything that gets published. I haven’t asked him (he told me recently our conversations never take long to ‘get silly’, something I take as a compliment but probably shouldn’t). But it never appears like he does. It just seems like a flow of valuable information, published in a pretty regular and timely way, in terms clear to users and non-users alike. It’s exactly the model we’re going to need services to follow if they want to meet the Digital by Default Service Standard. It’s everything I wish Last.HQ could have made of their blog. It’s brilliant.

I wrote a while back about how a blog ‘should be a lot of work for a lot of people’. What I mean is that distributing publishing authority is the best way to stop bottlenecks. But the best way to stop bottlenecks on a blog, of course, is to publish blog posts. Keep them good, and keep them coming.¬†

I watch myself worry about publishing the ‘right’ thing an awful lot, but too often I don’t consider that not publishing anything is almost certainly wrong. I just need to write well and often.

Weeks 50 and 51

I was sick for most of last week – a bone-chilling flu that kept me wrapped up while GOV.UK was busy winning awards – keeping my blogging arm at bay for a few sickly days. On the plus side I got a lot of sleep.

Haar/We Are Words and Pictures

Haar is a lovely word. However, as anyone who’s bought me a whisky in the last year knows, it is a useless word. While one-person companies are basically just games of Pretend Office, names still mean something. Names you have to spell each time you say them don’t mean quite as much though.

So, I made the changes necessary to do what I should have done right when I started out – register the name We Are Words and Pictures. It’s kept evolving as a project for almost five years now, long may that continue.

However, this hasn’t been entirely without problems. The registration happened much faster than anticipated, delaying my contract extension at GDS and leading to all kinds of unnecessary hassle. I fully expect that state to continue for the rest of April, after which I’ll start thinking about how to do things like sort out the WAWAP website, get Sandsmark moving, etc.


Contractual wrangling aside, the GDS team had a great couple of weeks. The service manual I mentioned a month ago launched Version 1 while I was down with flu, on top of which they won the Design of the Year award. Russell’s written about that, and it’s a neat summation of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of GDS right now.


Flat-planning a newspaper for Anne stirred all kinds of muscle memory from the Paper Science days. Very good fun, and lovely work from the designer too. I’m looking forward to seeing that in print.

Week 46

With a tiny exception for a bit of consultancy, last week was all about…


…specifically, preparing the Digital by Default Service Standard and Government Service Design Manual for release.

Government Service Design Manual homepage

Andrew’s blog post explains more about them. For my part, I’ve been editing mountains of guidance and working on several iterations of the navigation and introduction since New Year. It’s been a big challenge, helping to get the lessons learned from dozens of staff members out of their heads and into a markdown document, but it’s been very satisfying. The reaction has been fabulous: lots of praise, lots of constructive feedback, lots of debate among people interested in the nitty gritty of it.

For the team involved, there’s a lot of work to get it updated, polished and refined in time for the formal release in April. I’ll be swooping in at the end to help out with that, but first I’m taking a couple of weeks break.


Week 42

A surprisingly singular-focus this week. All GDS, all the time. Three half-day workshops dominated the week, two focused on the Digital by Default standard and the other an all-hands. Plus lots of ‘the usual’, which is probably worth defining at some point. A good week.

Besides invoicing for Kent and SMEE there’s been remarkably little project work this week. That’s probably good. The last few weeks have been a bit exhausting, so it’s been good to have a breather before motoring on the final leg of the SMEE films. I did manage to head to a Sophia Coppola double bill, go to a Dan Deacon gig, and visit The Shard, the Ansel Adams exhibition at the National Maritime Museum and an RSPB sanctuary though.

Rainham Marshes