Miliband and Hammersley… together at last

It has been an open secret that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has recently opened its arms and mind to Ben Hammersley – in my opinion, this is one of the single most important steps the department will take digitally, other than scoring Miliband as its Minister.

Something needed to happen to help government departments realise that online communication need not have a 1million pound plus IT tag attached to it. In the last four weeks, Paul Bute and Ben have managed to pull off Project Demophon (working title).

It is still in Beta therefore being tested – sorry for stating the bleeding obvious – taken to various board members and yet to see the light of the private office, but that is happening now, so forgive me for not actually sharing the url, it will come, be patient!

Here is what it does (copied from the Beta version Home page):

Demophon is the FCO’s online collaboration space. We use it to work on projects with partners outside government. It is based on a system called a wiki. A wiki is a website where the users can edit every page, and create new ones at will. At the top of every page is an “edit” link. Click on this, make your changes, and hit save. Your changes will be visible immediately.

If you are new to using Demophon then click on help. You can edit the help page too, so if you find a new thing to do, or a better way of putting it, please make changes. Feel free to play around in the Sandpit. Do not worry about making mistakes – every version of every page is automatically retained. You can roll-back changes with ease. Click on the History tab at the top of any page to see this. Confident wiki users might like to bookmark the cheatsheet.

Demophon is password protected for privacy, and all users are verified. Once verified, every user can see every page on Demophon. This is a good thing. It means that all information can be cross referenced, and we don’t need to reinvent stuff. Users are all those with an account and include colleagues in the FCO, partners across government, and partners outside government (including the media) who have been nominated by an FCO officer.

Only place UNCLASSIFIED material on Demophon – information that you are content to be in the public domain. If information is sensitive in any way (including ‘in confidence’ and ‘UBS’ material such as details of high profile visits or personal data such as telephone lists) it should not be placed on this space.

So far so good… but it gets better

Demophon provides the FCO’s first collaborative working space. It enables you to:

  • arrange meetings, visits and conferences: agree on location and dates and logistics, set the agenda, and write the reports collaboratively;
  • draft business plans collectively: if you hoard them on Word docs your stakeholders will complain they haven’t been adequately consulted;
  • share best practice: get your colleagues and partners to develop their own FAQs and link to best-of-breed examples;
  • produce real time project and political reporting: contribute to project updates and reports written by teams all over the world (including external partners);
  • manage crises: ensure all the information we need is in one place. Don’t put up with unconnected email strings;
  • keep up to date with contacts: update external (and internal) details as a team so that your QBP list is always up-to-date;
  • access your personalised feeds: keep up to date with what your contacts are doing via RSS without wasting time searching multiple websites;
  • (on non-Firecrest machines) use maps: ideal for managing fast moving crises/unfolding events.

It is not rocket science, but we all knew it was not hard – thanks Ben for making it happen H/T forever…

I know that it is frustrating hearing about something but not being able to go and play, but let’s give the guys a break, applaud the fact that this has been achieved and support its uptake across Whitehall and local government/third sector – (hurrah for them :))

For those of you Miliband-ites

A friend of mine has kindly sent me the following re Newsnight 7th May:

Tonight Jeremy will be talking to the Foreign Secretary David Miliband live in the studio after he delivers what promises to be a radical speech on transforming Britain into a low-Carbon economy.

He argues that this is the only solution to the problems of spiralling energy and food prices as well as water shortages.

But will the shift to low carbon economy mean difficult decisions for all of us – especially the government – about how we live our lives?

If you have a question you’d like to put to David Miliband on this, or any other issue relevant to the Foreign Secretary, then please let us know.

When we’ve put this request to you before regarding other guests, there have been murmurs of discontent when questions haven’t made it to air. This time, as well as answering some of your questions on the programme, the Foreign Secretary has kindly agreed to respond to several more via
the Newsnight blog tomorrow morning.

Click here to post your question:

I shall certainly be watching – um trying not to drool – but I know some of you who have burning questions.

Off ye go

PS cannot let you go without sharing this little piece of joy just the picture, mind you

The new Foreign and Commonwealth website

As you all know, I have been involved in the development of the new Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) website – – looking pretty lovely right now.

Many of you have asked me why I have not blogged the ‘launch’, or switch over, from the old to new site… well, because actually my role had little to do with it. Not that I am not proud of what has been achieved, rather it is not right for me to lay any claim to it at all!

I did do last minute frantic CMS work for a week; however, I was hired to ensure that the 220 posts around the world knew what we were doing, understood what they had to do and felt as if they were a part of this big change.

This does not warrant me doing a big HAZZAH!! when the new site goes live

It is not me being myopic, I just do not feel as if it is exactly my place.

However, the e-media team at the FCO have given blood, sweat and tears to make this happen, and they deserve the plaudits.

Go say something nice 🙂 there were many 1am moments in producing this site


Links, libel and law

This has been a week of mixed emotions. I have been very touched by everyone’s comments both on- and off- line about the post on the justicefortom site, and was equally as elated when I found out that I had – finally – been linked to from David Miliband’s blog.

Now, I have to confess that I bullied and nagged to get a link – simply because I harbour a completely unrequited respect for the man (the man not the politics, necessarily).

Within minutes the elation of finally having achieved nirvana was replaced by panic about what his linking to me might mean; not for myself, for him – well for both of us actually – with the death throws of civilserfgate still reverberating around Whitehall. By linking to me, he was seeming to bring my own views and opinions into his own blogosphere and could, perhaps, be seen to be endorsing whatever I say. In light of my post on justicefortom this might not be a good thing for a Foreign Secretary to be doing. Hmm…

I could detail the following 24 hours but it is neither interesting nor relevant – however, I ended up asking someone to remove me from the links on Miliband’s blog, as I was on the point of throwing up if they didn’t!

Of course, they obliged and I felt relieved yet confused.

At lunch the next day I discussed this with a respected colleague and he asked whether by linking to someone are you endorsing all of their views? In the same way as quoting something libellous that someone else has said, in a court of law makes you guilty of libel. Does the same law stand for linking?

By linking to me, was Miliband saying that he endorsed my fight for Tom?

By my linking to anyone, or recommending anyone on this site, does that mean that I endorse every belief they have?

No… but what if it did?

This is the last word on customer retention

As a champion of social media I am struggling with the moral dilemma of writing a new post based on the one-to-one conversations I have been having in light of my recent musings. How can I credit you all when you do not want to post your opinions in the comments? Only solution I see is to wrap up my own work and include highlights of what you have all taught me. Everything that you have sent to me has been really useful, thank you. Special thanks to Adam Burr from Logica who has been hugely educational and whom I shall quote extensively.

At the end of my post yesterday, I said that I would tie it all up for you: what I have done so far, benefits measurement and Press Office.

To start with the latter: you need to let them know what is happening, give them lines to take on what you have done with the website.

Benefits measurement: Ben ‘just wikipedia me’ Hammersley (yes I name-dropped, and?…) says that we should be fine with 404 stats. I agree to a point, however, if the technology is OK and we work it well that does not necessarily mean that we have reassured our stakeholders and readers whilst we play online pick-up-sticks. (More on this later).

My suggestion is that you put an error 404 capture on, just to see how you are doing and remedy all 404s as they come in. In addition, you run a customer review on the site, every three to six months. I would use a specialist company to do this. This would enable the e-media team to feel fully confident that the people they are delivering a service for – and the people they are delivering the service to… are happy. Not only feeling confident, they will be able to back it up with real user insight.

How did we get here…

Original post explained the following:

Exec sum – or similar

In researching this subject I spent many hours on the internet looking for the words: keeping your customers when changing url/retention of online customers. Surprisingly, I found nothing that gave any practical advice. Through contacts in Google, in the dark arts of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and in the National Archives, I have found that the answer is:

1. not simple or singular and

2. relies heavily on user input.

The two things that strike fear into the heart of all professional communicators.

In this blog, I have tried to simplify those principles that are imperative to the retention of customers. I have also attempted to provide an action point(ed) list of things to do to complete a diamond, bronze and tin version of customer retention – but would welcome all thoughts… please!

The rest is down to you, your comms team and marketeers.

This blog should also help you avoid time-consuming pitfalls.

Since then I have learned much and have changed my view. The 301 and 410 redirects will do it all for you, but as a business you should reassure your customers through old-fashioned comms. For this you need

  • some kind of reverse linking tool to see who is driving traffic to you
  • analyse that and ensure that the top 150 referrers are well looked after
  • put a page on the site that you can point people to
  • ensure that you are retaining your customers through measures

Now, Ben started an interesting (although offline) argument about the value of being this anal. Adam Burr put it most succinctly:

Why the URLs are changing

The existing URLs are, for the most part, not good at all. They are being changed because they are being improved! Anyone who has been on the fco website and clicked around for even 1 minute will have seen the ugly URLs I am referring to.

Why there should be comms

Because authoritative 3rd party sites such as are trusted by search engines. If these sites continue to have the old links then they are effectively asserting (with implied authority) that we do indeed have content at that URL. Ben is right that things will work, but an outdated link is still an outdated link. The nuances he is missing are…

  • Some of the outdated links will lead to the “page gone” holding page. This will refer people to site search and TNA, but this is not ideal. It would be better for 3rd party webmasters to provide a link to the next-most-helpful-page on either our website or someone else’s.
  • The 301 redirects shouldn’t be necessary in perpetuity. For one thing, they lead to a slower user experience, particularly if the user in question is in a part of the world that is distant from our servers and not well equipped from a bandwidth point of view. After all this is the FCO site! They also add to the load on the server as the mapping list will be large. It should be possible to monitor the number of 301s being issued and remove the redirects when the frequency of their use reduces to below a set level. The 410s can take up the slack.
  • And finally, it is inelegant and not “joined-up gov” or “partnership” to not inform the third party sites of the redesign and consequently leave the Internet littered with harder to type, harder to remember, non-up-to-date, soon to be obsolete and slower-performing links.


I accept that partly it depends on one’s philosophy to web URLs. When an organisation publishes a piece of content at a URL, are they really accepting responsibility to respond to requests for that URL in perpetuity? (I accept that PQs are a separate case as Law seems to mandate the answer – but what is the principle that dictates this for every other URL?) I think change is OK as long as there is a good reason and as long as it is properly managed, which is what we are planning to do!

He was not happy with that and continued:

“Gone off on one” a bit trying to understand whether URLs are some kind of perpetual obligation under accepted webmaster etiquette and bet practice

I found this essay which is interesting. It contains an interesting quote:

“Any URL that has ever been exposed to the Internet should live forever: Never let any URL die since doing so means that other sites that link to you will experience linkrot.”

But also quotes the World Wide Web Consortiums standard that a server may return a 410 in which case the requester should remove their link or a 301 in which case they should amend it. So clearly, there is some room for debate as to where the burden of responsibility actually lies or perhaps how it should be shared.

I think that the practical reality is that no-one wants to maintain forever all the 301 redirects for any page that they have ever had on their domain. I feel that there needs to be a statute of limitations whereby once honour has been satisfied they can be withdrawn.

I am afraid that I cannot be any more explicit than this – it is an interesting discussion (for anal people like me). Would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Customer retention: update 3

For this to make sense you do really need to read my last two posts on customer retention… or you can just not and read on here but it might be a bit muddling… quick update:

We know about the 301 and 410 redirects and switching these on permanently is sensible. Hansard and The National Archives (TNA) are being superstars in a) accepting our proposed solution for parliamentary questions that contain answers which link to the current FCO site and b) harvesting the whole of our site before we cut-over – to sit forever behind TNA wall and remain available in perpetuity should any queries arise.

Next question was about the blogs. Obviously we need to keep the stuff that we have and we need to ensure that RSS feed readers will obey 301 and 410 redirects. I am assured that this is the case – relief all round!

So far so simple.

Now it is my turn to tackle the comms. I got hold of a Nedstats report of our top 1000 referrers – but anyone can get this info from Google reverse linking – and:

1. Deleted everything after the first 150 referrers (this was because when I looked, there were so many dupes after the first 150 it was silly)

2. Deleted all search engine referrals (we are handling them with redirects and xml sitemap)

3. De-duped the remaining sites

4. Categorised them into: (a) those that we owned, (b) those that we are associated with (in this case domains) and finally (c) private sector sites such as Expedia etc

5. Stopped to admire beautiful and small list of key referrers

6. Created key messages for each group


Now all I have to do is:

  • create a standard by which the success of customer retention can be measured
  • talk to the Press Office about all offline comms/printed matter and assess the size of the task there – do we need to reprint anything?
  • Wrap up all that I have done these last two weeks and precis it, with detail of whom I have spoken to and what we need to do next in each case

I feel strangely inadequate. What started as a dramatic and scary task has broken down into something beautifully simple. I shall update you all at the end of my fortnight.

Seeking opinion on Twitter and Travel advice

I have recently had a conversation with the good people at the FCO about the travel advice service. This is just a discussion right now, hence me asking for some input. There is some appetite for ‘tweeting’ (updating you through Twitter) the latest status in each country covered. The idea being that you would follow (for example) and find out whether there are any updates that you need to be aware of in that area. These updates could also be streamed by travel websites and mobile services.

In theory this sounds good, but as you know I am not exactly an expert on Twitter (although I am using it more and more each day). I am pretty sure this would be good but I have some concerns about:

1. Customer reach

2. Cost

3. Security

4. Editorial input

5. Value add for the FCO

Many thanks to Paul Caplan (theinternationale) who has already suggested using a lexicon to manage the content being tweeted.

I would appreciate any further advice/suggestion on this particular one as I believe that it would provide a v useful service… but I could be wrong!

Disclaimer (one day I will write a post with no disclaimer): I am not personally making any money out of this, I will point the people I am in discussion with to this conversation in true SM style

Update on customer retention

After writing about how to retain customers, I was duly summoned by the FCO (my employers at the time) to put my theory into practice and go ahead to make it happen. I am half way through my fortnight of doing so, but thought it might be useful to update you all with how this translates in reality – with some incredibly brilliant help from Adam Burr from Logica.

Disclaimer: my boss, the wonderful Tracy Green (head of the e-media team in FCO) knows that I share this information, it is within the bounds of public sector knowledge share, and full accreditation is given where it is due.

The FCO web project is Prince 2 certified (I am assured there is a Prince 1 by the fabulous Dave Briggs, but cannot remember what it supposedly did) . Anyone who is either Prince 2 certified, or has worked on a Prince 2 project will realise that there is a requirement for minutising your work – which in this case is rather handy for blogging! My project manager, Darren Roberts from PA Consulting, insisted that I turned my musings into a set of deliverables over two weeks. This helped focus the mind…

In between writing the original blog post and the FCO asking me to make this real, I spoke to a contact in Logica, who could answer the technology questions for me – as it had become obvious that there was a relationship between technology and comms, and the money needed to be spent in one or other area. I learned so much and clarified the problems we were facing as follows:

1. Not annoying those who regularly use the site

2. Retaining the support and authority of key ‘linkers’

3. Checking that all Parliamentary Questions held at The House – containing answers referring to FCO web pages, would continue to point to the relevant information (pretty key)

4. Doing the decent thing with the thousands of people/companies reliant on regular updates from the FCO and associated sites

Adam read through my suggestions and proceeded to talk in a succession of numbers. After two meetings, several emails and a document, I think that I can explain what he suggests we do (from a technology/automated point of view). It is beautifully simple – so simple that I am sure it is the perfect answer.

Bear with me whilst I explain.

Glossary first, before I go on you need to know these two things:

Error 301: this code means that an old url which contains content that has moved, will be discreetly redirected to the new url – however, it sends some silent message to search engines that will ‘accelerate the correction on the search egine indices’ (quote Adam Burr). I suggest that you explore this further off your own bat if you need a full explanation.

Error 410: this a code that works better than a usual 404, because it explains that a page has moved permamently rather than being temporarily out of action. It also enables you to tailor redirects. Once again, this explanation could do with more research, do go off and look it up of your own accord.

Right, now you are ready for the beautifully simple automated solution.

We have identified two problems: Finding:

1. Content that has migrated to a new home on the beautiful new FCO website

2. Content that has not been migrated to a new home on the beautiful new FCO website

There are differing sets of reasons for why we need to ensure that all content is re-findable, but who cares? If we can solve the two redirects – we are winning.

So, the decision that we are musing over most seriously is for:

Problem 1: Content that has migrated – we put an error 301 ‘page moved’ notice on. This will help our readers, and the search engines.

Problem 2: Content that has been archived – we put an error 410 on, giving the reader a splash page with the opportunity to go to the new page and find updated information, go to the new website search page to hunt down what you need, or go to the old page that has been stored in The National Archives (this is a whole other story I am not so sure you readers will want to hear about, but if you do… yell)

How beautifully simple is that?

Now all that is required is a dissemination of the stakeholders, linkers and subscribers, and three tailored messages for each.

I will update you next week on how we handle the comms around this, and the other brilliant stuff that Adam Burr has un-earthed that might be even MORE useful!

Social media and democracy

I was at a conference today during which much was made about how social media – well it was tabbed as ‘The Internet’ but I think they meant social media – is changing the way democratic societies across the globe govern themselves.  The assumption is that those in power will be forced to listen to the voices of those they represent, and be accountable. In this vein, it was mooted that China will have democracy forced upon them, and there is nothing they will be able to do about it. Hmmm…

Well, OK, you can see how social media, or The Internet, gives many fora for opinion/discussion and can act as an effective lobbying/rallying tool. You can even see that there is little any government or ruling party could do to silence those voices – take China and its efforts to block access to YouTube – this is clearly a losing battle.

However, it is just another way for people to speak – it does not enable listening! Yes it can create a two-way conversation, yes you can feel as if you are speaking directly to the person – rather than through convoluted channels that might dilute your message… but who is listening? What assumptions are they making about you?

Anyone who works in an e-media team in the public sector, will tell you how difficult it is to champion the use of any social media tool to any great effect. And, other than responding to the perennial cry: ‘I want a blog’ – which never, ever really means I want a blog (Miliband excepted of course) there is little or no interest. This could be due to the fact that there is a great nervousness around it: mis-information and wild assumptions all ultimately culled by risk aversion/avoidance. Sure, there are some great examples of its effective use: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Number Ten’s e-petition site and the Ministry of Justice Governance of Britain site are all great examples of effective and supported use of social media tools – however, these are the exceptions and hardly about to start affecting the political philosophy behind democracy – or even give those who govern our country too much to be concerned about.

I remember being impressed by the Wispa campaign, where a Facebook group successfully nagged Cadbury’s to bring back their favourite 80s chocolate bar; I can’t see how nagging will ever enforce an EU referendum, for example, or change policy, or get you out of your tax liabilities.

Yet I keep hearing how these voices cannot, will not and should not be silenced… and a true democratic society would utilise the opportunity afforded by social media. My feeling is that there is nowt you can do to lower the noise level, but to enable real change, or the change that is suggested could be afforded by social media, a fundamental shift needs to take place in the way people listen. Until then, nagging/lobbying/campaigning through social media tools will have very little effect.

That is my view on social media and democratic change. HOWEVER, there is a great opportunity for any ruling nation to use social media tools to consult, deliver messages and perhaps better understand society’s concerns, but that is another conversation – and one that I know can be answered by members of public sector e-media teams across the globe.