Blogging to make things open

The Government Digital Service (GDS) have been the catalyst for an awful lot of change in the last five or six years but two relatively unheralded things they did early on actually had the biggest influence on me and the way I encouraged my colleagues in Digital Publishing (and beyond) to operate.

If people are aware of the GDS Design Principles at all it is almost always in relation to the first of the ten principles –

Start with needs
user needs not government needs

This is very much the superstar of the principles and one I forever hold close to my heart. That said it wasn’t and isn’t the one that influenced me most.

Make things open:
it makes things better

This was the point that really got under my skin — working open is a game changer and when combined with working in line with the first principle? This is how you ‘transform’ organisations.

The other thing GDS did — something that now seems such a small thing — is that they set up a blog really early (at the time just paying for a premium blog — cost approx $99) and shared….and shared…and shared. They made things open from day one.

So when I joined Laura at ONS the first significant thing I did was set up this very blog. Like the original GDS blog I got it up and running on — unlike the GDS blog I used my own credit card to get rid of the ads and use a custom domain. It took a few days to get the domain sorted but then we were up and away.

In the early days it was primarily just me blogging — I was a man on a mission and that mission was to change the perception of digital operations at ONS both internally and externally.

The website had come in for a huge amount of (mainly justified) criticism but what was lost from the narrative was just how hard people behind the scenes were working to fix things. People were pretty battle scarred and I was determined to give them a voice but also to open up a dialogue with as wide a constituency of users of the ONS website as possible.

The first post was June 24th 2013 and it was noticed by a few people;

We were open and honest from the start and over three years have (now) published 232 posts. The top five most viewed posts in that time have been;

(5) Use your y-axis

(4) A social media whirlwind. But a good one.

(3) “Official data, new light” — introducing Visual.ONS

(2) Can you help us test our new online questionnaires?

..and number one by a landslide →

(1) New ONS website launched

Now there are a couple of notable things to mention here — the first is that none of those posts were written by me (which probably says something about my writing!) but more importantly the posts come from the Social Media, Data Visualisation, Digital Content, Electronic Data Collection and Beta teams — which shows that it evolved past being a one person platform and become something used by across our digital teams.

In recent weeks the ‘Big Data’ and ‘Data Science Campus’ teams have published popular posts, the social media and user research teams collaborated on a post, the EDC team posted about their adventures at Civil Service Live and the web development team continue to use the blog to share their progress.

From a personal point of view I have a few favourite posts — this one by Phil and Jonathan about the user research approach during our website alpha is a perennial favourite. The work the Social Media team (and friends) did to live tweet the budget is an example I continue to use when I am out and about as is their work with our expert statisticians on Twitter. The two posts of my own I look back at with most fondness are this one summarising the final retrospective from the Beta team and this one introducing the website Alpha which basically was the starters gun for the race to deliver the new site.

Oh and I still laugh at the blogging as therapy post that is this one by Jonathan about the travails related to the site homepage (still not really resolved!)

The team has big plans for this blog and I feel confident that it is in good hands after I move on — the important thing to remember is still;

Make things open:
it makes things better

It really does.