Not talking about it

I always knew when I started this blog that there would be subjects that I’d have to steer clear of – for reasons of personal and professional integrity, not to mention the UK Civil Service Code of Conduct and all that. But by and large my work is routine and not terribly interesting material for blogging anyway, so I thought it would be a rare occurrence when I had to hold my tongue. It wouldn’t happen for a few months or even a year or two, I was sure. I certainly didn’t expect that it would arise in two weeks.

The moment came on Tuesday at 1.44pm. I suddenly noticed that my email program’s alert box – that pops up to announce new incoming mail – was having a seizure. Normally it comes and goes at a very leisurely rate, but now it was pinging up new announcements with almost Morse Code-like urgency.

Okay, no problem, we’d seen that before. My email program is also tied into the main corporate website mailbox (a legacy from having been on the development team of the website), and on a few occasions we’ve seen email traffic suddenly spike as the website comes under a spam assault. We keep taking steps to close the loopholes that allow these spam attacks through, but every now and then someone finds a new way in. So it was clearly one of those, right?

Hmmm … The emails that were arriving looked awfully like proper emails, and not the latest enticements from Busty Babes from a .ru domain name like the usual spam. These had real names … and email addresses … And proper content. Although the strange thing was that they were all talking about the same thing.

All the emails were about the browser testing consultation that COI had just started the previous Friday. We get asked by clients all the time “what browsers should we make sure we’ve tested our shiny new website against to make sure it really adheres to web standards and that everyone can use it?”, and there’s never been a cross-government standard answer to the question. Everyone has to make up the answer on the spot. This browser testing consultation aims to provide guidance that will help government webmasters everywhere answer that question for themselves.

We’ve put up consultation papers before and never had this sort of reaction, so what was different here? Some emergency reverse engineering quickly found the answer: there was a story on The Register, the UK’s IT industry online reporter, entitled “UK Govt screws browser choice: Burueacrats play the numbers game.” We had been Slashdotted (well – by the UK equivalent.)

The article had been posted at 1.37pm; it was just seven minutes later that the flood of emails had hit us. How people had found the article, read it, and fired off an email in that time amazed me. It meant that they couldn’t have read the consultation paper in any detail, which is a shame as the responses were about The Register coverage rather than the paper itself.

I’m still marvelling at The Register article, which starts off by describing COI as “the UK’s IT advisory body” (we’re categorically not; we are a media, marketing and communications agency) and goes on to state that we had just published “a proposal that public sector websites may snub browsers with a low market share.” This is so far from what the intention of the document as to leave us genuinely speechless; and when subsequent reports then referred to COI consulting on browser exclusion, it seemed almost like living in a bizarro universe. The consultation had been about ensuring that websites supported the widest number of people, operating systems and browsers; how had that been spun to being about government trying to exclude them? How had we given such a misimpression? Was it us, or was it “them” (whoever “them” is these days)?

I should be clear: I wasn’t involved in the drafting of the consultation paper and can take no credit for it. But I do work alongside the people who did, and I certainly chipped in occasional advice, so it does feel very close to me. I really wanted to respond and post something about this, do a proper Web 2.0 social media response. But I quickly realised that I couldn’t: almost anything I said could be misconstrued. If I said anything that was interpreted as being different from the paper then I could set up a secondary firestorm, and our corporate communications people would be seriously pissed off with me. And rightly so. What you don’t need at a moment like this is some clueless clown going off and pouring petrol on a barbecue – it’s what the Code of Conduct is basically there to prevent, not to mention professional integrity. Nor would just steadfastly agreeing with the consultation paper add anything to the debate either.

So the best thing I could do was say nothing. That’s very annoying for someone who believes in dialogue, consultation and social media – to realise that the very approaches I believe in can only worsen a situation, and silence is the only way. I think I ever-so-slightly better appreciate the position of politicians when they suddenly become the eye of a media storm, and how nothing they can say or do can get them heard.

But on the positive side, the consultation certainly got a lot more coverage and interest than we can usually hope for. After the initial storm, we started getting a lot of varied, interesting and very thoughtful responses from people who, by now, had had enough time to have read the actual consultation paper, for example at and The Pickards.

The consultation runs through to October 17, and I hope anyone interested will read the consultation paper (PDF, 160K) and send us their thoughts. The team behind the paper are genuine about wanting a dialogue on the subject, and this is most certainly no rubber stamp exercise.

And as for my personal thoughts on the consultation? Well, that’s the bit I’m still not talking about in any detail, just in case – as I rather like my job. Besides, one of my colleagues who worked on drafting the paper has already replied very eloquently to the blog article on that was picked up by The Register for their story in the first place and there’s little for me to add other than “I agree” and “What he said.”


  1. Nick Jones


    Great post, your job is safe!

  2. I was amazed, and surprised at the coverage. I read the guidelines pretty carefully last week and though they’re complex, I certainly got the impression they’d been written by people who know their stuff and importantly, care about web standards. I’ll submit the handful of comments I have next week, to add to the mountain.

    Clearly, the blogosphere wants to help government get these issues right. Equally clearly, COI is the home of some of the most expert thinkers on these issues in government. And as the delivery arm of the Transformational Government team, it is under the TG and Power of Information spotlight as a model for the rest of us.

    So with the permission we’ve all been granted by the Principles for Participation Online, and the great culture that I know exists at COI, this feels like a good time to make the leap and start debating these issues in a corporate online space. A blog on the public internet written by the standards and guidelines team would make pretty interesting reading for the cadre of e-comms people across the public sector. It would be a way to take early soundings, rebut quickly the kind of misinterpretations that took hold last week, and demonstrate openness to ideas from agencies, freelancers, government colleagues and anyone else. It would also showcase the intelligent debate and discussion which I’m pretty sure was had within COI about the guidelines before publication.

    We’re not talking about CivilSerf here; yes, there’s a danger of petrol-on-flames scenarios, but in reality a corporate blog is much more likely to remove the fuel in the first place, by providing a space for people to engage with otherwise faceless bureaucracy.

    Be bold.

    (p.s. So why don’t I blog in a corporate space? It’s a fair point: we’re working on it)

  3. Steph’s right. The (frankly over-the-top) Register coverage, and the response it produced, form a good case study of what can happen when you don’t produce these things openly, collaboratively.

    A year ago, Jayne Nickalls (apparently?) said there would be a Directgov blog of some sort. My own suggestion was that it should be ‘a) a straightforward What’s New channel; b) involving people in its development; c) encouraging discussion of what it should or shouldn’t be doing.’

    It made sense for Directgov, as a programme aimed at providing better service to the citizen; and for the same reasons, it makes equally good sense for COI to do likewise. Not purely as a defensive tool; but more to get the ‘good news’ out, and to host a dialogue around it. And besides, it’s a little odd for HMG’s communications specialists not to be dipping toes in the water of what is unquestionably ‘the new black’ in communications.

    PS: Yes, sometimes the only sensible thing is to say nothing. I’ve felt that myself, having done work for No10 over recent months. I’m not sure I can say anything critical about (party) politics just now, lest the Mail decide to quote me as a ‘Downing Street insider’. (Ha, I wish.)

  4. andrewlewin

    Well I wouldn’t be much of a social media person if I didn’t agree with you both about the benefits of a public blog approach. I’d like to see it, too, and indeed that’s how we used the DfES Standards Site forums back in 2003-ish to a certain extent (I was moderator there for a few years.)

    But I’m not sure how ready COI is for that. You could say I’m an (unofficial) testing ground for the time being, although there are moves to set up a pilot civil service blogging scheme that some COI folk will be contributing to (waving at Nick.) Unfortunately it’s just for government users for the time being, but maybe the first step to something more public.

    The thing is, COI isn’t meant to be public-facing; we’re there to facilitate campaigns and make our clients look good, but never to be the story. That’s why we do very little COI marketing of any kind. Until recently we also didn’t do any policy work, either, but the transfer of the digital policy team from the Cabinet Office in April has changed that. It’s all a bit new to us, I guess, and we’re still working through the consequences. Comments and suggestions like yours are useful and helpful, though, and I’ll relay them back as and when I can.

    (Somewhat on point, there’s an interesting post about “are you an Apple or a Google when it comes to blogs and openness” on some of these points.)

    Oh, and as for DirectGov – probably just worth mentioning that their stay with COI was sadly brief and they are now part of the Department of Work and Pensions. Partly that’s because, as noted above, COI are not public facing while DirectGov most definitely is, and that is why DWP – one of the most public facing government departments – was seen as a better match for their work. Hence I have absolutely no idea about what their plans for social media, blogging, etc. may be.

  5. Andrew: I can see where you’re coming from. But you’ve also identified the important distinction between the policy work COI does (which should be open) and its delivery work (which need not be). If you want to get involved in the policy debate about web standards in government, COI is the place to go.

    I also think that ‘public-facing’ is a tricky concept here. I’m envisaging a technical blog along the lines of those in the web design community (Eric Meyer, Jason Santa Maria, Jon Hicks etc etc) where a fairly small group of people – hundreds, at the most – with an interest and ideas come together to discuss new approaches. Some of those people will be within government, but lots won’t be. Launching a blog like this would make most people’s eyes glaze over, but those who care would get involved I think. So we’re not talking about COI becoming headline news here; something more akin to a BarCamp-scale discussion but online.

    What would the COI management board say to the team setting up something pilot, pre-moderated, and pre-approved by corporate comms?

  6. andrewlewin

    I couldn’t be more thrilled if COI is indeed now seen as “the place to go” for web standards in government. We’ve been evangelising about web standards since 2000, trying to get agencies and clients to rigorously follow them in all the projects run through COI Interactive, and the great thing about having the digital policy team with us now is that we can actually be coordinated and coherent on both policy and delivery.

    But leading on that side is very new to us, and – as I mentioned above – we still need to do some thinking on the consequences of now being responsible for the policy side. I’ll certainly take the suggestions back. What will the COI management board and corporate comms say? Guess we’ll only find out if we try asking.

    And I’d never have thought a consultation paper on browser testing would have been headline news … until last Tuesday. You never do know!

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