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 Puffbox.com 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 webstandards.org 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.”