Every government project should be a Project WIP

I love Project WIP – Shropshire Council’s blog about their efforts to redesign their website.

It’s got a great tone and style, is useful and interactive and gives people a chance to know what is going on behind the scenes, and to get involved too.

It’s also really helpful – take their latest post about responsive design and DPI as an example.

Camden Council did something similar with their web rebuild too.

Why just website projects though? Why aren’t all government projects reported on in the open, via a blog?

It would increase transparency, allow for interested folk to contribute from the outside and open up the teams involved to all kinds of goodwill.

Effective collaboration with wikis

Chris, the Digital Pioneer, asked in the comments (and on his – I assume Chris is a he! – own blog) for some advice how how wikis can be used to throw some rough notes up and invite people to collaborate and share knowledge and experience to develop them into more coherent documents.

Much of this stuff is standard across any kind of online community, and I don’t claim to be very original in any of this. However, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

1. Identify who might be interested

There’s no way you will pinpoint every person who might be interested in what you are collaborating on. However, you should be able to spot the people you are aware of who will definitely get things going. This might be because they have a track record of getting involved on this issue, or that they know their way around these kinds of processes. Either way, they are useful people to have around.

Reach out to these guys and let them know what you are planning to do. Keep the specifics around the tech side of things vague, but recommend they encourage others to get in touch, so you can use other people’s networks to create a bigger list of initial collaborators.

Also find out at this stage roughly what level of tech-savvyness there is among this initial gang. Find out how they like to communicate – do they prefer email, discussion forums, or are they happy getting their hands dirty with a wiki? This will help inform which platforms you choose.

2. Put a platform together

Bearing in mind what you found out in step 1, decide at this stage what wiki system you want to use. The fundamental factor is to keep things as simple as you possibly can. Other issues include whether you want to host it yourself or are happy for the content to be sat on someone else’s server, and whether you need to restrict access. On the first point, by and large hosted wikis are far easier to use and more functionally rich than those which you manage yourself. On the second, make it as open as possible, so that there are few barriers for people to get involved.

I am a particular fan of Wikispaces, because they are quick, easy to use, and can allow you to have your own space to create as many wikis as you like under your own banner, each with their own access privileges. The other cool thing about Wikispaces is that each wiki page has a discussion forum attached to it, allowing for threaded discussion about the content on that page – ideal for those who don’t feel comfortable about editing pages themselves but who nevertheless would like to suggest a change. The cost for Wikispaces goes from free to £4,000 a year, depending on what you are after.

Other hosted options include pbWiki, Stikipad (see comments), Wetpaint and Wikia. Most offer, like Wikispaces, different levels of customisation for different prices.

MediaWiki – the platform that Wikipedia, amongst many other wikis, runs on – is probably the best of the free self-hosted options. It lacks Wikispaces’ easy wysiwyg editing, and the talk pages for each entry aren’t as easy to manage either. It is however easy to set up and open source. Other self hosted options include the free PMWiki or the paid-for SocialText or Confluence.

3. Get the content on the wiki

This, depending on your starting point, can be a quick or a very labour-intensive job. Copying and pasting text from other documents is fine, but when it is from (say) a PDF some cleaning of the formatting is likely to be necessary. Make sure you factor the time in to get this done.

Don’t forget your users when adding content to the pages. Consider adding some consistent header text to the top of each page, explaining what the content is, how it can be edited or discussed, and how the wiki administrators can be contacted for help, etc. Ensure that you take into account what people told you at stage 1. If people say they like to respond by email, make sure there is an email address they can send comments to, and a process for getting those comments onto the wiki.

Ensure that the navigation for the wiki makes sense and that people will be able to find the bits they are interested in easily. Test it out on some of your initial group to get their thoughts. Maybe find a complete web-novice in your organisation to take a look and see how they get on with it.

4. Set the rules of engagement

Having rules is boring, but a lot of people like them. Part of this will come into the page heading text I mentioned in step 3, but it is probably worth explaining again on a separate page. Make it explicit who should have view and edit rights to the content and also how vandals will be dealt with.

It might also be worth explaining exactly what will happen to people’s content that they add, who it ‘belongs’ to and under what licence it is published online. These things shouldn’t matter to most people, but those that do care do so loudly.

It probably is also a nice idea to explain what the aim of the whole exercise is – what is the eventual output likely to look like? And how will those who have collaborated on it be credited?

5. Invite and manage contributions

Now invite your initial group to come onto the wiki en-masse to start collaborating on the content. Keep it to this gang as much as you can to start off with. Any problems in the structure of the site or the way content is made available will soon be spotted and fixed.

Other things will be bound to go wrong at some point. People will accidentally delete entire pages of content, for example, and panic about what to do about it. Make sure you and your team are keeping a constant online presence to monitor what’s happening so you can react quickly to a) calm down the person who has just ballsed things up and b) put things right so the project retains at least a veneer of professionalism.

6. Market it

To get people involved beyond your core group of volunteers, you need to get eyeballs. Post to relevant forums, blogs and mailing lists about what you are doing. Telephone other contacts and get them to sign up. Stick a link to the wiki in your email signature. Mention it in every letter you write.

Don’t forget that you are asking people to give up their time to help you out for nothing in return other than the kudos of actually being asked for their opinions. Some will jump at the chance, others will need more persuading.

7. Get everyone in a room

At the very least, have a party at the end of the exercise to thank everyone. But even better, have one towards the beginning too. Even online networking fanboys like me appreciate that to get trust in a community, you have to meet one another face to face first. OK, you don’t have to, but it really does help.

Maybe you could have a wiki day – a big room with lots of laptops, wifi, flipcharts and post-its, where everyone does their best to get as many quality edits done as they can, chatting to each other and developing ideas in real life. Plenty of coffee and sandwiches would probably help too.

8. Chilax

Involvement in any activity like this one will involve the acceptance of a significant loss of control and messiness in the way things develop. This is good, don’t try and fight it.

Do moderate offensive or stupid content – that does no-one any favours. But if things are developing in a direction you didn’t expect, or don’t like, let it. Have a conversation about it. Examine your own preconceptions and assumptions and see if things can be worked out another way. But don’t go round reverting pages because you don’t agree with them.

9. Get the output sorted

Finally, make sure there is a recognised output at the end. Hopefully this could be some sort of document that people who like documents can read. Make sure it is full of links back to the wiki so that people can see who developed what idea, and how that idea changed from the original.

Make sure that a description of the process is included in the final document, and that everyone who contributed is credited. Go back to those forums, blogs and mailing lists that you punted the idea around on and let them all know how it finished. Make a fuss about the fact that this stuff works!

10. There is no tenth point

Sorry

Show them a better way

Bit late on this one, but hey ho. The Power of Information Taskforce has launched a new initiative, which many commentators have ikened to the BBC Backstage project, to open up the way that government data can be hacked about. Effectively, ideas are being requested to improve the way government communicates. To quote the site, called Show Us a Better Way:

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful.  To provide you with some raw materials we will be posting some links to information sources here.

Steve Dale recorded a video of Tom Watson – the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for the Task Force – introducing the competition at 2gether08.

Bill Thompson writes:

The downside is that although they’ve got access to many of these sources they can’t be used freely yet, as there are still many restrictions on how we can exploit the data the government collects on our behalf. But if enough good ideas emerge then it will help put pressure on the various data holders to offer more permissive license, and we may eventually see a general presumption that public data is freely available to the public, as The Guardian has been arguing for a while now.

Simon Dickson says:

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

A term that has been bandied about a good deal recently in connected with this and other initiatives is ‘codesign’, the idea that processes and products are best developed in the open, with the cooperation and collaborative between government, organisations, communities and individuals.

In many ways, there is no reason why government shouldn’t engage in these sorts of developments, after all it theoretically shouldn’t have the competitive elements that might dissuade commercial enterprises from sharing all.

I wonder if I can tie in here the comment Tom Steinberg of MySociety left here recently, picking up on a point I made about who’s responsibility it is to actually get things done in this space:

“Is it organisations like MySociety? Or is it every individual with a laptop and a broadband connection? I am beginning to suspect the answer is the latter”

That would be awesome, but until Ning gets good enough to make building sites like WhatDoTheyKnow into a point-and-click exercise we’ll have to keep filling the gaps, sorry!

Of course, there is no need for Tom to apologise at all. There is a gap at the moment, and MySociety is filling it, and enriching the online political experience better than anyone else. No doubt too that MySociety will be coming up with some awesome, innovative ideas to make use of data, whether through Show Us a Better Way or not.

Exercises like this one just launched by the Taskforce make the liklihood of a growing army of bedroom government institutional hackers all the more likely. They may only have a very narrow interest in a specific part of government. They may not want to help government at all, but maybe groups on the outside of the usual political processes. Either way, they may nevr have had the chance to participate in these kind of exercises before.

It will be interesting to see, if the codesign concept takes off within government, whose (who’s?) responsibility it ends up being. It’s not a webby’s job, really, but it isn’t strictly a policy thing either. It blends and mashes the two into a new role as ill-defined and messy as the process of codesign itself. How this can fit into a departmental org chart, God only knows.