Steve Messer

Blogging and working in the open

This is a talk I gave to the GDS product management community a year ago. It’s mostly aimed at other people working in digital transformation of government, but actually I think everyone should blog a bit.

There’s lots of ways of working in the open, blogging is just one of them.

So what is the point of blogging?

First we should define what a blog is. The noun ‘blog’ means a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.

Blogs have been a part of the Web since the 1990s when web publishing tools were made easier-to-use for non-technical folk. They’ve always tended to be in a diary style, allowing people to talk about what they do, their interests and anything they please.

But what’s the point of blogging in government?

Blogging helps to

  • open up government
  • form a dialogue with our audience
  • share what we’ve learnt

It’s really all about starting conversations and sharing knowledge. The audience might be fellow service creators or it might be end users.

But it’s worthwhile taking this a step further. Blogging is all about working in the open. Working in the open causes you to be honest about your work and makes it easier to collaborate with smart communities of peers.

I’ll expand on that…

What’s the point of being open?

The Government Transformation Strategy says that ‘a culture of open, digitally enabled policy making and service delivery is critical to our future success.’ It’s written into our values as an organisation too: ‘Make things open, it makes things better.’

Being open is about the importance of working across organisational boundaries to make things better for users.

If someone in Department A talks about a particular problem and someone in Department B says they’ve encountered the same thing, they’re likely to ignore the boundaries and differences between their departments and explore the problem together.

The shared goal is making things better for users and working in the open helps facilitate that.

So, more formally, what are the goals of openness?

And these don’t just cover blogging, they can be attributed to our day-to-day practice too.

The goals of openness

These come from Open Matt.

Participation: it’s rocket-fuel for smart collaboration. Speaking outside of your organisational box can attract other people, get conversations started and accelerate collaboration. (Joined-up working, yeah?)

Agility: speed, flexibility, getting shit done. When you work in the open, you’re more likely to check what you’re saying before putting it out there. It encourages a better, more accountable working practice, as well as working out how to build the right thing.

Momentum: communities want to push boulders that are already moving. Simply put, working in the open is cheap PR. People love to get involved in exciting projects headed in the right direction. One of my favourite stories is how Neil Williams got offered a job at GDS because he blogged so enthusiastically about a single government website, and Tom Loosemore happened to spot it. But you see this with the Local Digital Coalition too. Teams in previously under-the-radar councils becoming visibly active in improving their authority’s ways of working.

Testing and rapid prototyping: refining as we go. Working in the open creates better feedback and testing loops, and the history of changes is documented. You have the opportunity to welcome a more diverse set of voices to comment on your work, which is always a good thing.

Leverage: getting greater bang from our limited resources. And again, blogging is really cheap PR. I’ve personally made a ton of good connections I didn’t expect simply by talking about what I’ve done. Don’t worry about making things too polished though, raw honesty (or slightly processed honesty – runny honey) is some of the secret sauce to making it work. (That means you can talk about failure as well as success.)

So why blog about our work?

Blogging is not about thought leadership or public performance, it’s about actively feeding the conversation around agile, user-centred transformation.

By putting our experiences out there and talking about the new challenges we’re facing, people can empathise or respond, developing the transformation project we’re all a part of.

And we should be more open to talking about failure too, or announcing when things didn’t go to plan. Not to call ourselves out but help others later down the line.

This is an excellent quote from Ellie Craven who used to be the PM on GOV.UK Registers.

‘The more we obscure how we work, and why it’s valuable, the harder we’ll find it to gain broad organisational support for the next project, and the one after that.’

Talking about our work helps us better describe it and its value across government. It also gives you a chance to show your working without that person needing to attend a talk or Show & Tell.

And then she goes one better…

‘We should do the hard work to make this simpler for those who come after us.’

That’s my emphasis, but talking about our work now helps people who might one day step into our shoes.

So going back to what I said before, blogging helps to

  • open up government
  • form a dialogue with our audience
  • share what we’ve learnt

Some principles

Some principles (for civil servants) then.

The Civil Service Code underpins everything. Stick by that.

But the first real rule, don’t be a dick.

Try not to be the person to say the wrong thing or inadvertently give away a ministerial plan or cause offence to a team member. None of that is good, but you can mitigate it by asking a second pair of eyes to look over your work.

Ask someone before mentioning them, they might be staying away from the ‘spotlight’. One of my colleagues doesn’t use social media, for example, and wants to stay away from it, so I only ever referred to them as ‘our delivery manager’.

Spoilers suck, so avoid telling another team’s story. They might be doing great things but try not to build too much of a picture if you must mention it. They should have the right to cause a splash.

How can I start blogging?

Hopefully that’s done enough to convince you to get started. So here’s a few tips to get going.

A 'Blog' column on a kanban board

Add a ‘Blog’ column to your kanban board. It’ll help you consider which pieces of work are worth sharing and talking about. You might even build up a few stories per sprint to talk about. Break it down into smaller chunks, it’s much easier.

If you want to start small and maybe try something more personal, weeknotes are a great way to get going. Weeknotes are personal reflections on your working week to learn from what you’ve done and improve your practice from week to week. You simply write about what you’ve done and how you feel about how it went.

There’s an excellent community on the #weeknotes hashtag on Twitter who can give you ideas, but you can also just ask for help. They’re super friendly.

It’s worth saying that blogging isn’t an easy thing to start, you’ll probably get ‘the fear’ about receiving criticism on your work or thoughts. But that’s fine, my advice is to just dive in and have a go. Usually your fears don’t match reality, and there’s an amazing community there to comment and help if you’re struggling anyway.

You don’t need any money to get started, really, you can spin up a blog in minutes using platforms like Wordpress and Medium. It’s a quick way to test out the practice and see if it’s right for you.

If you’d like to create your own website, static site generators like Jekyll and Hugo are low-tech ways to get started. You might have heard of GitHub Pages which runs on Jekyll. You simply feed it some Markdown files and it builds a website for you. GitHub Pages is free too, and it’s a good way to become more familiar with Git in general.

And you needn’t worry about having to promote your blog posts either. Services like Missinglettr, Zapier and Quuu Promote will syndicate your blog posts on social media automatically, helping your posts to get a greater reach.

A scene from Nathan Barley

You may become a self-facilitating media node. That’s fine. The goal is to share knowledge and passion and get more people involved in agile, user-centred transformation.

A note on passion

At the end of the talk, I asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they wanted to work at GDS after reading one of its blog posts. 75 per cent of people put their hand up.


Thank you to Matt Jukes, Amanda Smith, Giles Turnbull, Neil Williams, Dan Barrett, Ellie Craven, Sam Villis, Jonathan Kerr and the #weeknotes folks, stalwarts of the blogging and working in the open community who inspired this.

Further reading