If you were going to write a history of UK government digital engagement, you could do worse than start with the story of the Foreign Office blogs.
I'm biased, but I think blogging at the Foreign Office has been a constant amid spikes of innovation elsewhere in the last few years.
The story happens to include walk-on parts for a lot of the people responsible for all those spikes. It has a starring role for Shane Dillon, who quietly moved on from his role corralling the FCO bloggers a few weeks ago.
The blogs have provided the ministers and officials who use them with a useful channel to discuss their work. And in doing so, they've created a model for other bits of government - and other governments - to copy.
In particular, the Foreign Office blogs have demonstrated that government officials can participate freely online in an official capacity as part of their work. The blogs are not an add-on, they have become a routine part of what British diplomats do.
As we develop our digital engagement operation in DH, it's handy that Foreign Office diplomats are providing a daily, living example that it can be done.
The story probably begins in about 1997, with Simon Dickson as the first government web manager, running the Foreign Office website from a PC under his desk. There were no blogs then of course, but maybe his legacy was a spirit of digital innovation.
The first FCO blogs didn't appear until a bit later, but the early blogs were barely akin to the blogs you see now - more of an occasionally-updated-page than a blog, but pioneering in their own way.
I joined the FCO in 2007 and wrote a blogging policy despite a lack of bloggers. But then the Foreign Office inherited a blog and a blogging platform from Defra along with a new Foreign Secretary.
Neil Williams had created the first blog by a cabinet minister while at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (a story he has told on his own blog). It arrived at the Foreign Office, having passed through the capable hands of David Pearson at Defra.
Importantly for this story, the FCO relaunched the ministerial blog alongside 5 other official blogs by diplomats, which was a hint of things to come.
The Defra blog had already been evaluated by the Hansard Society as part of Digital Dialogues, work which was commissioned by the Ministry of Justice when Jeremy Gould was there, and run by Ross Ferguson (who turns up a couple of times in this story). Iterations of these blogs were evaluated in phase one, three and four of digital dialogues.
In 2008 the FCO blogs moved to a new platform as part of the FCOWeb project led by Tracy Green, that also provided a new platform for 250 embassy and high commission websites. The rapid expansion in official blogging at the Foreign Office proved that a duff decision about the technology was actually no barrier to developing a culture of official blogging.
2009 felt like a golden era of blogging in the Foreign Office as Shane Dillon got around the office championing blogging and other social media innovation. The official blogging policy had by now been relaxed to follow a model of "presumed competence". The FCO trusted its staff, the blogs were proving useful, and there was no evidence that blogging was any riskier a proposition than the other things diplomats were doing every day. 50 diplomats were regularly blogging now; FCO bloggers were named in lists of the top bloggers in the world; and the British approach to diplomatic blogging was getting noticed, and shared and copied around the world.
In 2010 Jimmy Leach, who'd been responsible for social media innovation during his time at No 10, and then Ross Ferguson arrived at the FCO to work on Digital Diplomacy. And then Steph Gray - who'd led so many of the other innovations around government digital engagement during this time - began to turn up at King Charles Street, helping the team make more use of blogging tools. The blogs had a bit of a facelift a couple weeks ago and they're looking good to me.
Blogs are mainstream at the FCO now. They are not the novelty they were when I was there. The challenge for the FCO is what to do now. Having created the model, proved the value, and sorted out the technology, blogging should be easier and more effective than ever for Foreign Office officials. Departments like DH - where we have a handful of official bloggers but not the same established culture of official blogging - will be looking on with interest (and a little be bit of envy).
Disclaimer: I've probably got some of the facts and dates wrong, and I know I've left lots of names out.
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