GovIntranet breakfast meeting

Last week, we held a breakfast meeting for our intranet clients from government departments and agencies, councils and charities. The breakfast meeting was an ideal opportunity to compare and contrast how they use the GovIntranet theme and to share ideas and experiences.

The meeting took place at our office in the Clerkenwell Workshops where we have just enough room to comfortably accommodate around a dozen people. We displayed paper printouts of intranet homepages around the office and we have an Apple TV screen to airplay live demos.

This was a very informal meeting. No speeches or presentations. Open between 8.30 and 10.30 for clients to drop in. I was prepared with a list of topics to cover should there be any awkward silent moments, but by 9.00 the majority of our invitees were present and the chatter and general hubbub was in full-flow. In fact, it’s very hard to stop intranet managers from voicing their opinions and showing off their intranets.


“The Search Box” was a common topic of discussion. Some staff just don’t use the search function, and there were various opinions as to why, ranging from general distrust of search due to years of poor experiences, to simple banner blindness. I’d definitely like to explore this further, perhaps with some A/B split testing.

On most development projects, be they website or intranet, I generally have to negotiate to make the search box more prominent, or in some cases just for a search box. During development of the GovIntranet theme I made sure that there is a visible search box, position top-right where people expect to find it. When content is written well with good titles and appropriate keywords, the search engine works really well. The overwhelming positive feedback from our latest intranet launch has been on the subject of the search function. It’s disappointing to hear that staff are missing out on this helpful feature.

Jargon buster

There’s a firm divide between use of the jargon buster module. Some organisations are making extensive use of this to explain acronyms and commonly used jargon in the workplace. Others feel that this only encourages the use of acronyms and jargon on the intranet and would rather concentrate on stamping it out.

Homepage layout

Client homepage layouts begin with a default configuration showing news and blogs in the left hand column, most active and most recent content in column two, with forums, events and twitter feeds in column three. Most intranets have stuck with the simple choice of main menu options including About, How do I? and News. Some also have a Home option. I’ve kept screenshots from client intranet homepages at launch and at subsequent points throughout their development. There are some patterns to their evolution.

Most active

The “Most active” widget is a feature of GovIntranet that pulls in live data from Google Analytics in order to show what is trending on the intranet. There are options to set how many items to display, how far back to look, and which types of content to show.

Some intranets stay pretty much fixed to the default configuration showing the seven most popular tasks in terms of unique page views, trailing the last three days. This is the combination that we found to be most effective when testing the DCMS intranet. Seven options allows the consistently popular tasks, such as booking a meeting room, to take root in the top three or four spaces in the list. Seasonal or topical content can then bubble up throughout the year, such as performance management. Trailing three days ensures that the information is “realtime” for the current working week.

Some client intranets don’t use the widget at all. I *think* this is through fear of what might appear. I always tell the scenario to new clients of how open and transparent the DCMS intranet was on launch, when the resignation guide was the most popular task on the intranet.

On other client intranets I notice that the “top tasks” area is gradually taking a demoted position further down the homepage, generally in favour of ongoing HR and IT promotions.

And I’ve spotted one intranet where there’s only three items on the most active list. It’s my prediction that this will only serve to create a self-promoting list of links that will never change.

I was interested to learn that intranet managers have used this widget as a method to dissuade fervent requests for links on the homepage. The message to departments wanting to promote themselves is clear; if staff really are interested in your content then it will appear in the most active list.


More areas of the homepage are becoming devoted to news. What started as a simple news listing has evolved into a larger set of content types and taxonomies to support the different flavours of news required for central and local government organisations. I’m now seeing mini-listings of alerts, updates, IT announcements, HR announcements and building announcements. While, in addition to the regular news listing, that sounds like a lot of news, the widgets are designed to appear and disappear as specific types of news are available. So, if there’s no building-related news, the area on the homepage is freed up. In theory you shouldn’t see masses of listings at one time. However, this relies on managing these types of alerts well and ensuring that they are only published for as long as necessary.

Ongoing development

Our group of supported clients have all participated in the development of the GovIntranet theme and I look forward to working with them as we develop the ongoing roadmap for the theme. Until now, I’ve been the only person with a birds-eye view of how the theme is being used across the different organisations. The breakfast meeting has given them all the opportunity to have that viewpoint and will hopefully encourage further ideas and developments.

Further reading

Search: visible and simple

Mental models for search are getting firmer

Search and you may find


Crown Commercial Service intranet launch

I’d been waiting with anticipation for our latest client intranet launch. It’s the nearest I’ll ever get to fatherhood, but these past weeks I’ve been acting like I’m looking after a newborn.

Staff feedback

After a little intensive care, the CCS intranet is up and running. A real staff-centred intranet, it has a staff directory, forums, blogs, commenting and feedback forms. Looking from the outside, the launch seemed like it was first day at the sales. Okay so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but what I’m trying to say is that staff haven’t been backward about coming forward.

The trusty feedback form, at the bottom of every page, is producing a steady flow of comments from staff. Broken links, missing documents, factual corrections. And the comms team have been straight on the case, correcting problems, adding new content, keeping in touch with staff.

Perhaps more unexpected, are the positive comments coming in. The intranet launched with a blog post by the Head of Comms, and the comments make me smile with glee. “Brilliant!”, “I love it!”, “So easy to use!”

Apart from the general positivity, staff are pointing out specific areas that they like; the staff directory, the search function, the simple content and IA.

Google Apps integration

Being part of the Cabinet Office, CCS uses Google Apps. The majority of forms, policy documents and templates are stored on Google Drive. In hindsight, this was probably a blessing when it came to content migration as all those documents still live on Google Drive, leaving the intranet free for some good ol’ plain English content.

The CCS intranet is behind a firewall, but staff still have to login to view the intranet. The good news is that it’s just a button click to login via their Google accounts. A combination of plugins handle the security authentication, and automatically create staff profiles on the intranet, pulling information from Google accounts, including avatars. It’s been amazing to sit on the sidelines and watch the staff directory grow from the dozen or so editors who first attended training, to the full workforce of around 500 staff. All with a click of a button.

The plugins also allow editors to insert links to documents, or even embed documents in intranet pages using a simple search and click interface, integrated with Google Drive. A great way to maintain one source of truth, documents are kept up to date in Google so the intranet doesn’t become blocked with numerous versions of documents.

Content training and migration

I spent two days training the comms team on the GovIntranet theme. Intranet training consisted of:

  • Content training: half a day of writing for the web, plain English, accessibility and SEO
  • WordPress administrator training: half a day covering GovIntranet admin and configuration
  • WordPress publisher training: a full day of CMS training on the GovIntranet theme

The team have had the usual challenges when departments are faced with rewriting content. The usual objections from HR staff who are used to writing in official language and stock-piling documents into some electronic receptacle. But the comms team have triumphed. The intranet is not filled with endless left-hand menus representing the HR policy structure. Staff are finding information. Bite-size pieces, helping them to do their jobs.

CCS how do I

With the number of government intranets that I have a window into, it’s a little hobby of mine to compare content, to see how teams do things. This exercise can be useful when trying to demonstrate that content doesn’t have to be written like a policy document. Take whistle-blowing for example. On one of my client intranets, the guidance for this is a few short paragraphs; this is what it is, this is what you need to do, this is how you do it. On another client intranet the guidance is a mile long, starting with an introductory letter by the Perm Sec, followed by all the clauses of the policy, nicely numbered of course, ending with what you actually need to do. Which version helps staff and which helps the HR department, with their commitment to excellence, to tick their boxes?

Treasure hunt

After initial ideas of creating an intranet launch video (and me getting excited about the chance to appear on Ellen’s wall) the team decided to go with an intranet treasure hunt instead. Being the geek that I am, I spent a weekend afternoon planning and plotting a complex operation involving time-locked pages and a secret safe, within a vault, within a building. And having been reminded that staff are actually awfully busy and that maybe I should have been a games designer, they’ve opted for a simple mission of finding four keys, hidden around pages on the intranet. The mission takes staff through four sections of the intranet as they collect keys containing the combination to unlock the vault (or the password to unlock the WordPress page, to those in the know).

treasure hunt key

We didn’t want to plaster the intranet with treasure hunt posters, should there be any staff not game enough to take part. So we did it with intraverts, a feature of GovIntranet that allows targeted messaging. We created a new team called “Intranet Explorers”, to last for the duration of the treasure hunt. We encouraged staff to add this team to their staff profile if they wanted to take part. Then we crafted some intraverts to appear on selected pages around the intranet, only visible to members of the explorer team.

For me, it’s been a mission of my own to come up with the concept and orchestrate the pages and intraverts. For the comms team, it’s been a way to introduce staff to sections of the new intranet and to familiarise them with searching and navigating the intranet structure. Hopefully, it’s been a bit of fun for all of us.

The end of the hunt contains a very quick satisfaction survey where staff are asked to choose from a list of positive and negative statements regarding the intranet. As I write, the survey hasn’t closed but, the initial results are overwhelming at 95.3% positive sentiment.

Content first

I have a dozen clients now all using the same WordPress theme for their intranets. The intranets are all different. They have their own tones, from cosy and friendly to vibrant and alive to formal and reserved. Sure, they all have their own style, typeface and colour scheme too. But it’s the content and what staff do with the theme that makes them different. Once you delve beyond the “look and feel”, what’s really important is the content. Both corporate content and staff-generated content. It’s the difference between a lonely news story and a blog post filled with comments, between a letter from the Perm sec and a phone number to call.


Back in the world of intranet

I’ve been busy since the start of the year, working on the new British Antarctic Survey website. We launched this month. It’s a big site, filled with science and research, stunning photography and even a penguin of the day!

This month it feels like I’m back in the world of intranet. Two new clients just starting out with GovIntranet, another client moving into beta, and another showing a countdown timer on their homepage ticking off the minutes until the old intranet is switched off. All very satisfying.

I spent two days last week training our newest client on the GovIntranet theme. It’s been a real joy to see people behold the power of WordPress as a CMS. Having demonstrated what’s possible and how to use the tools of the trade, I can sit back and observe what they do with it. And it’s fun to watch a comms team packing a new tool in their arsenal. Day two of training was replete with the usual questions as people start to explore the possibilities:

“Can we promote a news story?”

“Can we find out who’s looked at what?”

“What’s the difference between tags and keywords?”

But there’s always something new. This time it was: “Can we use an intravert to get a poll out to senior managers?”

I’d never thought of doing that. But yes, of course, what a great idea!

Over the months I’ve seen internal comms teams demonstrating real creative solutions with the tools that they have. We’ve had searchable and sortable tables of account codes, embedded sound clips of the building fire alarms, and trending hashtags. More recently, I’m seeing groovy animated GIFs to encourage engagement, live videocasts with Q&As from Permanent Secretaries and MPs. And I’ve even spotted a blog post by the PM on one of our client intranets.

I hear of frontline staff being able to login to their intranet via their Google account with access to tasks and guides containing links to documents and forms stored in the cloud. I spot a “compliments of the day” section on a homepage; a lovely way of doing karma points. All implemented by intranet teams using core WordPress functionality and the occasional plugin, to make the intranet their own.

I’ve seen many staff polls, which are good at harvesting a quick opinion, but a new take on this is the “Did you know?” type poll, where teams are not trying to gather feedback but rather educate and inform. For example, a recent poll posed a question on the topic of productivity, “How far behind Germany is the UK?” There are three possible answers and the correct answer displays after staff submit their answer.

Information poll

The staff directory plays a central role in connecting people to the intranet. When I browse client intranets who use the staff directory, I get a sense of happiness, success, belonging and celebration. There’s a real feeling of being involved and being able to take part. When there’s no integration with the staff directory, it’s like there’s a sheet of thick perspex between me and the intranet and I feel like I almost have to knock to get someone’s attention. Only a few of my clients use the built in staff directory. Some integrate this with their Google Apps accounts. Some are still waiting for the Ministry of Justice people finder.

The GovIntranet theme has grown and improved with bug reports from clients and the wider open source community and through new functionality commissioned by our paying clients. But intranets still remain a closed community, and although many of my clients are adopting a sense of openness, there’s still a level of sensitivity around government intranets that makes it hard for them to demonstrate new features, share their experiences and learn from others.

Amidst the tube strikes a few weeks back, we held our first GovIntranet breakfast meeting with a few clients who could brave it into the office. They found it really useful to compare notes and to see how each other use the theme. Some clients have access to each others’ intranets, but it was glaringly obvious in training last week just how much people can benefit from sharing. And I’m not talking about shoving some code on github and calling that sharing, I mean sharing their experiences of using the theme, their innovations and feedback that they’ve received from staff.

I now support 12 clients using the GovIntranet theme and the GovIntranetters users site. In my new role as “Head of Helpfulness” I’ll be getting out and about more, becoming actively involved with clients using the theme. And also holding more GovIntranet Club meetings with clients so that we can discuss “the roadmap” and where the theme is going next.

As more and more of my clients have staff who are situated at various locations around the country, location-based content is hot on the agenda. There’s also call for staff newsletters and weekly digests by email.

The intranet staff directory

It’s interesting to hear that the digital team at the Ministry of Justice have developed a new staff directory. I know a few departments are already opting to use this service and it will be interesting to follow progress.

The staff directory was a big problem at the Ministry when I worked there. People used a combination of looking someone up in Outlook, or resorting to the internal staff directory, originally developed by the IT department.

The problem with looking someone up in Outlook is that you had to know the name of the person. The Outlook directory was notorious for being out of date as there was no integration between IT and Human Resources systems.

The internal staff directory at MoJ was similarly useless. Staff who left years ago were still present. And although people moaned that they could never find anyone in the directory, they didn’t bother updating their own details either.

At one point we had a big push on getting the directory up to date, with adverts on the intranet, and a serious clearout of data as control of the directory moved to Communications and sat with the Public Enquiry Line team, who made most use of the directory while taking incoming calls and connecting the public to people within the Ministry.

Although it was possible to update your own record in the staff directory, it required a separate login, which involved the inevitable arduous forgotten password routine and setting a new password with stupidly harsh naming restrictions leaving no chance of remembering it again. The staff directory wasn’t integrated with your login to the network or with your HR Shared Services account or with the intranet. It’s good to hear that the new people finder won’t require a login. From what I’ve heard, MoJ are planning to allow open access to all profiles, which raises different kinds of data quality issues.

I remember thinking, when I worked at MoJ, that the key to keeping the staff directory up to date would be to allow staff to have their own rich profiles on the intranet which they can update with more than just a phone number and job title. Make the people real, with personal interests, hobbies, skills and job history. All searchable. I wrote a business case to integrate our Google Search Appliance (used on the intranet) with plans for an extended staff directory, which would have allowed people to search the staff database, with Google intelligence, direct from the intranet. ITC and external suppliers wanted around £60K to do this (presumably write a few lines of code to allow the internal Google box to talk to the internal staff directory database). So it didn’t happen. I’m glad those days are over and that developers can create their own systems unrestricted.

I took a lot of this experience to the table when I developed the staff directory with DCMS.

Here’s how we’ve done it in the GovIntranet theme:

Integrate the staff directory into the intranet and give staff control over their profiles

We’ve integrated the staff directory so that everyone has a WordPress account on the intranet and their own staff profile. They can post in forums, write blog posts, vote in polls, comment on stories, collaborate in wikis and update their own profiles (but not each others’). Incidentally, none of my clients call it a social intranet. In fact, they don’t call it anything but “the intranet,” even after staff naming competitions. Staff profile avatars and links appear around the intranet in comments, forum posts, page footers, blog posts, search results and in the actual staff directory.

Integrate people search with the intranet

You can search for people from the main intranet search box (without having to tick a special box), or from the staff directory pages on the intranet (not an external system). You can search for names of people, teams, skills and telephone numbers. Handy if you’re looking for someone who speaks Spanish, or maybe someone who can create a video, but you don’t know their name or department.

Staff search

Nudge staff to update their details

We also have a “Profile nudge” widget which reminds staff to update elements of their profile if anything is missing. Intranet administrators can configure which elements to nag about and whereabouts on the intranet the widget should appear. Staff can update their details straight away without disrupting what they were doing.

Profile nudge

This integration increases the chances of keeping the information up to date and makes the intranet alive with real people woven around the content. See a blog post from a senior staff member, with an associated avatar and staff profile. Read a forum post from the organiser of the staff choir, with an associated avatar and staff profile. Check out the new joiner in the comms team.

Data, beautiful data

A network of connected user profiles and intranet content means that we can create a social graph. While we are nowhere near this with GovIntranet, the potential is there. When we have data about our staff, their browsing habits, their likes and dislikes, we can produce targeted content. We can anticipate their moves, offering information when they need it, where they need it. My first stab at tapping into this is the new “Intraverts” widget, released as part of version 4 of the GovIntranet WordPress theme.


The plugin integrates with the staff directory giving a targeted messaging system across the intranet.

So instead of the blanket campaign messages from internal comms that appear on the homepage regardless of who you are, the widget allows you to target groups of staff, on specific sections of the intranet over specific time periods. If you want to get a message out about flu jabs or giving blood, you could place an advert on all pages in the health and wellbeing section of the intranet, where staff are likely to be browsing related content. How about targeting just Band A managers on the homepage with updates about forthcoming performance reviews? Or if Band C staff are logged on we could remind them about a forthcoming series of Freedom of Information training seminars that they’ll be required to attend.

What others are doing

The staff directory across our GovIntranet clients is being used, although are all system security staff trained to add a photo of HAL as their avatar???


The DCMS comms team page is a bit different, as all staff in the team have posed for photos in Brady Bunch fashion, so their staff directory entries show them looking up and down and across at each other!

The British Business Bank are racing ahead though in the league of GovIntranet clients, with the largest proportion of staff profiles voluntarily completed with avatars.


I wonder if the new MoJ directory will ever achieve this, and if there are plans to integrate with some form of social profile on the new MoJ intranet? While it will be a great resource if everyone in the Civil Service used it, would it be maintained and kept up to date? If anyone can edit profiles, will it get abused? Will it get used? Or will it be another Civil Pages?