Overcomplicating Matters

It is, of course, a truism that the larger and more complex a project is, the less likely it is to come in on budget, on spec or in time. When the project in question involves IT, the chances of any of the original targets being met approach zero.

This is why one of the tenets of the Agile Programming movement is “the simplest thing that can possibly work”. When faced with a problem, solve only the current problem. Don’t waste time complicating matters by adding extra features (“you ain’t gonna need it” is another of their slogans).

Writing a blog engine is a pretty simple project. A reasonable programmer could produce a pretty good first attempt in a weekend given the right tools. But ask any of the worlds most talented programmers for a blog engine and the chances are that they won’t spend the next two days writing one. Because that’s not the simplest solution.

The world already has more blog engines than it really needs. And many of the existing tools are quite capable of handling just about any requirement that you might have. Unless you have very specific requirements there is just no need to write your own.

Hold that thought.

Five or six years ago, blogs started to become popular. Tim Ireland wrote this article. What Tim realised was that the blog format was a great tool that politicians could use to communicate with the electorate. By their very nature blogs encourage two-way communication. The blogger posts information that they want people to be aware of and people can add their comments. Also, the web feeds that are an essential feature of blogging engines make it easy to disseminate and aggregate this information.

Later on, Tim launched the Political Weblog Project, where he offered to set up blogs for any politician who wanted one. What Tim and his team would have done was to set up blogs using the existing free tools like Blogger and Movable Type. They also wanted to offer advice on the most effective way to use blogs. As I understand it, only two MPs (Tom Watson and Boris Johnson) took Tim up on his offer.

Time passes. At some point in the last couple of years the popularity and usefulness of blogs finally started to seep into Westminster. MPs started to want blogs. A small number of MPs did “the simplest thing that could possibly work” and got a blog on Blogger or WordPress. Many others didn’t do that. And that’s where things start going wrong.

I have an interest in blogging MPs. I run a site called Planet Westminster which attempts to aggregate all of the blog postings from Westminster MPs. At the last count there were about 40 MPs blogging. I say “about” as it’s hard to keep track. Some MPs have a burst of enthusiasm for a few weeks and then give up. It’s hard to be sure when their blogs are dead so I can remove them from the list.

But the biggest problem I have is that most MPs blogs are crap. And I don’t mean that what they write in them is crap (though that’s certainly true for many of them). I mean that they are crap from a technical perspective. When faced with the desire to set up a blog, it seems that most MPs had no idea where to start. And that for some reason many of them ended up with horrible proprietary systems that bolted on to their existing web site. These systems were often written by people who really didn’t seem to understand the simplest things about how blogs or the web worked[1]. One good example is Nadine Dorries blog. A basic requirement for a blog is that each entry has an address (a “permalink”) which refers to that entry uniquely and permanently. Dorries’ blog has some weird date-based system which gets horribly confused if she blogs more than once a day.

Planet Westminster is a feed aggregator. So most of the contact that I have with MPs’ blogs is through the web feeds that they produce. Web feeds seem simple enough to produce, but the various formats are picky enough that it’s a hard job to get exactly right. That’s another reason for using the existing tools. They get it right far more than some home-brewed system will. My local MP is Martin Linton and it was a problem with his web feed that galvanised me into writing this article. I’ve been tracking Linton’s web feed for several years. It often vanished without warning and, on further investigation I find that it has changed address (there are methods for handling that without losing existing subscribers – but that’s another area where MPs’ IT knowledge seems to be lacking).

Earlier today I realised that I had seen nothing from Linton’s feed for some weeks. Checking his site I saw that the feed has moved again. The new address is:

http://martinlinton.org.uk/?FeedId=VSYFBABEXQ9OE01VSVkQCVJNHXIGD1MNVA9XRR1XSUFDCAYc

Now, I know I can be a picky about wanting nice-looking URLs. But, honestly, how much faith can you put in a system that produces URLs like that? Unsurprisingly, the answer is “not very much”. Checking the feed with a feed validator revels a relatively small number of errors, but they are really serious ones. In particular, having incomplete URLs in a web feed renders it almost completely useless. I should run all of the MPs’ feeds through the validator. Well, really, the people creating their feeds should. They might learn something useful.

So we have a situation where a small number of MPs are publishing blogs and most of the ones who are doing so are using seriously sub-standard tools. And this is where we come back to my original point. The simple blog systems that are already out there are perfectly adequete for what our MPs want to do. In most cases using the tools is free and it takes less than an hour to set up a blog that is more functional than the ones that most MPs currently have.

I know that most MPs run their office on a tiny staff. And that they probably don’t employ IT experts. But every week thousands of people set up blogs and they do it using the existing tools – because it is cheap and effective. Even people like Iain Dale who know nothing at all about blogging have been able to choose a decent blog platform. Why do our MPs feel that they need something more complex? Why do they waste time and money on systems that aren’t as good as the free solutions? It doesn’t need to be that complicated.

I believe that Tim Ireland’s points from 2003 are still valid. Blogs can be an important and useful tool for politicians. And in the run-up to next year’s General Election they will become more and more important. I predict we’ll see a large increase in the number of blogging MPs over the next year.

So I’m going to repeat Tim’s offer from 2005. If any MP wants a blog set up for them,then I’m happy to help them or to put them in touch with someone who can help them. It needn’t be expensive. It needn’t be complex. But it can be very effective. And it will work.

[1] A lesser writer might make the point that a large proportion of these broken system are written in ASP. But we’re way above such petty point-scoring here.

3 thoughts on “Overcomplicating Matters

  1. Ah, government IT.I bet a non-trivial number of these MPs asked whoever runs the Westminster IT systems what they should be doing, in order to comply with regulation X, or security protocol Y, or information mandate Z, and the answer came back “we’ll come up with something ‘approved’ for you to use.”I’ve done enough work relating to government IT operations and procurement to know that there is a relentless logic to a lot of the outwardly ridiculous systems that you encounter, and much of it can be explained as “the easiest decision we could possibly get past the procurement committee.”

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