These last couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time in Australia, where with the launch of govCMS 2 years ago, the Federal Government made a significant commitment to open source, Drupal software. So what has the impact been down under and are there lessons that we could benefit from when thinking about meeting the needs of the public sector in the UK?
One of my roles at Consult and Design is to be the bridge between client organisations and technologists, helping to match business needs with what's possible (and affordable) for each client.
Over the years we’ve developed many public sector websites relating to education, tourism, campaigning, inward investment, voluntary sector support to name but a few. One common feature of all these publicly funded websites and applications is the need to be compliant in terms of meeting standards for accessibility, security, archiving as well as having to follow fairly rigid procurement processes. These days, public sector budgets are limited and every penny spent needs to be justified, whilst many departments find themselves with fewer staff to spare to manage web development projects.
How then, in this context can we ensure that resources are spent to best effect in terms of delivering quality digital services to our audiences, be they local residents, tourists, businesses, politicians or the public in general?
The Australian public sector flirtation with Drupal goes right back to 2009, when Sydney based agency, PreviousNext built a major government portal for New South Wales. Over the next 3 years the agency were approached and delivered numerous public sector websites and applications and identified demand for an easy way to quickly build Drupal websites that complied with government standards for security, accessibility and branding. This led to the release of the aGOV distribution - a freely available package of Drupal based software tools that could be built and iterated upon.
In 2015, the Australian Federal Government launched govCMS, the result of a deal with Acquia, the world’s largest Drupal software company (with whom PreviousNext had developed a strategic alliance). The aim of the project is to “(make) it easier for agencies to create modern, affordable, responsive websites to better connect government with people”. (www.govcms.gov.au).
The way the deal works, Acquia manages the govCMS platform and provides application level support, other activities such as design, site builds and migration services are performed by Australian-owned small businesses.
So what are the features of govCMS?
govCMS provides a simple solution that means agencies can quickly and easily roll out new government websites that are:
- Open — build on the Drupal CMS so that new functionality developed for one agency can be shared across all govCMS websites
- Compliant — providing compliance with government standards out of the box
- Secure — penetration tests and maintenance of code is covered as standard
- Flexible — agencies can implement their own standards compliant themes and customise their branding
The system also provides a host of other features such as advanced search tools, easy content editing, blogs, forms, search engine optimisation and much more.
It's also worth noting that the aGOV distribution continues to be supported and developed by PreviousNext as an option to agencies that want to be able to roll out compliant public sector websites, but with greater flexibility to extend and iterate functionality and to choose their own hosting independently of the Acquia/govCMS offering.
So what impact has govCMS had?
Since its launch in early 2015 govCMS has been downloaded more than 20,000 times. In the first year new public sector sites were being setup on govCMS at a rate of more than 1 per week, double the expectations from the Australian Dept of Finance who had backed the project.
govCMS doesn’t just make it easier and more affordable for agencies to roll out new digital services, but in true Drupal style, it also represents a significant cultural shift towards greater collaboration in the development of mutually beneficent systems, leading to ongoing innovation and advancement at a speed not seen before in the public sector.
The success of govCMS also led to the development of the Government as an API service.
Government as an API
In February 2016, govCMS also launched a ‘Government as an API’ service with Acquia Content Hub, aimed to help government agencies to create ‘content once, and publish everywhere’ (COPE).
“Until now, sharing content and establishing a ‘single source of truth’ has been hampered by the complexities of ensuring content is updated when re-used by other sites or systems,” according to a government statement. The new omni-channel service is able to pull and reuse content from other sites and systems external to the govCMS platform via an API (application programming interface).”
This development relates to an issue that comes up regularly in Consult and Design’s work with public sector bodies in the UK, where the same content needs to be shared across several websites or online systems. In the past we have seen admin staff in one agency scouring the online content of another agency in order to manually copy it into their own site, which apart from the obvious inefficiencies also leads to issues where content has been copied but not updated when the source content has changed, thus providing users with inaccurate or outdated information.
Consult and Design recently built an API for a local authority to connect information about events with an events system for another agency and this looks likely to be extended now to make the same core info available through other channels.
So what does this mean for the UK?
Formally the Government IT Strategy says “Where appropriate, government will procure open source solutions… (open source) presents significant opportunities for the design and delivery of interoperable solutions.
Drupal is increasingly specified in UK public sector procurements, with Drupal running many public websites, including London.gov.uk, Newcastle.gov.uk, the Care Quality Commission, HS2, OFSTED, and the British Council. See: https://groups.drupal.org/node/290033.
Whilst the US focused Open Public distribution has a ‘European friendly’ theme, despite the widespread adoption of Drupal across the UK there is currently no widely adopted UK focused public sector distribution and that is surely both a gap and an opportunity.
A UK public sector compliant Drupal distribution could greatly reduce the cost and time to live for public sector bodies undergoing digital transformation, which doesn’t just mean a saving in terms of development costs, but by being able to shift focus from duplication of effort and from compliance issues to delivering quality digital services, public sector bodies stand to realise significant efficiency savings, doing more for less.
In short, a little bit of pump priming from government could help get this project off the ground. In true Drupal style, this could help foster a culture of collaboration across public sector agencies which could accelerate innovation and result in significant cost savings, improvement in government services and benefits to users.