How can government innovate with Drupal?

28 07 2012

Earlier this week, I braved the cold, foggy Canberra weather to attend an industry breakfast focused on the open-source content Management System, Drupal, which was hosted by PreviousNext and Acquia. For readers unfamiliar with Drupal – it is a free, open-source content management system (CMS) and content management framework (CMF) written in PHP and distributed under the GNU General Public License. It is used as a back-end system for  many websites ranging from personal blogs to corporate, political, and government sites including whitehouse.gov and data.gov.uk, as well as numerous Australian government sites – see here for complete list. It is also used for knowledge management and business collaboration.

One of Acquia’s founders, Kieran Lal, along with Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) developer Daniel Nitsche, gave an introduction to Drupal to explain how the Australian Government can “Do More With Drupal” at the seminar. A glance around the room was enough to determine that there is a massive amount of interest from government agencies in Drupal, presumably for its possibilities for streamlining both financial and development costs .

I found Daniel’s talk very useful in terms of a practical implementation of Drupal in a large government agency. Some of his comments came as no surprise though – especially regarding accessibility. For example, it is common knowledge that Drupal is more accessible  ‘out of the box’ than SharePoint. What I thought very interesting was the set-up of web developers  in his department (esp as I worked in what was the precursor agency to DEEWR). Apparently in the communications branch, there are 10 Drupal developers doing the entire end-to-end process of development, design and publication. I think this is excellent, but I do think there was an essential element missing in this discussion – the role of content and stakeholders.

There was something quite ‘de ja vu’ about the breakfast, as it conjured memories of going to similar industry events around 7 years ago, promoting MySource Matrix as the great new open source CMS for gov websites. At this event , poor old MySource Matrix was held up as a CMS which is not really ‘open source’ and with limited developer and vendor support, as opposed to Drupal where it was cited that there is about 17,000 tools out there and 19,000 developers. Yup – I am impressed, there is a huge community of people out there who are passionate about Drupal.

Unfortunately, I was less impressed with the talk from Kieran Lal. I appreciate that he has been a key driver in the exponential rise of Drupal but his talk seemed to be pitched at senior managers and CEOs, rather than a room full of  IT and Web savvy people (my assumption). For example, I thought it was a long stretch to talk about different aspects of the Information Architecture featured on the website for Harvard University as a Drupal solution. In fact I found most of the presentation lacking in terms of accessiblity of content and user perspective. Also his discussion about ‘Risk’ was vague and didn’t address what the risks actually were for government agencies considering moving to Drupal. From my perspective, a bit more specific detail would have been very useful as this kind of information could save agencies a lot of time.

I think it is great we have all of this cool online technology, which is flexible, interoperable and not to mention cheap – fantastic!! What is missing from this discussion are the issues around content, audiences and strategy. This is not an observation that is directed only at Keiran, but to many people working in the web space.

At times I find the disconnect between technology and audience needs highly problematic. Yes, government agencies do need to make websites, quicker, more flexible and cheaply, plus comply with the Web Transition Strategy, but audiences also need to understand the content and to find it accessible. This form of accessibility is not about getting 100% on the HTML Validator, it is about ensuring written content is understood by the audience.

IT News published an article about the breakfast which offers more detail about the DEEWR implementation.

More info about the event: http://previousnext.com.au/news/how-can-government-innovate-drupal

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