State of the Public Platform: Our Insights on Digital Government

The past year has seen some unprecedented and exciting advancements for Phase2’s work in the digital government space. Not only did we embark on several major projects with local, state, and federal partners, we partnered with IBM to complete work on the first federal agency-wide, cloud-based platform built on OpenPublic, our content management system tailored for government.

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It’s been a busy twelve months, and we have certainly learned a lot - some of which we've shared in our digital strategy white paper series. As our Director of Government Practice, I’d like to share some of the lessons these projects have taught us - and what you can expect in 2015 and beyond for digital government.

The Value of Consolidation & Collaboration

Working in partnership with Phase2 and IBM, the Department of Interior became the first federal agency to implement the OpenPublic platform hosted on IBM’s SoftLayer cloud.This department-wide, enterprise-scale platform is a major milestone not just for Interior, but all federal agencies. I fully anticipate that the coming year will see many other agencies follow in the DOI’s footsteps. Why? It’s all about the value of consolidation and collaboration.

Before implementing the OpenPublic platform on SoftLayer cloud, the DOI had to contend with the cost and complexity of hundreds of individual sites. Managed separately, these sites induced high fixed operational costs, including infrastructure costs (servers, storage, and load balances), as well as services costs (disaster recovery, patch management, performance tuning, etc.). Not only did the fixed price structure limit the department’s flexibility in responding to fluctuations in end-user traffic, it made third party integrations and mobile applications expensive and difficult to support. This is an issue most federal agencies grapple with.

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Our solution was to establish an agency-wide Drupal platform to migrate and consolidate all of Interior’s hundreds of sites. The platform is hosted in the IBM SoftLayer cloud and built using OpenPublic, our Drupal distribution pre-configured to meet government web requirements. The collaboration between Phase2 and IBM was a crucial element of the platform’s success. OpenPublic provided key functionality, while the SoftLayer cloud provided an enterprise-scalable PaaS infrastructure. Each site migrated to the platform retains its domain, separate database table structure, and site design, and each can be administered and updated separately by the agency team currently managing it. As a result, site administrators kept control of each site, but they are now hosted in a reasonably priced, elastic, enterprise-level cloud environment.

The Value of Apps

Within our Drupal distribution for government, OpenPublic, we simplified content management in the enterprise public sector space by “appifying” all the distribution’s functionality and content types. We encapsulated what was once a wilderness of modules and configuration in a clean collection of Apps, making all OpenPublic’s out-of-the-box functionality simple to configure for non-technical site administrators. This new App strategy made it easier and cheaper for governments to implement an OpenPublic CMS solution.

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The introduction of Apps into OpenPublic was the culmination of years of developing government systems, most recently San Mateo County’s multi-site platform. This project really drove home these organizations’ need to turn features on and off without affecting other parts of the platform. As Bethany Thames of San Mateo County elaborated, “Each department’s identity and requirements are tied to their lines of business and the community they serve. The County departments wanted to maintain their unique identities within the overall County brand. OpenPublic allowed the County to maintain a strong central brand while meeting user demand for autonomy and flexibility.”

Apps like the Services App, Media Room App, Security App, and Workflow App allow those departments to pick and choose which distinct segments of functionality make the most sense for them. The “appification” of all functionality in this manner is truly knocking down traditional barriers to Drupal site maintenance and scalability.

The Value of the Static CMS

The single biggest point of failure of a Drupal site is Drupal. If any part of Drupal goes down, the site goes down. Wouldn't it be great to build a site with Drupal but have a static public-facing site, instead of a constantly generating dynamic site? We took this approach with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, implementing what we referred to as the “Sleep at Night CMS.”

Static websites are ideal for all government agencies: no performance or security issues, no worries about redundant failover, no getting woken up in the middle of the night because something has gone wrong. Instead, by implementing Drupal’s static module, we allowed USPTO to take advantage of Drupal’s powerful content management capabilities while delivering the site to the public as static HTML. In effect, this approach mitigates the majority of performance, security, and redundant failover risks. When changes and additions are made within Drupal, any affected generated pages are updated along with it. Drupal is never exposed to end users, eliminating reliability issues. If Drupal has a problem, it just stops updating the generated site until it is fixed.

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How did we do it? Get the details from Senior Developer Randall Knutson.

The Value of Open

Phase2 uses open technology in everything we do, but this choice is particularly salient when it comes to government work. Government agencies strive to reduce unnecessary costs for their taxpayers, and avoid the recurring licensing fees of proprietary software is a major benefit to open source solutions. Bypassing proprietary vendor lock-ins allows government to leverage the sustainable innovation of an open community working collaboratively to create, improve, and extend functionality, in addition to utilizing the community’s best practices for development. And because open technology is in the public domain, any agency can download, test drive, and learn about potential content management systems before choosing a provider.

San Mateo County recognized the value of openness in government technology and opened their code to the GitHub community. We were ecstatic that one of our clients embraced the open practices which are not only inherent in our work but laid the foundation for the development of OpenPublic. By making the innovative technology that went into building San Mateo County’s platform available for wider use, San Mateo County contributed to the government’s objective to foster openness, lower costs, and enhance service delivery. The “Open San Mateo” project demonstrates the power of open source to improve not just one government agency, but hundreds simultaneously by making the code available to other governments.

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Similarly, web CMS and open data have become increasingly integrated over the past year. Government open data portals, like this example in New York City, build on open source tools to integrate external data into traditional website pages - in the best cases, using proven content strategy and UX design techniques to connect data sets and CMS content. This allows visitors on government websites to access raw data sets and interactive visualizations in a context sensitive way.

As an example, we are partnered with Socrata and have built a Drupal module that provides an integration point for Socrata within Drupal via Socrata’s SODA2 interface. This is significant because it will allow ordinary people, not just web developers, to use open data to solve everyday problems. For more, here are my thoughts on a less bifurcated user experience.

What’s Next…

Over the coming months, we expect to see a continuation of the trends mentioned above. In particular, keep an eye out for:

  • More consolidated CMS platforms for large federal agencies

  • Open source continuing to disrupt the SharePoint behemoth for internal collaboration and communication

  • Further integration of web CMS and open data

  • Increased code sharing across agencies

As for Phase2, we are hard at work on several government projects, including an overhaul of North Carolina’s web platform. You guessed it - they are moving to a Drupal multi-site platform to unify all state agencies and provide efficiency across all state departments. Also in the works is the migration of DOI.gov website onto the agency’s new OpenPublic platform.

What trends have you seen in the digital government space recently? Do you agree that many agencies are moving towards larger, more consolidated platforms built on open technology? Let us know in the comments below! For more updates on Phase2’s work in government, join our email mailing list! Finally, if you are interested in how to create an informed digital strategy for government, be sure to check out our white paper series for information on technology selection, platform models, and how to leverage a Drupal CMS to achieve your mission.

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