Last week the new Georgia.gov was unveiled, giving us a first glimpse at the Georgia Technology Authority's innovative platform built on OpenPublic. This coincides with a recent Government Technology (GovTech.com) ran an article, “Why Big Sites Run Drupal,” which describes the benefits of Drupal for government agencies. The article starts with an overview of the Georgia Technology Authority’s (GTA) recent decision to migrate 65 web sites from Vignette to Drupal, which resulted in $14 million total cost of ownership savings. The author, Jessica Meyer Maria, uses GTA’s decision as a departure point to survey the broader Drupal landscape in government and she includes perspectives from Phase2’s CEO and President - Jeff Walpole and Michael Caccavano, respectively. GTA selected Phase2 to help them with their migration to Drupal. For government managers considering a web content platform, the article cites several points of interest. Specifically, Drupal’s capabilities in the following areas:
- Integration with other systems
- IT cost reduction
- Innovation through collaboration
- Accessibility and 508 compliance
Let’s look at each of these:
“It [Drupal] is very compatible with other solutions and services. That’s probably one of its greatest strengths.” (Michael Caccavano, as cited in article)
Government websites rarely stand alone. They often must integrate with enterprise content, news feeds, data repositories, citizen service centers, payment systems, internal publishing tools, and other - often proprietary - legacy systems. Drupal uses open standards and technologies and integrates with these other data sources readily. Drupal 7 provides an extensible framework by which myriad existing or newly-developed modules can be used to ‘hook’ the Drupal core to other apps. The release of Drupal 8 in 2013 will retool this integration framework by way of the Web Services and Context Core Initiative (WSCCI). WSCCI “aims to transform Drupal from a first-class CMS to a first-class REST server with a first-class CMS on top of it." Peeks behind the Drupal 8 curtain reveal that this will happen by introducing a universal plugin system based on Symfony2 - a prominent, high performance PHP framework for web development. Symfony2’s low-level components are already robust REST-based systems, and this architectural direction for Drupal means that it can be nore readily integrated with existing or legacy apps. This allows agency staff to continue using their established tools and processes, and provides a low-risk on-ramp for adopting Drupal.
“Possibly the biggest hurdle to Drupal adoption in government — security — has all but eroded...Lack of understanding, fear, uncertainty, doubt, concerns around security — those things have all really dropped off in the last year.” (Jeff Walpole, as cited in article)
Government agencies today are faced with the double-whammy of tightening budgets and increased security threats to critical infrastructure and data. Since Drupal often serves as the public-facing tip of the enterprise iceberg, its ability to prevent security vulnerabilities is crucial. Government agencies can’t afford to open themselves to security threats by way of their web site. Counterintuitive as it may seem, Drupal’s collaborative, open source development model gives it an edge when it comes to security. Throngs of Drupal developers around the globe ensure a constant process of testing, review, and alerts which ensures detection and eradication of potential security vulnerabilities. Since thousands of developers dedicate their time and talents to finding and fixing security issues, Drupal can respond very quickly when problems are found. For government agencies, this is a great example of being able to “innovate with less.” Also, Drupal 7 core includes a database abstraction layer that allows it to run on just about any type of database. Today, a Drupal site does not need to be bound to MySQL; a plugin can be written and added to the system to run on whichever database security policies and/or scalability requirements require.
At its most basic level, the argument for Drupal tends to be financial. As an open source model, it spares user agencies from costly licensing fees and vendor lock-in. The resulting cost savings can be redistributed, adding value in other ways. Drupal offers numerous ways to reduce cost, as compared to proprietary solutions. These efficiencies allow government agencies to apply their finite resources in ways that provide the greatest benefit to the citizens they serve. Most obviously, as an open source platform Drupal does not incur any licensing costs. While a large implementation can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just to have the right to use proprietary software, Drupal’s community-developed software is free. This extends not only to the core platform, but also thousands of contributed modules, themes, and even pre-configured platforms known as ‘distributions’ (Phase2 maintains a number of distributions; you can learn more about them here.) Software licensing, however, is only one opportunity for cost savings. Other efficiencies come to light long after a project has been implemented. Drupal’s editor and administrative tools can be developed to align with existing processes, business rules, staffing resources, and user conventions. Drupal is fully customizable--not only when it comes to features and what site visitors see, but also with regard to editor tools, workflows, user roles and permissions, and more. By adapting to the organization, Drupal reduces barriers to adoption and process bottlenecks, providing long-term operational efficiencies that really add up. Finally, Drupal prevents vendor lock-in. Because Drupal is an open source platform built with common technologies like PHP and jQuery, project owners have many options to various dimensions of their projects, including vendor selection, hosting providers, maintenance, and future development. They might continue a relationship with their original vendor, find a different vendor with more suitable pricing and skills, or develop their own in-house team of Drupal specialists. With all these opportunities for greater cost efficiency, resources can be applied more effectively to high-impact areas like feature and content development rather than simple ownership and general overhead.
Innovation through Collaboration
“Because it’s open source, Drupal works to remove silos and barriers to innovative development through collaboration, making it ideal in the government sphere...The more government agencies that share code through Drupal, the more every agency using Drupal benefits. [...] For public-sector users, in particular, Drupal offers several incentives. The community-driven nature of the platform allows government agencies to feed back into its development and growth, ultimately influencing how Drupal evolves. “That’s where open source really starts to pay dividends,” said...Caccavano.”
By definition, open source software relies on community and collaboration. Drupal’s community of software developers is global and big. At 630,000 and counting, the community is diverse, active, and enthusiastic about working together to make Drupal better. Developers and project owners can choose to share their innovations through contributed themes and modules. This makes code available for others to use in their own projects, as well as tapping into the insights of those with similar interests to find ways to make it better. Contributed code creates a kind of feedback cycle in Drupal, which gets more powerful as more people and organizations participate. In the case of government, when Agency A contributes back a module to address a need common to government (for example, tight control over publishing workflows) Drupal becomes that much stronger for Agency B. Instead of spending its resources to solve the same problem, Agency B can apply Agency A’s solution and instead put resources on developing enhanced features. When Agency B innovates additional features for the module and contributes its own code, Agency A can benefit by applying the update, and now Agency C has an even more effective solution ready to be applied, combining the talents, insights, and experiences of both Agency A and B. Over time, more features become readily available, requiring less spending on custom development and freeing resources for real innovation. This kind of feedback cycle occurs throughout Drupal. It propels Drupal forward at a very fast pace, and provides a powerful opportunity for agencies to indirectly work together to evolve it into a perfect-fit solution. For government agencies, this kind of community innovation represents a very concrete and meaningful form of engaging citizens in the betterment of government.
“I was part of the White House New Media team when Whitehouse.gov moved to Drupal, and I experienced firsthand how it helped pave the way for other government entities to make similar transitions...The unique requirements of developing for government — from security to accessibility mandates — were wrestled with and subsequently resolved and helped make the case for a smooth adoption of Drupal at Energy, and for any other government entities, for that matter.” (Cammie Croft, the Energy Department, as cited in article)
To effectively serve the public, government websites must be accessible to an extremely large and diverse audience. At times, this audience may require accommodations for physical disabilities, an array of devices, or multiple languages. With its diverse, worldwide community of contributors, Drupal facilitates meeting accessibility needs on a number of fronts. Flexible and fully customized theming make it possible for Drupal sites to meet Section 508 and WCAG accessibility requirements. Responsive base themes like Omega are readily available to give themers a strong foundation for ensuring compatibility with a wide range of access devices; this will only get stronger as the community continues to adopt the “mobile first” philosophy. Finally, multilingual support is available through a number of contributed modules and system functions that allow site content to be presented to a viewer in different languages as appropriate. In Closing... So, what does government on Drupal look like? See for yourself by going to any one of the following sites that Phase2 worked with government agencies to create :
The movement of many government web platforms to open source and Drupal represents a major step not only in better, more responsive government... but also better web content. To be sure, the convergence of open source, open data, big data, and mobility has the possibility of transforming government service and information delivery. At Phase2, we’re looking forward to being a part of it.