5 government sites using Drupal effectively for open government initiatives

By / Feb 4, 2010

By now, most people in the Gov 2.0 community have heard of Drupal, the popular open source social publishing system powering close to 500,000 websites ranging from big government to Britney Spears. Drupal has seen steady growth from its inception as a Belgian grad student’s experiment in 2001 to one of the most heavily used open source content management systems in the world, downloaded by a quarter million people per month. A growing trend the Drupal community is following closely this year is government interest in the platform to further open government initiatives and broaden adoption across government.

Why is Drupal important to the the Federal government? That is the main topic I will cover in a 3-part series here on GovFresh. I’ll start with some high-profile examples of who is using Drupal effectively in government and why Drupal is a great fit for what these sites are trying to achieve. My second post will focus on the unique aspects of providing web content management for government that are relevant for Drupal (i.e. what can Drupal learn from Government?). My final post will provide ideas and predictions for the future of Drupal within the Federal government.

Who is using Drupal effectively now at the federal level? Not as many agencies as we’d like. While open source provides a great return on investment for Federal CIOs under budgetary pressure, open source adoption on U.S. government websites has not yet hit critical mass. I believe this will change in 2010 due in no small part to the success of early adopters in demonstrating cost savings, time to market and features critical to government to citizen outreach. So while growing in popularity with CIOs, it is New Media Directors that have found the tool most useful because of its ease of implementation and flexibility to extend sites to include the best of social media, user participation and collaboration and data integration.

Here are five sites using Drupal effectively to achieve the objectives of the open government directive and promoting the use of open concepts to improve the business of government.

Recovery at Commerce

The Department of Commerce loves Drupal, and for good reason: a site like this can be developed and launched quickly and inexpensively. Being on the front lines of the economic recovery efforts, Commerce has a lot to share with the public and good reason to do that quickly and efficiently. Unlike its better known federal-wide parent site, Recovery.gov, this agency transparency initiative is still running on Drupal. Regrettably, Recovery.gov which was running on Drupal was replaced by SharePoint when a re-compete to the contract famously switched platforms and vendors. It will probably be known to Drupalers as “the one that got away” for a while to come. The Commerce department’s recovery site makes use of Drupal’s ease of integration with mashups. Data and reports are easy to find and download in original .xls formats and I can get an RSS feed of major communications and activities. While still a fairly simple site, it’s simplicity makes it accessible and easy for the common citizen to find what they are looking for. It is easy to see how this site could blossom into a model destination for Commerce communications, collaboration and participation on all things recovery.

Federal IT Spending Dashboard

Launched in July of last year by Vivek Kundra, the Federal Chief Information Officer, the dashboard was created to allow CIOs of various government agencies to show the effectiveness with which they have managed government IT spending. As such, this site has been featured very prominently as an open gov example for its transparency, its use of open data and a very strong sense of government accountability. Kundra explains the site as a place that “… allows you to see what IT projects are working and on-schedule (and which are not), offer alternative approaches, and provide direct feedback to the chief information officers at federal agencies – in effect, keeping tabs on the people who are responsible for taxpayer dollars for technology.” Ultimately, that hits on all three tenets of the directive and does it in a visually appealing and useful way that does not get the user bogged down in text. The graphing techniques are unique and unconventional like the budget year tree map (well okay that one still confuses me a bit, but it still proves that transparency can be fun to browse and explore).

Federal Labor Relations Authority

This is a simple, effective example of a government site that can be easily stood up with Drupal. It is a great example of how government agency sites don’t have to be overly complex to achieve their mission. The FLRA is an independent administrative federal agency. As such, the FLRA mission is fairly straight forward: carry out five (5) primary statutory responsibilities as efficiently as possible. This site provides good direction on what the agency does and how the agency can help a citizen worker. What caught my attention is that it promotes the /open aspect of the open government directive (OGD) prominently on its homepage (though technically I believe the FLRA would be exempt from this requirement) and links to 3 (albeit incredibly light) data sets in XML format. This is what the OGD is asking all cabinet level agencies do and someone here read the memo.

Data.gov.uk

This new UK government site is a shining example of the merger of open source, open data and the semantic web. This is my second favorite government site running on Drupal. It illustrates that Europe has a lot to teach us about open government. The site is the product of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (most notably the guy who created the World Wide Web) and Professor Nigel Shadbolt as a project for the UK’s efforts to make data more open and accessible on the web. This site is the UK’s answer to our data.gov project. Reportedly they selected Drupal for both its flexibility as a CMS and its native integration with semantic web concepts and technology. With an Apps download section, idea galleries, forums, a blog, a wiki, and the ability to search, browse and query against the data sets, this was done in the spirit of try it all and see what sticks. I admire the pragmatic goals of the site.

The White House

Currently a shining star of Drupal in government, the conversion of this site in October of last year sparked a lively and interesting debate on the use of open source in government (Disclaimer: my firm was the developer on this effort) While it served to squelch much of the criticism over the scalability and performance of Drupal as a platform for very high traffic sites, it also forced people to question whether the security of open source was ready for prime time. Many critics cited the openness and availability of open source code to be a weakness, while others claimed it as a benefit. Tim O’Reilly’s post did a good job of refocusing the discussion to the benefits of choosing Drupal for the White House site:

“More than just security, though, the White House saw the opportunity to increase their flexibility. Drupal has a huge library of user-contributed modules that will provide functionality the White House can use to expand its social media capabilities, with everything from super-scalable live chats to multi-lingual support. In many ways, this is the complement to the Government as Platform mantra I’ve been chanting in Washington.”

In addition to these attributes, the site features a robust blog, multimedia delivery and is the home to many micro-sites that can be quickly stood up to address various initiatives, councils and committees that fall under the purview of the Administration, including the king of all /open sites, whitehouse.gov/open, home to the open government directive itself.

There are many great examples of Drupal use for the betterment and opening of government. For more about the use of Drupal in government, stay tuned for my next post. Also, for those interested in a more comprehensive list of known government sites using Drupal both in the U.S. and at large throughout the world, check out the Drupal in Government group on Drupal.org.

Jeff Walpole is the co-founder and CEO of the leading open source professional services firm based in the Washington DC area, Phase2 Technology, which focuses on clients and solutions in the online publishing, public policy, open government, international development and advocacy sectors. Using Drupal, Phase2 is crafting creative solutions for many open government initiatives. The firm also participates in helping large organizations like the Federal government, publishing firms, and the World Bank to craft APIs to publish data to the web. Jeff has a background that includes over a decade of CMS website development, and five years working with government clients as a systems integrator. Jeff holds a Masters in Business Administration, with a concentration in the Management of Global Information Technology, from the Kogod School of Business at American University and a Bachelors degree from Tulane University in Political Science.

  • Adrian

    recovery.gov is now switched from Drupal to another CMS platform. I heard some one said it is microsoft sharepoint.

  • Tim

    Yes, Adrian – Jeff notes this in his post………….FYI

  • http://gm.com Diane P

    I absolutely love the FLRA’s site (whoever they are). Its soooo nice to see a Government agency actually implement a technology that doesn’t cost the tax payers – and your right the design is simple and elegant. The big agencies should take note.

  • Jeremy

    You guys should see the new commerce.gov/open site using Drupal. Way better than the commerce recovery site.

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  • http://themegarden.org Drupal Theme Garden

    What was reason for recovery.gov was switched to sharepoint platform ?

  • http://agileapproach.com Jeff Walpole

    I have heard that it was actually more of a contractual decision. The entire platform/contract was re-bid last year and won by a vendor with greater depth of experience in Sharepoint/MSFT technology. What a lot of people misunderstood about recovery.gov is that there is an entire set of systems that needs to be in place to provide good information. The website is part of the equation of course, but the environment, a warehouse or database to collect information, tools to generate reports/visualizations, etc. are all required. So a lot of the cost/effort is for things other than the actual CMS.

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  • http://www.datascape.nl Hanno Lans

    See a full list of national governments using Drupal at
    http://groups.drupal.org/node/19885

  • http://themagneticsponsoringreview.com/ Mike

    I’m actually fairly shocked after reading this that big government is going with an open source content management system.

    Pleasently shocked actually. Instead of them investing millions of dollars and spending years to develop their own CMS (which is normally the case with any government project), several agencies have decided to go the quickest route and just go with what works on the internet at large.

    Good stuff!

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