Last month I wrote about how Drupal supports five of the most effective open government sites in Five Government Sites Using Drupal Effectively for Open Government Initiatives. This month, I discuss how Drupal is close to being the perfect Gov 2.0 solution for savvy agencies â€“ and soon, perhaps, a default solution for open government web initiatives.
Drupal excels in the very qualities we are seeking to improve with open government, namely: transparency, accountability, efficiency participation and collaboration. In that sense, it is both a practical tool and a great cultural fit. Its open source roots, transparent community and natively social approach to content management make it a very appropriate choice for open government sites. Most of these five attributes are missing from many government web efforts. Instilling government with these qualities is what the gov 2.0 movement is all about. Here is how Drupal addresses each of them.
Imagine if a commercial software executive speaking at the companyâ€™s annual conference titled a presentation, “Why I hate our product.” Wouldn’t it be refreshing? Wouldn’t it be a growth opportunity for the platform to look honestly at what it doesnâ€™t do well? At last year’s Drupalcon conference in DC, Drupal developer and community contributor James Walker (walkah) gave a gutsy and well-attended session entitled “Why I hate Drupal”.
That is what I love most about open source platforms. Free of corporate-speak, the community spontaneously examines its strengths and weaknesses, making course corrections in the open – in real-time. Here’s the activity sidebar today at Drupal.org:
Notice how issues and bugs are dealt with publicly and placed prominently in a place where they will receive attention. This self-correcting and open process produces better software and better implementers, who are more responsive to the unique needs of Drupal’s user base.
Drupal is highly accountable for what it is and what it not as a technology because it is out there for all to use and there are no barriers to trying it out â€“ you can download it today and find out if it will meet your agencyâ€™s needs. Yes, there is marketing and propaganda out there about Drupal just as there is for commercial solutions, but the community and technology itself are accountable in a very tangible way â€“ you either decide to use it and find a way to work around (or fix) what you donâ€™t like or you do not.
That seems fairly simple, but has not always been the case for software. Social publishing, while required to satisfy any agency’s stakeholders, is a profoundly more difficult challenge than say back office integration. That’s because you can’t hide your platform’s shortcomings from your users once you open it up. Until now, a glitch in your back office platform has been the agency’s problem, invisible to your stakeholders. But if your social publishing platform allows trolls and zealots to hijack your system in its comments and discussion forums, the repercussions can get public, partisan and nasty – overnight.
Efficiency can have many dimensions, but for government IT projects, the two that matter most are: cost and time. Certainly free software is cost efficient on the surface, but many have argued there are hidden costs. While no software is free to implement, Drupal certainly out benchmarks commercial alternatives and custom proprietary options. A whitepaper entitled “TCO for Open Source Social Publishing: Going Beyond Social Business Software” released earlier this year by Drupal commercial support vendor Acquia, provides a wealth of evidence of the cost advantages. In this budget-conscious era of bank bailouts and exploding federal debt, it is hard to argue for our governmentâ€™s use of more expensive solutions.
The strength of Drupalâ€™s efficiency can also be witnessed through its rapid implementations – performed in weeks or months, not years. This does require experience and expertise with the platform, but learning curve is nothing new for government. Both government staff and contractors flock to classes to learn Oracle, Sharepoint, .NET, and dozens of other commercial technologies. Why not do the same with Drupal? As the pool of implementers and consultants within the government space increases, the familiarity to develop and support will increase and the learning curve decrease. The 3-year implementations for government IT projects could soon be a thing of the past with Drupal use.
In the Drupal community, we’ve seen robust development of modules and industry solutions for publishing, higher education, non-profits and corporate sites. As Drupal is used increasingly in government, the platform will adapt more rapidly to the unique needs of this marketplace relative to its commercial counterparts because it draws on natural collaboration to solve problems. It also means that this dynamic community will rally around the unique obstacles the government marketplace requires. The implications for government are huge because unlike proprietary software, the Drupal community self corrects to meet a marketâ€™s needs.
Drupal was initially developed as a collaboration tool and as such, its architecture is developed around the concept of an individualâ€™s profile on the site â€“ allowing for content contribution, commenting, and linking of users. This model allowed Drupal to be a leader in the web2.0 movement rather than a follower, like many commercial CMS products struggling to backfill user engagement into their publishing platforms. Naturally, the tools promoting user engagement rarely manage the counter-forces, which have particularly impact on government sites – transparency at odds with security, participation competing with privacy, etc. This means that out of the box Drupal may not be appropriate for all government sites, but certainly the concepts are more by design and less afterthought â€“ though it may take skill to strike the right balance in their use.
Participation as a goal of open government means many things from a technology perspective, but mainly the obstacles are about process and culture. Open source communities have a lot to teach all of us about participation. Drupal is far from the largest open source community yet at the end of 2009, the project boasted 611,000 members on drupal.org with over 250,000 downloads per month, 400,000 Drupal sites and over 4500 contributed modules. Community participation has produced 7 major versions (1 per year since 2003) more predictably and efficiently than most of the worldâ€™s largest software companies.
So when we plan to seek out ways to instill greater participation from citizens in government online, surely this is a tool and a project where such spirit exists.
Why We Need a Better Tool
I started with an assumption that we needed a better tool to develop government sites because there is nothing to show us how to do it correctly at this time. Other common tools used to build such sites are focused on making the constructs of web pages easier to develop and maintain â€“ that is web 1.0 mentality.
We talk about the principles of open government in the context of websites because this is a major interface point for citizens to their government. Today there is a disproportionate amount of bad online examples of how not to do government online. Sites with too much text, poor collaborative and participatory features for citizens and very little functionality to make them anything more than the only sanctioned places to find a particular piece of official information. Otherwise, these sites would never be visited or used by citizens.
A platform like Drupal can actually help correct this by providing a â€œhow toâ€ close to already setup framework to do things correctly like:
- standards based templates to help with SEO and accessibility
- user profile and engagement frameworks to gather public comment and feedback
- modular features to extend sites with new functionality without re-contracting
- social media and network integration to encourage involvement and sharing
- semantic web standards to connect to other authoritative data sources
So letâ€™s start our new government sites with a platform that is working now, inexpensive, flexible and natively embraces the qualities and characteristics we claim to be pursuing under the open government directive.