Author: Jeff Walpole

A new model for public sector open source adoption using Drupal

The debate over whether (OSS) is good for government is over. A close look will reveal the discussion has moved on to one of two things: 1) the necessary, but subsequent implementation questions to be sorted out – security, regulation, procurement, etc. or 2) organizational confusion about how to take the first step. In either case, the precedent of value has been established both within government and elsewhere to allow us to now move on to the natural next set of issues.

Open source software is here to stay

So the discussion must turn from ‘whether to use’ open source to ‘how to make it work’ for government. These discussions should be especially welcome in the government IT environment – long dominated by IT projects that take too long, cost too much, and never seem to hit the mark by the time they are deployed. Corporate and non-profit organizations of all sizes have been able to demonstrate significant financial, operational and strategic value using open source. Also, we have the precedent and models set by the server stack – Linux has become the dominant operating system and Apache, the webserver for the majority of the world’s most important web servers.

The problem is that taking advantage of the open source opportunity at the application level creates paradoxes for government IT. Our system doesn’t know how to take advantage of free and open software at the application level – government is used to building everything custom or customizing products that already cost a ton to license – ‘there is a catch here somewhere for us’ goes the thinking about OSS.

Rather than move quickly to take advantage of affordable and innovative open solutions, government loses momentum and gets bogged down by concerns over whether it is practical or even ethical to use contributed code: Can we use something that is free? How can we procure it then? Can we use code contributions from the outside world? Will it be secure? Can we contribute our own code to the rest of the world?

Drupal works for open government needs

As if the argument to adopt open source needed more kindling, enter the administration’s unrelenting push for Open Government – with a huge online focus and component. Now we are seeking *new* ways to quickly establish mechanisms to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration in online dealings between the government and its citizens. Yet successful user collaboration solutions are already implemented on all kinds of sites.

The case for free, collaborative software which is developed, tested and vetted in the open by an efficient base of innovative developers has been clearly made when you consider the the open government mandate. These are use-cases made for a platform like Drupal – the ability for a user to respond to content and policy online through commenting, rating, sharing, voting, and an endless array of other social media integration is perfect.

As I have said in prior posts on this site “Drupal is up to this challenge”. This is what we use it for and where it performs best. At this week’s Gov2.0 Expo, a group of my colleagues will try to convince you of this point in a session entitled Drupal and Social Publishing Strategies for Meeting the Open Government Directive.

I realize that is going to take some time for government CIOs and web managers to be fully convinced – as it did with publishers, non-profit execs, education administrators and decision makers in dozens of other industries. For sure, the commercial vendors and embedded custom implementers have other ideas about how to construct the next wave of gov2.0 – and they likely have some good solutions to promote too. But open source Drupal is my choice for this particular set of tasks and here is what I think we can do to help prove that.

We need a government community open source CMS option

In late 2008, my company, Phase2 Technology initiated an effort to put together and then release an open source packaged version of Drupal that would help online publishers of news, magazines, and other publications get started with Drupal right away. We called it OpenPublish, it was a big success, and it is going stronger than ever now. From that project, we learned that Drupal can be made significantly more useful, less intimidating and more powerful through a distribution targeted at a specific set of industry challenges.

So after wrestling with putting government sites on Drupal over the last two years, we have decided to launch a similar project we think will help government and Drupal find each other faster – in the same sort of way as OpenPublish was able to married up publishers looking for the advantages of open source with Drupal. We are calling this project OpenPublic because of the similarities and because we see it as the public sector equivalent of the same experiment.

We believe the project can be successful and provide substantial value to government sites if we can achieve these 7 tenets that are lacking in current CMS options for government:

1. Low barriers to entry.

Someone from, or on behalf of, the government should have the immediate ability to start or prototype a project without an RFP, procurement cycle, Statement of Work or contract vehicle. Download, test, try out and play with it for free. Today. No strings attached.

2. Demonstrable return on investment.

It should be easy to prove that that the tax payer is getting high value for services, without wasteful scenarios in which the government is putting large investments directly into reinventing functionality that exists elsewhere or overpaying for commercial licenses to use relatively generic functionality (e.g. core CMS publishing).

3. No proprietary technology or vendor lock-in.

The solution can’t trap the federal government into a proprietary technology or forced monopoly experience that either requires repeated contractual awards, recurring fees or licensing costs to a single company that is the sole provider of technology expertise.

4. Low total cost of ownership.

It should be easy to prove if agencies are paying a premium over the course of ownership via post-purchase fees that do not involve the delivery of additional value. The government cannot grant annuities to vendors that continue to add cost based upon the justifications that were created because proprietary technology was used.

5. True technical flexibility.

The government must be able to modify the solution to meet continually evolving needs and be able to improve, modify, maintain and grow the solution over time.

6. Community innovation & contribution.

The government should benefit from the continued contributions of the open source technical community at large as it relates to inheriting solutions to similar problems and . It should gain from the innovations of this larger pool of talent.

7. Minimal barriers to extend.

The government should have the ability to get free and open access to knowledge, code, training and best practices on the platform – to the extent that others are willing to share – but not required to withhold.

OpenPublic: A community solution

OpenPublic is being developed as a community effort with Phase2 taking what we have learned from building Drupal distributions to lead the efforts, but we – by no means – want to go at this alone. In fact, we believe the quality of the solution and the value it can provide are both infinitely improved by community participation.

So we are looking for both people with technical experience in open source (Drupal preferably) and the business of government itself.

We are also actively looking for feedback and help from the opengov community that haunts events like the Open Government Workshops, the Gov2.0 Summit and Expo, the Open Government & Innovations conference and Transparency Camp. We are looking for the people that hang out and read GovFresh, GovLoop and the Sunlight Labs blog. We want the inputs of people on the Gov2.0 Heroes List and on Twitter lists like this, this and this.

If you believe in the same things and want to help, then please email us (openpublic at phase2technology.com) to let us know of your interests and share your ideas.

Drupal: The New Gov 2.0 Site Builder?

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 – 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.

Transparency

Imagine if a commercial software executive speaking at the company’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 doesn’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.

Accountability

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 – you can download it today and find out if it will meet your agency’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 – you either decide to use it and find a way to work around (or fix) what you don’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

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 government’s use of more expensive solutions.

The strength of Drupal’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.

Collaboration

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 market’s needs.

Drupal was initially developed as a collaboration tool and as such, its architecture is developed around the concept of an individual’s profile on the site – 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 – though it may take skill to strike the right balance in their use.

Participation

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 world’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 – 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 “how to” 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 let’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.

5 government sites using Drupal effectively for open government initiatives

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.