How one city changed its website for the better (and has the analytics to prove it)

City of Ferndale

Source: City of Ferndale

A few years ago after I let the first government WordPress theme I created languish, I got an email from City of Ferndale Assistant City Administrator Sam Taylor asking if he could get the latest version (which was no longer available).

Sam’s email was the impetus for building a new theme, now called GovPress, that Devin Price and I developed with his feedback, and Ferndale deployed a beta version in July of 2013 (more on the history here).

Given the recent discussion around analytics and the new analytics.usa.gov, I asked Sam if I could see Ferndale’s, mostly because I was curious as to how or if a new design had changed user traffic and site activity.

I’ll let the screenshot above speak for itself.

What’s important to understand here is that, no matter how small a city you are, you can deploy a low-cost website, including a content management system and design with a simple, mobile-friendly interface and provide immediate results for citizens.

Philadelphia launches alpha city website


Source: alpha.phila.gov

Philadelphia has launched an alpha version of a new phila.gov.

The new site, located at alpha.phila.gov, is powered by WordPress with a custom theme that hopefully the city will open source at some point in the future.

To me, the site is perfect as is. It completely abandons outdated web features, such as the homepage carousel, gratuitous mayoral photo or city skyline, heavy graphics and department-centered focus on information presentation. The only change I’d recommend is going with standard casing (and not all-caps). In general, I love that the style is flat, light-weight, text-based, and works perfectly on all devices, much like what we designed for GovPress.

The text-based approach with limited, page-appropriate content and prominent search on each page shows restraint that we typically don’t see in government websites.

If WordPress is replacing the technology powering the current site (.asp), that’s another big win for the city.

Kudos to Philadelphia for winning on both the technology and design fronts with this.

Take a look at the site and share your feedback.

GovFresh WP: building a government WordPress theme

GovFresh WP

Despite the fact that millions of websites around the world today are powered by low- and no-cost open source content management systems, nearly all small city governments remain trapped in the 90s.

It’s not that they don’t want great websites to serve their citizens. They just don’t have the technical prowess to understand what their options are and how to deploy and manage them.

Continue reading

How Joomla is powering government

JoomlaWe’ve heard a lot about Drupal and WordPress in government, but not much about the open source platform Joomla. We asked Joomla External Communications Lead Sandra Ordonez to share how government is using it, its key features, how it compares to Drupal and WordPress and what governments are using it.

What is Joomla and why should government be interested?

Joomla is one of the world’s most popular open source CMS and its core product is free. It is used by individuals, small and medium-sized business, and large organizations worldwide, to easily create and build a variety of websites and Web-enabled applications. Approximately 2.7 percent of the Web currently runs on Joomla. Due to its power and elegance, it can be used by the most inexperienced website builder to the most seasoned Web developer. Since its inception in 2005, Joomla has been 100 percent community owned and operated, and its software has been downloaded more than 26 million times.

Joomla powers more than 2,900 government websites and you can find examples of those by going to http://docs.joomla.org/Government_Websites_Using_Joomla. We find that a majority of these government sites use Joomla because it is the only content management system that combines the ease of use and powerful extensibility necessary to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of users.

How does Joomla compare to other open source software options like Drupal or WordPress?

Whereas Joomla’s main competitors lack either ease of use or extensibility, Joomla takes the best of both worlds in one powerful and simple CMS. It is a product oriented community whereas other CMS’ are services oriented. What this means is that Joomla users expect the core and extensions to be finished products ready to use out of the box, and don’t require custom development to get ready. Many Joomla sites are deployed with little or no custom development work.

Another key differentiator for Joomla is the project’s focus surrounding security, a priority set by the leadership team. Joomla developers are focused on, and excel at, protecting their users. In fact, Joomla has set up the Joomla security center and strike team http://developer.joomla.org/security.html where security vulnerabilities can be reported on and taken action on instantly. The Joomla Security Strike Team pulls information from the thousands of people in the Joomla community working 24-7 around the world. Those members of the community are constantly probing Joomla and its extensions for the latest vulnerabilities and issues fixes to them as soon as possible. In addition to this specific security site and team, the nearly 500-thousand members in the Joomla forum are constantly informing Joomla members about the latest vulnerabilities as well.

What makes Joomla truly unique is it features the largest community of developers and third party extensions for a CMS (see more details below). The project is entirely community driven and operated with very little hierarchy, no questions asked. Joomla was developed as and continues to be a grassroots software project.

What are the top features governments are using?

It’s hard to pinpoint the top features that governments are using, but here are some of the “killer” Joomla features in our opinion (in no particular order):

  • Easy, one-click updates from version-to-version. The new built-in updater also handles updates for Joomla and Joomla extensions. This is a major enhancement improving upon the previous system of manually updating individual files on the server.
  • Access Control Levels. This gives sites managers control over who can manage and view content.
  • Multilingual capabilities allows site users to implement a multi-language site.
  • A separated framework for building apps (the Joomla platform). This means that a developer can use Joomla to build apps without having to make changes to the core CMS.
  • Huge, active community with over 8000 contributed addons better knows as extensions. You can find these extensions at http://extensions.joomla.org/.

How can interested public sector IT professionals learn more?

Go to www.joomla.org. They can also visit the Joomla! forum and get advice from one of our many volunteers: http://forum.joomla.org. Also, many tutorials exist on YouTube.

Local governments using Joomla

Learn more about government sites powered by Joomla at joomla.org at joomlagov.info.

Join the WordPress for Government Google Group


As I mentioned in my 2012 civic commitment post, I’m focused on helping drastically lower the cost, de-mystify the technology and build better websites for local government.

This is the first step.

Here at GovFresh we love open source software, especially WordPress. While Drupal gets much of the press when it comes to open source and government, many municipalities and elected officials are implementing WordPress because of its cost (free), portability, accessible theming and plugin options and excellent content management system.

We’re just getting started, but if you’re a government web developer, WordPress developer or theme designer or interested in learning more about it, join the GovFresh WP (WordPress & Government) Google Group.

Let’s work together and help one another revolutionize how government builds websites.

The dark secret behind the De Leon, TX, website makeover

De Leon, TX

The dark secret behind the City of De Leon, TX, Website was that it was designed, developed and deployed in 24 hours.

As part of the manor.govfresh ‘City Makeover,’ I re-designed and developed the new De Leon Website using the free GovFresh WordPress Theme as the foundation.

I did some simple customization on the flight from San Francisco to Austin. When I got to my hotel in Texas that night, City of Manor CIO Dustin Haisler and I set up the WordPress site, installed the theme and added content from the legacy site. We also integrated 311, social media and Google Docs features. All of this was done via Skype chat.

There was no design by committee, and I didn’t make it my personal art project. This was a rapid-development process and a practical approach to modernizing one town’s Web and social media presence.

De Leon officials knew they were getting a WordPress-powered site using the GovFresh theme and that it would resemble the City of Manor Website. They weren’t concerned with color or design minutiae. They wanted a Website they could easily manage themselves and update immediately, and that’s what they got.

It wasn’t perfect on Day 1, but within 24 hours a local government had a modern-day Website. Within 48 hours, De Leon published its first blog post and began using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with its citizens.

This is a perfect example of how local governments can use new technology to save money, empower themselves and better serve citizens. See also the White House Blog post about the De Leon Makeover.

OpenGovWest gets fresh look, logo, Website

OpenGovWest has a new logo and Website. Described as a “network of open government supporters and practitioners, working together to foster progress on open government issues and technology throughout the US and Canada,” OGW is managed by Knowledge As Power, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle. (Note: We worked with KAP to help re-design the logo and site using our GovFresh Gov 2.0 WordPress theme)

KAP Executive Director Sarah Schacht on OGW’s mission:

“We’re bringing together a wide range of people who support open government work through work summits, conferences, and local meetups. While there’s a lot of PR around ‘Gov 2.0,’ it’s still difficult work that requires individuals and organizations with different skills to coordinate their work. OGW events are a fun, functional way to facilitate open government work.”

Connect with OGW on Twitter, Facebook, subscribe to the the RSS feed or sign up for the email newsletter.

Check out the new look:


Changing government standards and ‘Common Look and Feel’

Most western governments have in the last decade developed an accessibility strategy for their websites, often based on WCAG 1.0. At the end of 2008, the WC3 announced the final version of WCAG 2.0 and the public sector is now struggling to keep up. In Canada there was a recent announcement about a revised Common Look and Feel (CLF). In the USA the Section 508 is in its first of six revisions, part of which will be to adapt to the new approach to standards. I’m not sure that most citizens will notice the changes to government websites, however for both people with disabilities and the tax payers, it will be a very big deal.


In a recent search it seems that the Government of Canada is seen to be a leader in the global public sector because of our CLF implementation. One of the greatest successes has been the enforcement of a common branding across the public sector. I used to call the CLF 1.0 the Common ugly Look and Feel because it really was boxy and bland, however, it’s gotten a lot better.

Most government sites are looking better than they did a decade ago. Branding shouldn’t force sites to be identical, but it’s important that citizens are able to quickly identify a site as that of their government. This effort should allow some shared learning between departments about best practices for the usability of websites as well.


The Internet has changed dramatically since 1998 when the USA Government released it’s Section 508 guidelines. Canada began developing it’s CLF standards this year, but didn’t enforce them until 2002 so it had an opportunity to look at other approaches to accessibility. The most significant of which was produced by the WC3, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999. This was the leading accessibility standard for almost a decade. Understandably, governments need some time before adopting a finalized international standard into their own policies.

In the revision process for Section 508 the CLF they will be carefully looking at WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which were released in 2008. Governments & industry leaders around the world are embracing the new standard, but there are also draft guidelines like the Authoring Tool (ATAG) 2.0 and WAI-ARIA which will respectively improve content authoring for people with disabilities and work to keep up with the rapidly changing web technology.

As more information from government is served through the Internet the more important it is that all of it is accessible to citizens with all levels of ability. This is not a light undertaking and this is critical to being a modern democratic country. Both federal governments have ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, have made a more serious commitment to serving all of their citizens.

There are a whole lot of government web pages, today Google indexed 414 million .gov and 102 million .gc.ca web pages. I’m sure that there are inaccuracies in this and duplicated web pages. I’m also not sure how Canada has just ¼ of the web pages that the USA in this very simple comparison. There are probably many pages that aren’t listed with that domain or that simply have a policy of instructing search engines not to index. Regardless, it’s a huge responsibility to maintain this amount of content.

As governments try to keep up with citizen expectations they will be adding new technology like AJAX scripting to provide a more responsive interface for their users. This type of approach ultimately makes a web site more like a desktop application. Interactive applications are more complex for both security and accessibility issues as well.

The Internet is rapidly evolving and International standards will continue to rush to keep up with them. Whether it is WAI-ARIA adoption or HTML5, government agencies will need to adapt over time. Stricter regulations around web accessibility are in the works and accessibility approaches will be rushing to keep pace. All of this requires that governments begin to anticipate change and incorporate solutions that allow them to evolve with it to improve accessibility & reduce costs. As we’ve tried to outline in our Accessibility White Paper having a proactive approach to accessibility is key to success.

Government Is opening

The Internet has also given citizens an increased expectation for better access to their government. People want better access to the data that the government has collected on their behalf. Initiatives in the UK and USA to promote open data in government have clearly set a precedent, as have municipalities around the globe. The tools and standards for open data are established, but meaningful adoption has yet to be embraced across the board. Adoption of new standards like RDFa as is starting in the UK, needs to be applied in more pilots. For both internal and external audiences there are considerable cost savings to be made in providing machine readable versions of content.

Citizens are also looking for ways to participate with their government. People are now used to being able to leave comments, login to sites to interact with personalized content and even have sites remember what they are interested in. It can often be difficult to find information in government sites, but dynamic tools like this can be useful to ensure that citizens get the information they need quickly. This will require some significant re-thinking of how government manages, security, privacy & membership. It is very encouraging to hear that the US federal government has adopted an OpenID framework.

The blogosphere has also been very active in reviewing and critiquing the revised plans. Two designers have now contributed branding options for the CLF. Many people have offered critiques of the first revision of Section 508. Reactions and evaluations are often immediate on the Web and it is critical that governments learn to be responsive to this. David Eaves said it well: “A digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analogue government.”

Change Isn’t Cheap

This is going to be a huge task. Simply keeping up with the legal responsibilities for governments to deliver hundreds of millions of webpages to all of it’s citizens is an enormous undertaking. However, it can be made much more manageable if government agencies embrace open source and open standards as they have in the United Kingdom. Several agencies in the USA have taken a lead on this including the US military. Openly supporting collaboration between government departments as well as organizations and individuals outside of government sector is surely the only way to keep up with the changing pace of technology.

Adoption of good free software tools like Drupal and WordPress that already have a huge user base to leverage is going to be key to ensuring that the government’s web pages are able to keep up with the changing demands. Drupal 7 is already implementing many WCAG 2.0 requirements in the core and also now has built-in RDFa support.

Whatever the new standards are adopted, it will need to be rolled out and evaluated on millions of web pages. The closer those standards are to the current WCAG 2.0 framework the easier it will be to use automated tools to evaluate it’s accessibility. New government standards should not just be a list of rules and examples, but there is a huge need to be interactive and provide as much access to re-usable code as they can. To be cost effective governments need to be investing heavily in setting up sample content management tools that they have permission to distribute and enhance between departments. It doesn’t need to favour open source solutions, but any solution which cannot be freely distributed, used and modified at least between government departments, is not worth investing in.

The best solutions within government need to be actively shared as widely as possible so tax payers aren’t having to be paying for every department to recreate the wheel.


Any implementation of government web standards needs to take into consideration the evolving nature of the web. Any solution for department sites that don’t easily allow for site wide changes to incorporated needs to be rejected. In the last few years the Canadian government has spent many millions adopting the CLF 2.0 guidelines. If in doing so they had incorporated forward thinking free software solutions future upgrades to their sites to make them more open and accessible would be much more affordable.