The open source (GPLv2) content management system Drupal is used for governmental web sites in more than 120 countries,
as well as many intergovernmental
organizations and local
governments. The Drupal Government
Days in Brussels was the first conference where government
representatives, Drupal users, and developers had the opportunity to meet
and swap ideas. Your author was present at the first two days, which had
sessions about solutions for governments.
Co-organizer Bart Van Herreweghe, internet communication expert at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of the conference's guest country, Belgium, welcomed the attendees with the message that the goals of the event were not only to inform about the use of Drupal in governments, but also to encourage sharing source code of Drupal sites between authorities. In his keynote speech, Drupal founder Dries Buytaert mentioned some well-known examples of government sites running on Drupal: The White House, the official portal of the French government, the website of London, and so on.
The success of Drupal in governments
"Why did Drupal succeed in so many governments?", was the key question Buytaert asked in his presentation, and he sees a couple of reasons for this success. Obviously the fact that Drupal is open source is a big advantage, but so is the community: the Drupal community has no shortage of developers who can build and maintain web sites. Another factor according to Buytaert is that Drupal is much more than a CMS: it's a platform with a modular design and over 7,000 community-contributed add-ons to extend its functionality. "Also, the advantage of using one standardized platform for all your web sites over having to combine various platforms is obvious," Buytaert said.
But the success of Drupal in governments also depends on some accidental
circumstances, such as the support of some influential people in
governments. This started with Howard Dean, who used Drupal in his 2004 US
presidential campaign. This was one of Drupal's major growth points: thanks
to the internet support he raised with his Drupal site, the underdog Dean
raised $3 million in a week. "This gave a lot of visibility and
credibility to Drupal as a platform,", Buytaert said,
"especially for political and governmental use."
The Drupal-based DeanSpace CMS later became the CivicSpace distribution,
and subsequently its features (focused on organizing political and other
events) have been incorporated into Drupal 5.0. The CRM side has been
offloaded to a separate set of modules, the AGPL3-licensed CiviCRM, which was SourceForge's project of
the month for January 2011. As you can see here, Dean's developers not only used Drupal, but also contributed back to it.
Another important person behind the success of Drupal in governments is
Vivek Kundra, the first Chief Information Officer of the United States of
America. He was responsible for a couple of high-profile government web
sites built atop Drupal. About the whitehouse.gov site mentioned above Buytaert said: "This web site is really a testament to the scalability and security of Drupal, as you can imagine that it attracts a lot of welcome and unwelcome visitors. It also was a catalyst for Drupal use in the US government." So all in all, Drupal is having a profound impact in the US on how politicians and governments communicate and engage with their citizens.
High-profile Drupal sites open sourced
Jeff Walpole, CEO of Phase2 Technology, has been responsible for many Drupal-based solutions for the US government, including whitehouse.gov, and at Drupal Government Days he talked about what open source in general and more specifically Drupal can mean for government agencies. Some important points he highlighted were freedom, innovation, speed, reusability, and cost:
While with many other content management systems you depend on a single company, with Drupal you are free from lock-in or a monopoly. Moreover, the most overlooked aspect of open source software is innovation: the community-driven development of Drupal provides a lot of innovative features. Drupal also supports rapid site creation and prototyping, and many of the features you develop can easily be shared among multiple web sites.
Referring to the US government's Open Government Initiative, an
effort by the Obama administration to create more openness in the
government, Walpole said that Drupal is central in a modern OpenGov
stack. The Open
Government Directive lists some requirements that fit naturally into
Drupal, such as open data sets and mechanisms for public feedback. Drupal
use in the US government has trickled down from the top agencies and
high-profile sites to smaller web sites. "We are lucky that Drupal
has been embraced at the top first, which gave it the visibility and
credibility it needed.", Walpole said.
One of these high-profile Drupal sites that Phase2 Technology built for
the government is the IT Dashboard,
which shows details of federal information technology investments. At the
end of March, the White House released
the code of the IT Dashboard to the public. The White House blog post,
written by Vivek Kundra, mentions two reasons to open source the code:
First, to take the platform to the next level, we want to tap into the collective talents and ingenuity of the American people, to enhance functionality, improve the code and address existing challenges such as those identified by David Powner and his team at GAO. Second, CIOs from across the country and around the world such as Maarten Hillenaar of the Netherlands, Kyle Schafer in West Virginia and Jason DeHaan of the City of Chicago are all interested in implementing these platforms in their respective organizations.
The code of the IT Dashboard can be found on SourceForge in
repository, and it is distributed under the GPLv2. The open source
version differs from the production version in that it uses the FusionCharts free library instead
of the enterprise version, and of course it comes pre-populated with only sample data. Some of the custom Drupal modules that this code has are a Data Controller module that supports aggregations and efficient query generation for multiple data sources, a PHP Dataset module that describes data sets for views using custom PHP code, and the FusionCharts display style plugin to render output as a FusionChart graph. More information about the IT Dashboard showcase can be found in the Drupal forum and on Civic Commons.
An open senate
Noel Hidalgo talked about the website of the New York State Senate, a complex Drupal
site that hosts 62 Senator websites, 44 Committee sites, the Senate's Open Data portal, and the
Senate-wide calendar with integrated live stream and archive video integration. The focus of the project was that it should be collaborative, transparent, and participatory. "We adopted Drupal because it's malleable and flexible," Hidalgo said, and an example is that it was quite straightforward to add an OpenStreetMap map.
The web site has a whole developer page with information about the technologies and APIs used. Moreover, the web site also publishes its source code, using the GPLv3 and the BSD licenses. All source code can be found on the GitHub account of the NY Senate CIO Office. This includes the Drupal code for NYSenate.gov, ready to be used for other government web sites. Although many of these modules are specifically designed for the NY State Senate's content types and policy-driven needs, some of them could provide more general functionality.
Some of the more general modules that can be used as-is on other Drupal web sites are released separately. For instance, this holds for Whitelist, an input filter that disables HTML forms whose domains are not part of an approved whitelist. The developers have also released the source code of the mobile applications (for Android and the iPhone/iPod Touch and for the iPad) that belong to the site, as well as a lot of other accompanying projects. Overall, the NYsenate.gov web site looks like a model for the web sites of world-wide parliaments.
Drupal distributions for governments
In his keynote speech, Buytaert also said that he expects a lot from
specialized Drupal distributions. A distribution in this context is made of
the Drupal core, extended
with specific modules, a specific configuration, theme, and
documentation. Distributions make it easier to install Drupal on a web
server for a specific purpose. A Drupal distribution is much more a product than the platform Drupal, and Buytaert calls them accelerators for Drupal adoption:
My hope is that we'll see hundreds of these Drupal distributions for specialized niches, including government use. If you are developing a successful Drupal distribution, it could be a lead generation tool: customers will probably come to you when you maintain the distribution for their niche, as you are in the best position for support and documentation.
One of these specialized Drupal distributions for governments is OpenPublic, presented at Drupal
Government Days by Jeff Walpole and Ivo Radulovski. The latter mentioned that the many good examples of Drupal use in the US makes the decision to use Drupal, and open source in general, in other governments much easier. OpenPublic was initiated by Phase2 Technology, built upon the work it has done on some of the aforementioned web sites, to provide an open source product to build government web sites on Drupal. When installed, it already comes with a lot of features built-in to accommodate government needs, such as security, privacy, citizen engagement, and feedback.
The initial alpha
release (dated February 2011) provides a basic site structure, a proof
of concept for compliance considerations (such as the Section 508
Accessibility guidelines), and some basic functionality such as blogs,
press releases, events, documents, photo and video galleries, along with staff directory and contact profiles. Some of the proposed new features are enhancements to the administrative interface and map visualization. According to Jeff, one of the long-term goals is to have an OpenPublic web site up and running on an infrastructure/cloud provider in an hour. ProPeople, the company where Ivo Radulovski is CEO, also offers an additional OpenPublic theme for European governments, OpenPublic Europe.
Towards even better government web sites
The US government has clearly been a forerunner in the use of Drupal for government web sites, and their example has been followed by many European governments in recent years. What's more interesting is not only that all these governments are using Drupal, but also that many of these projects are contributing their custom modules back to the Drupal community, or are even building specialized Drupal distributions. All this will surely make Drupal an even better platform for building government web sites in the future.
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