The question about WordPress as a Corporate CMS

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It has been a couple of weeks since I attended #localgovcamp and it has taken that long for my brain to process all of the ideas and challenges that inevitably come up after spending such intensive time with so many passionate people.

One of the sessions I went to was on WordPress and whether or not it is capable of replacing existing content management systems (CMS) with regard to the council websites.

It is interesting to note that a few central government sites are using WordPress, for example Defra, Dept for Transport (DfT) and Number 10.

Whilst looking at these sites I noticed on the DfT site that it stated the following:

The website was redeveloped to address user feedback and stakeholder research, reduce costs and to move to an open source CMS solution (WordPress) in a more flexible hosting environment. We want to ensure that people can find the information they are looking for quickly and easily; and that publications, reports and policy documents can be browsed and searched more easily without having to know the subject area in detail or know what part of the Department or Agency is responsible. We also need to direct people to the correct source for more detailed information, such as Directgov and BusinessLink.

Via http://www.dft.gov.uk/site/

Whilst reading this it occurred to me why there is such an issue about talking about WordPress as a corporate website and it is obvious really…In fact I have even had the conversation with colleagues in ICT, but I don’t think I really connected the dots properly for my brain to make sense of it all.

This is why I believe it is easy for central government and some areas of local government to use WordPress for either core websites or even microsites but no one yet in my opinion has yet to provide a fully functioning corporate website using WordPress – By fully functioning I mean that it delivers a fully transactional platform with ePayments, GIS, business application integration, single sign on etc…

Now I’m not sure if WordPress that can do all of this, but I wonder whether this is actually the type of website we require. I’ve been involved in the website strategy here and one of the key aspects of moving toward a new web infrastructure is to decouple the existing layers so that we can make sensible decisions about which technologies are appropriate at each stage…This should in theory avoid the negative move (in my personal opinion) to get a big supplier and essentially supplier lock in…I don’t believe that in this climate we should consider big systems anymore, we are a shrinking sector and therefore we should consider more agile technologies where appropriate….this is based on the assumption that any new technology delivers on performance and business requirements.

When you consider the list of existing WordPress sites (not comprehensive)  in use across the local government arena, they are focusing on sites without any service transaction integration (no epayments, no library catalogue, no benefits system). In fact they are all focusing on information provision (most project based), which is of course a key function of a website as well.  The same also goes for the central government examples, as the transactional part of central government is provided by DirectGov.

Whilst there is a clear strategy and direction for central government transactional services to be provided through a single domain, there is not the same drive or strategy for this within local government. This is where the problem starts really – if there was a clear strategy which stated that all local government online services will be available through a single domain then we could clearly separate out the transactional service requirements from the information service requirements. This in my opinion would provide a clear opportunity for CMS platforms such as WordPress to gain a greater presence within the local government web arena as they are perfectly placed to support this at very low-cost as is proved by central government examples.

BUT – I don’t see this kind of strategy appearing to be honest, in the spirit of localism this kind of central control and mandate would not be welcomed, although it would drive a huge amount of cost saving….and it would in my opinion save a large number of councils the trouble of developing and duplicating, what is essentially the same online services across the country, thus wasting public money over and over again through the duplication of processes and transactions…But there is something about this approach which also makes my back shiver as it sort of assumes that this would reply on some “big” single site which would need a large number of people maintaining it and we would have to develop a suite of integration points into the vast number of different systems performing the same function across councils…isn’t this just asking for a huge supplier to manage the lot…I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that really but that could get into a political argument for which this blog was not intended..

If this kind of strategy was presented it would clearly represent an opportunity to local government to deliver the kind of consistent user experience across all local government services and because the high volumes of transactions we would be delivering huge cost savings locally…something about this seems very right but see point above about single supplier!

This is basically suggesting a shared service platform for local government online transactions….I naively thought years ago that this was what local direct gov would do….but i was obviously wrong.

Now I don’t know what the answer is here, it certainly isn’t wordpress…but it does have a role to play, but then again other open source platforms do as well.

The problem is we aren’t all having the conversations with our IT colleagues about what the issues are around corporate websites from their perspectives (we will be starting those conversations here very soon) to fully understand how all this stuff fits together in order to help everyone work out how we create a web architecture which is fit for purpose, flexible, agile and scalable….regardless of whether WordPress is used or not – for me the key is in understanding the requirements from all angles first before jumping to a conclusion.

What I do think WordPress can provide for councils now though is a perfect platform which business folk can use to deliver microsites within a consistent framework and in a very usable platform. Whilst this doesn’t replace a corporate website it does giver greater flexibility to webteam for example who often struggle to make changes or create microsites in “enterprise” class CMS systems…it simply isn’t sustainable to wait over 3-4 weeks for a small-scale microsite when you can create a site in less than an hour in WordPress.

We should all be focusing on what we want to achieve FIRST and not what products we want to see.

However in saying that I think it is certainly worth someones time creating a replica corporate website in WordPress even as a proof of concept and finding out either way whether or not it can work….that is certainly something I think we can do here as a team over the coming months in our own time…it would save others time so you have to say it is worthwhile.

So I think that this whole conversation is a misunderstanding really…the question shouldn’t be “can WordPress provide the technology for a corporate CMS?” the question should be “what do we really want the corporate website to do?”

Once we start asking the right questions, I’m sure WordPress and other open source products will start to enter into the conversation as possible solutions.

 

14 thoughts on “The question about WordPress as a Corporate CMS

  1. Carl,
    While I welcome local govt investigating the use of WordPress & other open source CMS, I’m not sure if the platform is the main issue – too often I see council tenders that are clearly written using a template and in effect are being used to protect the back of the council procurement officials.

    For example, I recently saw a tender to design a district council website that insisted the supplier had £5m public & £5m employers’ liability insurance – effectively costing the small company out of the process…..

  2. Your main conclusions are fully endorsed. It’s not the technology we should think about first, WordPress is great for a limited set of functions – but not all LA services. The Holy Grail is not worth seeking. It would be reasonable for LAs to mix and match technologies to suit their requirements. Perhaps the most difficult thing then would be to copy the look and feel across each part of the CMS. Not easy and probably more difficult so many user platforms and browsers.

    • There’s an old adage that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s very tempting to shoehorn everything into one technical framework, and may even work to begin with. Eventually, though, you may well end up trying to bolt things onto a system that simply isn’t designed or optimised to support them. Mix and match is important.

      As you say, look and feel then becomes a challenge. We’re looking at an open source system called Deliverance to help solve this; essentially it provides a layer of templates that sit in front of your various web applications. Our first production deployment of it should be going live in about a week.

      • Thank you for your comment and I agree with what you say…however i’d also say that the pushing stuff to make it fit is also something we have done with our existing CMS and that is one reason why it isn’t fit for purpose but complicated to unpick..

  3. John

    Carl,

    Interesting read. I’ve often wondered why we haven’t looked to WordPress as an alternative solution to something like Livelink which frankly is an awful system to use. I work with WordPress a great deal outside of work and love it. A system like WordPress just makes sense in the financial climate we are in.

    You are right though in terms of thinking about what you need the website to do before jumping on board with any new CMS.

    One thing that really stands out for me about WP is the huge developer community. There’s literally a plugin for just about anything and its this that makes the system so powerful and flexible. Not sure how plugins would be viewed corporately or whether they could be designed in house as well.

    • We will be soon in a position to answer some of the questions you raise John.

      I think we need to get people to the position that the thinking that got us here can not be the thinking that leads us out.

      We are not just battling technology viewpoints but also cultures around some of this stuff…

      But I welcome the challenge and discussion…

  4. WordPress (and to an even greater extent Drupal and maybe soon the ever improving Umbraco) can indeed do many of the same jobs an expensive proprietary CMS can do – in terms of managing the many thousands of text-based pages a council website is made up of.

    In many respects the actual information management and curation side of things is a darn site easier (I’ve yet to find a big, expensive CMS which can compete with the flexibility of Drupal’s taxonomy system for categorising and managing content, for example).

    The only issue is how you handle the transactional stuff, which most pricey CMS – as far as I know – don’t handle natively anyway, meaning more expense in terms of plugging in third party systems.

    Whether IT depts can work to provide transactional services in-house or whether systems (payment, CRM, etc) are brought in from third parties, it should be perfectly feasible to template them to look more or less identical to the rest of the corp site. This might not be perfect, but I don’t think there’ll ever be a single solution for the wide variety of expectations placed upon a local authority website.

    Of course – this is thinking based on the current ‘many pages’ model of local authority site.

    How about a new, two-tier model for local authority sites, where a top layer of transactional services and minimal snappy, modern web content takes priority over a less prioritised ‘library’ layer, containing the many thousands of pages of content built around the LGNL menu model? This would enable councils to use the web to better provide services designed for the web environment, whilst still meeting the organisational business needs of those depts and projects that simply want/need to publish a dozen (or more) pages of (frankly often fairly dry and very rarely accessed) text.

    • I think the mode of two tier is almost what i’m saying with a single shared platform but obviously your suggesting a local version of that, which whilst delivers opportunities it may not provide the cost saving…i don’t want to focus solely on cost saving but it is hard to get away from that in the current climate.

      Still a decoupling of the website, along with new thinking will present new opportunities which i believe will change the way corporate websites are delivered in the public sector.

  5. Robin

    Hello Carl. I enjoyed reading your post and the comments. I wonder if you’re expecting a CMS to do too much. There are plenty of great systems that already do all the transactional elements Councils use (GIS, payments, forms etc).

    Is it more realistic to focus the CMS on content alone? That will also give you a much wider choice about systems.

    My personal view is that the real content challenge isn’t the CMS, its about getting colleagues in the Council to write accessible, readable and, most importantly, useful content for the public.

    • I’m not expecting a CMS to do everything in fact i’d very welcome a web infrastructure that actually separated the layers so that content could be managed in the simplest way possible which would also help improve quality and accessibility of it….The problem now is the opposite which is CMS’s are used in a way which is going beyond their core purpose to manage content and you see so many “bolt-ons” which look like that add value but actually they create more issues over time….

      The problem isn’t always with the technology of course it is how it is implemented…

  6. web CMS was designed to meet the needs of real business people. It was not designed by developers for other developers like the open source systems available and it was not based on somebody’s perception of what business needed, based on their own experience

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