The question about WordPress as a Corporate CMS

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.

 

Should the Public Sector pay for Content Management Systems?

About 3-4 years ago I used to think that the requirements of a Local Authority or Public Sector Agencies around content management system (CMS) were pretty complex and could only really be supported by purchasing one of the many high end products out there in the market.

I must stress at this point that i am referring to Content Management or Web Content Management – This is not a post about Enterprise Content Management (ECM) which is at a higher level and includes a wider range of functions and features including:

•    Document management for check-in/check-out, version control, security and library services for business documents.
•    Document imaging for capturing, transforming, storing and managing scanned images of paper documents.
•    Records management for long-term archiving, automation of retention and compliance policies, and ensuring legal, regulatory and industry compliance.
•    Workflow for supporting business processes, document review and approval, routing content, assigning work tasks and states, and creating audit trails.
•    Web content management for controlling the content of a Website by using  specific management tools based on a core repository. It includes content creation functions, templating, workflow and change management, and content deployment to web servers.
•    Document-centric collaboration for document sharing and supporting project teams and discussion threads.

I do believe that the public sector and local authorities need to take ECM seriously and must consider how they provide the functions above, but i find it very difficult in a public sector role to justify the likely expenditure around a single ECM system, for which there are some big players. My view and i stress this is my view is that in the current climate the public sector needs to consider how it delivers the “value” these tools promise by taking advantage of the open source platforms which exist out there. If we had a public sector developer community around some of these technologies then we would in effect create a sustainable approach. If your organisation has already invested in the large providers of this functionality (IBM, Open Text, SAP and Microsoft) then i wish you luck in realising the benefits of that investment.

But i would suggest that you could actually achieve this architecture through open source products and a Web Oriented Architectural (WOA) approach. You will still need to consider the integration aspects but open source products are far more likely to integrate (openness is key) then the big supplier products (no motivation to integrate).

Since I have moved into ICT and started to look at the Architectural view of the infrastructure a lot more, it is now becoming clear to me that if any local authority or public sector agency thinks there CMS requirements can not be met by one of the open source products such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal doesn’t really understand how there Web Architecture can be utilised to deliver greater cost savings and value and increasing agility and flexibility.

This post is not going to be music to any vendor/supplier of web content management as i really don’t think the public sector can justify the expenditure on these products in the current climate – Unless there current technical architecture actually works against implementing a cost effective and open source product. If this is you – go and speak to your ICT colleagues about why you can’t at least consider these tools?

I’ve been doing a piece of work recently about reviewing the architecture around our Corporate Website and it is a very complex area – I have started to focus on what the requirements are for a CMS and what an effective Architecture would look like. This has led me to seriously think about the open source options around the CMS area, this doesn’t mean that we are proactively making decisions in the council at the moment as we need to get our wider web architecture right first – however my current view is that tools like WordPress and Joomla specifically could be key parts of our future web architecture.

The advantage of these products is that we are increasingly seeing people use these types of products outside of work or as a way to bypass the existing corporate platform because there is a lower skill level to entry and development. This approach coupled with the excellent developer communities that exist provide dynamic platforms for employees to publish content far quicker, more effectively and with less corporate ICT intervention. This for me is a critical aspect and is a major plus for these products. Like most local authority web development teams, they are often bombarded with requests for work from large scale application integration to minor template tweaks – with the ever growing pressure on resources we must start to devolve the responsibility into the business and to those people who are comfortable and capable to develop these tools. This would therefore allow the core team to focus on the larger scale products and deliver more value.

So this leads to me think, if these tools can provide value and meet all of our needs around CMS then why would or even how could any public sector body justify a large expenditure in this area in the current financial climate.