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.

 

The Future of Local Government…

I have been thinking a lot recently about the future of local government not just because I work in local government but because I am really interested in how we (all local government people) are going to tackle the pressures and financial constraints put upon us. In some ways I am relishing the challenges ahead as it will only lead to radical thought and eventually transformation across the sector.

Earlier this week I met up with Steve Dale and Hadley Beeman for a couple of drinks as I was in London for a Knowledge Hub meeting. In the conversation I referred to a model that I had been thinking about which was that the Future of Local Government is purely a conceptual layer of Government.

So let me try to explain this in a bit more detail and why I think we are already moving towards this future.

The Drivers

Huge pressures on Local Government to join up, deliver shared services and this isn’t just neighbouring councils, we are really pushing towards regional shared service providers as well as joining up with 3rd sector agencies to provide and deliver public services.

The cloud is having an impact on ICT services in councils – it is clear that the level of transformation required will require additional investment in ICT but it is unlikely that a single council could justify the spend on its own, so would need to look at a shared arrangement for cloud services or even a public sector cloud – The Government Cloud is obviously driving people’s thinking here and will have a huge impact.

Financial pressure will make councils seriously consider what services they can afford and see as priorities for their specific local areas – Total Place will drive an approach which will inevitably bring 3rd sector and communities themselves to the table as service providers in some instances.

Central Government’s success with Directgov could be seen as a model for local government to drive out efficiencies and cost savings for local government transactional services – either through an enhanced LocalDirectgov portal or directly offered through Directgov.

The drive for open data will allow a greater level of local innovation by social innovators and entrepreneurs and in some instances delivering council services directly and in a more usable and useful way (FixMyStreet etc).

A greater push for more local involvement in decision-making and greater transparency to enable citizens to provide scrutiny and shape services directly.

The  Impact

In my view what all of the above essentially does and could lead to will be the complete breaking down of local government as individual organisations unconnected, uncoordinated and duplicating functions.

So we could get to a situation (I am making some big assumptions here but after all I’m only sharing some thinking)  –  I don’t believe it will be that long before we see it – where the only aspect of local government which is truly local is the actual service delivery and decision making. The organisation behind it all could well be a mix of local, regional, national and cloud based services all supporting an individual worker (who may not actually be employed by the council) to deliver a service to someone in a community.

To me this will mean that local government is purely going to be a conceptual layer – with greater transparency and openness, radical approaches to service delivery and support services, this will all mean that the only aspect of local we really need to focus on will be the People in the Community. In my view this will be a great outcome, albeit very painful and a political hot potato in some areas. But this approach in my opinion  would drive out the inefficiencies in local government and offer greater local involvement in service design and creation.

I could of course be wrong about this :o)

Read The Future of Local Government Part 2  – Social Enterprise Council here.