How to move an entire government to a new digital platform

In this era of Open Government, constituents expect to be offered great services online. This can require moving an entire government to a new digital platform in order to deliver ambitious digital experiences that support the needs of citizens. It takes work, but many governments from the United States to Australia have demonstrated that with the right technology and strategy in place, governments can successfully adopt a new platform. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

How not to do it: Canada.ca

In 2014, the Government of Canada began a project to move all of its web pages onto a single site, Canada.ca. A $1.54 million contract for a content management system was awarded to a proprietary vendor in 2015. Fast forward to today, and the project is a year behind schedule and 10x over budget. The contract is now approaching $10 million. As only 0.05% of the migration to Canada.ca has been completed, many consider the current project to be disservice to its citizens.

I find the impending outcomes of this project to be disheartening as current timelines suggest that the migration will continue to be delayed, run over budget, and strain taxpayers. While I hope that Canada.ca will develop into a valuable resource for its citizens, I agree with Tom Cochran, Acquia's Chief Digital Strategist for Public Sector -- who ran digital platforms at the White House and U.S. Department of State -- that the prospects for Canada.ca are dim given the way the project was designed and is being implemented.

The root of Canada.ca's problem appears to be the decision to migrate 1,500 departments and 17 million pages into a single site. I'm guessing that the goal of having a single site is to offer citizens a central entry point to connect with their government. A single site strategy can be extremely effective, for example the City of Boston's single site is home to over 200,000 web page spanning 120 city departments, and offers a truly user-centric experience. With 17 million pages to migrate, Canada.ca is eighty-five times bigger than Boston.gov. A project of this magnitude should have considered using a multi-site approach where different agencies and departments have their own sites, but can use a common platform, toolset and shared infrastructure.

While difficulties with Canada.ca may have started with the ambitious attempt to move every department to a single domain, the complexities of this strategy are likely amplified through the implementation of a single-source proprietary solution. I find it unfortunate that Canada's procurement models did not favor Open Source. The Canadian government has a tenured history of utilizing Open Source, and there is a lot of existing Drupal talent in the country. In rejecting an open platform, the Canadian Government lost the opportunity to engage a skilled community of native, Open Source developers.

How to do it: Australian Government

Transforming an entire nation's digital strategy is challenging, but other public sector leaders have proven it is possible. Take the Australian Government. In 2015, John Sheridan, Sharyn Clarkson and their team in the Department of Finance moved their department's site from a legacy environment to Drupal and the cloud. The Department of Finance's success has grown into the Drupal distribution govCMS, which is currently supporting over 52 government agencies across 6 jurisdictions in Australia. Much like Canada.ca, the goal of govCMS is to provide citizens with a more intuitive platform to engage with their government.

The guiding principle of govCMS is to govern but to not seek control. Each government department requires flexibility to service the needs of their particular audiences. While single-site solutions do work as umbrellas for some organizations, the City of Boston being a great example, most large (government) organizations that have a state-of-the-art approach follow a hub and spoke model where different sites share code, templates and infrastructure. While sharing is strongly encouraged it is not required. This allows each department to independently innovate and adopt the platform how they choose.

The Open Source nature of govCMS has encouraged both innovation and collaboration across many Australian departments. One of the most remarkable examples of this is that a federal agency and a state agency coordinated their development efforts to build a data visualization capability on an open data CKAN repository. The Department of Environment initiated the development of the CKAN module necessary to pull and analyze data from a variety of departments. The Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet recognized that they too could utilize the module to propel their budget report and aided in the co-development of the govCMS CKAN. This is an incredible example of how Open Source allows agencies to extend functionality across departments, regardless of vendor involvement. By setting up a model which removed the barriers to share, govCMS has provided Australia the freedom to truly innovate.

Seeing is believing: shifting the prevailing mindset

A distributed model using multiple sites to leverage an Open Source platform where infrastructure, code and templates are shared allows for governance and innovation to co-exist. I've written about this model here in a post about Loosening control the Open Source Way. I believe that a multi-site approach based on Open Source is the only way to move an entire government to a new digital strategy and platform.

It can be incredibly hard for organizations to understand this. After all, this is not about product features, technical capabilities or commercial support, but about a completely different way of working and innovating. It's a hard sell because we have to change the lens through which organizations see the world; away from procuring proprietary software that provides perceived safety and control, to a world that allows frictionless innovation and sharing through the loosening of control without losing control. For us to successfully market and sell the innovation that comes out of Drupal, Open Source and cloud, we have to shift how people think and challenge the prevailing model.

In many ways, organizations have to see it to believe it. What is exciting about the Australian government is that it helps others see the potential of a decentralized service model predicated on Open Source software with a Drupal distribution at its heart. The Australian government has created an ecosystem of frictionless sharing that is cheaper, faster, and enables better results.

What is next for Canada?

It’s difficult for me to see a light at the end of the tunnel for Canadian citizens. While the Canadian government can stay the course -– and all indications so far are that they will -- that path has a high price tag, long delays and slow innovation. An alternative would be for Ottawa to hit the pause button and reassess their strategy. They could look externally to how governments in Washington, Canberra, and countless others approached their mission to support the digital needs of its citizens. I know that there are countless Drupal experts working both within the government and at dozens of Drupal agencies throughout Canada that are eager to show their government a better way forward.

Comments

Dries:

I'm not a lawyer but ... it's not clear from the commit if this is a violation or a correction. For example, if the work is created by PreviousNext under a "made for hire" agreement with the Department of Defense, the Department of Defense would be the owner of the copyright (unless copyright ownership is explicitly transferred in an agreement between PreviousNext and the Department of Defense). Only PreviousNext and the Department of Defense would know if this is a violation or a correction. An outsider (like me) can't assess this.

If PreviousNext created aGov independently, and the Department of Defense added to it later, then this govcms install profile would most likely become a "collective work". In this case both parties should be listed as copyright holders, but each organization owns a copyright in only the code they contributed.

Ben (not verified):

- * @author Chris Skene chris at previousnext.com.au
+ * @author Department of Finance

When someone removes an author tag that states an individual and replaces it with an organisation, I don't know what that means legally but as a developer that does leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Christopher Skene (not verified):

As the "chris" in question, I think it might be worth clearing a few things up...

For full disclosure, I authored large parts of custom code in aGov, but not all of it, under the employment of PreviousNext. I now work for Platform.sh. These opinions are my own.

The referenced commit is in the govCMS repository, not anything created by the Department of Defence, so we are talking about a downstream fork of aGov. This was picked up some time ago and is likely "breaking the Berne convention". I have discussed this with the govCMS team and I believe they thought they were acting appropriately, though the interpretation of their actions could be taken negatively. This is a bit of a vague area... they probably should have retained the PreviousNext copyright statement, however whether an @author tag has any weight is questionable. My contributions are recorded in the commit log anyway.

So this is not "how you do it", however in this case the change to the file comments is not really the problem. It is symptomatic of the unfortunate way in which the Australian Government and its primary contractor (Acquia) handled the relationship with the people who built the product (note that the referenced commit was made by an Acquia employee). The attitude at the time was "it's open source so we'll just take it", which is perfectly legal but fails to recognise the human element. The arrangement caused considerable bad blood in the Australian Drupal community, which has yet to fully dissipate. This significantly damaged trust in the project that it is only now managing to rebuild, and also lost the development talents of some of the countries most experienced Drupal experts, including core maintainers.

In defence of the Department of Finance and the govCMS team, they have shown a considerable willingness to resolve any issues and are actively adapting their program as and where they can, so I am positive about the future of this project, however it certainly does contain cautionary elements.

John Sheridan (not verified):

Thanks to all for bringing this copyright issue to my attention and especially to Chris for his kind words. We have reviewed the way attribution in the code was changed (which was at Finance's direction, by Acquia, our contracted service provider). The original attribution has been restored and we have added information to clarify the status of the govCMS distribution. Finance continues to maintain the distribution using both in-house developers and Acquia and with contributions from the broader Drupal community.

For those interested, it now says:

@license GPL v2 http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/gpl.html
 
aGov
@copyright Copyright(c) 2014 PreviousNext
@author Chris Skene chris at previousnext dot com dot au
 
govCMS (Forked on 1 April 2015 - http://cgit.drupalcode.org/govcms/commit/?id=64b602dcc7ddde0992c5c7cf5f3c4a795e5be08a)
The original foundation for the govCMS distribution is aGov; the Drupal distribution created by PreviousNext to provide a core set of elements, functionality and features that can be used to develop government websites.
@copyright Copyright(c) 2015 Commonwealth of Australia as represented by Department of Finance
@author Department of Finance
Tom Wentworth (not verified):

Another example of how the procurement process for governments and organizations is still very broken. The Canada.ca team issued an RFP, watched a few vendor demos, and ultimately made a commitment to a multimillion dollar project that was doomed to fail from the start.

This is what happens when technology decisions are made at the top over a steak dinner and not by, you know, the people who actually understand the technology and the implications of making the wrong decision.

When will they learn? And maybe more importantly, when will citizens start holding their government responsible for making bad technology decisions?

Tom 2 (not verified):

You would wish it would be over a steak dinner here Tom. Remember, Adobe won by default - the RFP was so bad that most vendors refused to bid, only Adobe, IBM and MS did and Adobe's was the only compliant. No steaks were needed!

Ron Porter (not verified):

I agree with what you are saying in this article. As a Canadian, I was shocked by how my government was proceeding and assumed that it was due to Harper's obsession with control.

However, I think there is a bigger issue, namely access. I have already had the amazing experience of having to get a public servant to read web pages to me and mail relevant printouts. Governments need to be sure that information services remain equally accessible to all.

Dries:

Ron, I agree accessibility is really important. We spend a lot of time ensuring that Drupal produces accessible pages. I don't understand how your remark relates to the blog post though. Are you saying that the new Canada.ca is not (sufficiently) accessible?

Lewis Cowles (not verified):

Thanks for sharing. A lot to digest for sure. I'm not sure Drupal (or any fully dynamic system) is a great fit for government and prefer the idea of combining lightweight systems like OpenResty (LUA + Nginx) with static content for a lightweight system.

I do think there is a place for Drupal, WordPress etc internally as well as bespoke services like the UK Government GovPay service, but for serving content and facilitating services that could be visited by millions of users I think the government should take a little more CapEx investment to make systems to lower OpEx in favor of the tax payer.

There would also be numerous opportunities to functionally present a single facade to multiple disparate instances of perhaps a single system or platform, but I feel too often governments are being persuaded to take on the trivial before the complex, the end-result and built dogmatically as front-to-back (often cited back-to-front doesn't work) rather than taking requirements and coming up with a solid plan and building, borrowing, buying components to share in the open to allow engagement and participation (In my view the ultimate goal of any open-government).

Digital Koolaid (not verified):

Please tell Django Beatty that the article he quotes is 1000% Koolaid. No transformation ever occurred, not in 16 months, and not at all. Paul Shetler may be a very nice man, but he was rolled and sent packing by the Establishment. He never even reached first base, and the small changes he achieeved have been rolled back by his replacement. Sure, Dries Buytaert has swallowed the words of @kraazykiwi without question, but John Sheridan actually did something. Paul Shetler did not, was pushed out, handed the job of Chief Digital Officer without having to interview for it, took it, but left after only 6 weeks. Please ask Django to investigate a little more deeply before citing examples. Otherwise he looks really naive. @digikoolaid

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