govCMS and Digital Transformation

The govCMS platform is designed to help government agencies get online and to address the challenges and opportunities posed by Digital Transformation. This article looks at the new requirements of the DTO and how they apply to govCMS.

Digital Transformation refers to a new stage in the way humans have embraced technology, opening the way for new types of “innovation and creativity”. In the broadest sense, digital transformation has affected the way things are done in all parts of society. In Australia, the Federal Government has responded with the establishment of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) which is “transforming government service delivery to better meet the needs of all Australians.”

The DTO was established to address many of the acknowledged shortcomings in the delivery of Government services which were seen to be inconsistent and uncoordinated. In short the DTO was established to make services “simpler, clearer and faster to use.”

http://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/policy-faqs/faqs-the-digital-transformation-office

The challenge facing the DTO is large, acting across the whole of government:

The DTO will comprise a small team of developers, designers, researchers and content specialists working across government to develop and coordinate the delivery of digital services. The DTO will operate more like a start-up than a traditional government agency, focussing on end-user needs in developing digital services.

https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-01-23/establishment-digital-transformat... (no longer active)

Paul Shetler, the CEO of the DTO, has clarified that the DTO is actually operating as an incubator for Government agencies, who are actually the ones acting as a startup. It is clear that the DTO is ushering in a new way of approaching IT projects where the aim is to deliver useful projects to citizens in a timely manner. This will involve agencies taking a new agile approach to service design and delivery.

Digital Service Design

One of the important contributions the DTO has made thus far is the release of the Digital Services Standard and the companion Digital Service Design Guide  (Design Guide) which supercedes the Web Guide. The Design Guide has been developed to help Australian Government agencies better deliver user focussed services. It provides a number of areas for consideration including amongst other things accessibility, content strategy, working agile, security, social media, website design and website development.

The Design Guide recommends govCMS as a candidate for a Content Management System which can address many of the goals:

Consider GovCMS. This service provides agencies with a standards compliant, security assessed and fully supported content management system that aligns with the vision of the DTO.

https://www.dto.gov.au/design-guides/guide/content-management-system

For those unfamiliar with govCMS, it is an open source CMS based on Drupal and served on the Acquia Cloud hosting platform which sits on Amazon Web Services. govCMS has been many years in the making, being based on the aGov codebase which addressed many of the principles initially laid out in the earlier Web Guide. The codebase for govCMS is available as an open source project on Github.

govCMS has been built by the Department of Finance and Acquia to address many of the common problems faced by Government agencies. The platform addresses a number of areas including security, cost, ease of procurement, out of the box functionality and flexibility. The hope is that agencies will consider it an easy and effective solution to the requirements of users… and now the requirements of the Design Guide.

The govCMS team is actively supporting the DTO in their aims and are “working with the team who is developing the new Digital Service Standard to ensure the product supports the standard.”

Digital Services Design Guide Requirements

This article addresses many of the elements of the Design Guide and how they relate to govCMS. The aim is to give Australian Government agencies guidance in how govCMS can address the various issues which are raised in the Design Guide. This should help in making a decision as to the merits of govCMS in the light of the new requirements for agencies.

Accessibility

Content must be made accessible to all Australians regardless of “disability, culture or environment”. From a technical level this means that content should attain WCAG 2.0 AA level of compliance. 

govCMS supports WCAG 2.0 AA out of the box. ie. before any content or a custom theme has been added. This is no small feat as many elements need to be implemented correctly to reach this level. However, both content and theme can introduce non compliant elements. Common examples include:

  • images without alt tags
  • text and link colours with insufficient contrast
  • type which is too small.

It is the ongoing responsibility of the agency to ensure that the theme and content comply. This can be done by engaging accessibility experts who are able to advise on the design and implementation of a site.

govCMS therefore provides a very good starting point for the implementation of accessible websites.

Agile development

Software projects are often bedevilled with feature bloat, gold plating, delay, expense and ultimately dissatisfaction with the product delivered. The aim of software projects, and any project for that matter, should be deliver an end result which works and is cost effective. To use a vernacular phrase, to give “good bang for buck”.

Agile development practices have become very popular in the software development industry over the past decade and are beginning to take hold in other areas as well. The aim of the agile development process is to deliver value quickly and to continually iterate and improve to deliver a product which serves the needs of users. The Design Guide gives a good overview of many of the principles.

Using govCMS will not necessarily mean that your project will be agile, although it can help in many ways. 

  • There should be a clear delineation between roles: product owner, Scrum master and team
  • Projects will tend to be shorter and divided into sprints with clear goals
  • Value will be delivered by focussing on the needs of users, rather than building a platform.
  • govCMS encourages a MVP approach where attention is brought to bear on the capabilities of the system and the needs of the product owner.
  • There is opportunity to iterate with subsequent sprints.

This is not to say that govCMS projects will be 100% agile. It is highly likely that requirements will be quite fixed at the start of the project and may not be easily changed as the project develops. This is a key component of agile of course and one where more flexibility could be shown. govCMS can be extended however, and this offers the opportunity for agencies to come back for subsequent development cycles if the need is there.

Building capability

The Design Guide encourages agencies to build teams with a good mix of skills and to look to the private sector if that is where the skills are.

govCMS is backed by Acquia, a large and experienced Drupal services provider. Acquia will handle jobs as they come through from the Department of Finance and will provide consulting services as well as hosting the websites. Acquia in turn has a vetted set of govCMS partners who have been cleared to provided web development and other services for govCMS. Drupal agencies will need to have proven skills, competence and trustworthiness to acceptable levels.

The services provided by Acquia and the network of partners is where Government agencies will be able to find capability for building Drupal sites as well as expertise with govCMS.

Content strategy and management

There are records management requirements for particular websites. This can include storing data which has been collected. The storage can be done with a CMS if it has that capability. 

govCMS ships with the Webform module which allows for the design of custom forms to collect user data. Submissions to the Webform module may be saved away in the Drupal database and can be exported as a CSV if required. The additional use of the Webform Clear module will stop any content being written to the database. This gives the agency the ability to decide whether it is appropriate to store the data in the database.

The Design Guide also requires that content be managed and accessible. Part of this requirement includes marking it up with AGLS Metadata. govCMS has this aspect covered with the AGLS metadata module. When editors create content they add metadata including title, description, author and the data published. This metadata is then outputted as metatags in the head of the HTML pages. govCMS also ships with the ability to serve Open Graph metadata which is used for integrating with platforms such as Facebook. This is handy for increasing the shareability of content.

Customer support

The DTO will “support the transition to a digital channel for most individual and business dealings with government.” The user, or customer, is at the centre of this movement. which includes “consolidating websites to a smaller number of user-focused sites”.

Agencies can treat the movement to a govCMS website as the endgame of a reconsideration of their digital strategy. By casting user activities at the centre of the process it may become possible to simplify the websites currently available and to consolidate them into a single site which acts as a central place for users to complete the tasks and find the information which interests them.

However, govCMS will not be the best platform for every site. For agencies requiring public facing services with complex forms or custom business logic, govCMS will not suffice. It will be a good platform for agencies needing to publish information to citizens and to collect simple form data.

Performance measurement

Web analytics can be used to measure and understand how users are interacting with your website. The Digital Guide encourages agencies to assess and use analytics tools such as Google Analytics.

The use of analytics tools will allow for the adoption of data based decision making processes. Pia Waugh has recently emphasised that the DTO is encouraging agencies to use analytics and to make decisions based on the data collected from users. It should be possible to see what content is popular and how it is being accessed.

govCMS ships with Google Analytics as a standard module which can be easily configured. There is also support for Google Analytics Reports to be displayed inside the application to administrators. This makes it easy to view simple charts of activity on the site. govCMS currently does not support any other analytics systems. It may be that a more flexible system such as Google Tag Manager would allow for the easy inclusion of many different kinds of “tags” used by marketers and analysts, however, this is not presently part of govCMS.

Privacy

govCMS is hosted on the public cloud (AWS) and as such can only contain Unclassified information and cannot contain personal or sensitive information. Government agencies need to assess the information they wish to publish and whether govCMS is a suitable platform.

Security

govCMS adopts a shared responsibility model for security with responsibility shared by the agency, the Department of Finance and Acquia. Agencies do bear some of the burden with the need to properly maintain user accounts , content and privacy. However, the Department of FInance undertakes ongoing assessment of the platform and so reduces the burden on agencies.

Government agencies therefore need to take care that access to the backend editing components of the site are strictly limited and controlled. Staff should be aware of their responsibilities when it comes to publishing content and files to the web.

govCMS does make efforts to ensure that sensible configurations are available out of the box, limiting the risk of bad things happening. Firstly, there is a sensible set of user roles which have been defined, covering the main types of users who will be managing the system. These roles have been given appropriate permissions. Secondly, there is a revisioning and workflow system in place which makes sure that edits are tracked, moderated and reverted as required. Thirdly, there are password security policies in place to ensure that password meet the “Australian Government ISM Policy (Strong)” standard. Finally, access logs of the website are stored, keeping a record of requests made on the system.

Social media

Social media allows agencies to engage with a wider audience than previously. Whilst it is not a mandatory requirement of the guide social media can "leverage the views and experience of your users to improve the service from very early in design."

govCMS ships with a wide range of social icon widgets which allow content to be shared to a variety of services.

Website design

The Design Guide outlines a clear list of elements which must be present in websites.

Australian Government websites must, amongst other things:

  • manage ministerial content
  • meet the Online Content Requirements
  • identify the agency
  • provide contact details
  • provide a website disclaimer
  • use uniform navigation
  • assess privacy impacts of cookies
  • comply with the Caretaker Conventions during election periods
  • use correct metadata
  • use appropriate content licensing
  • provide a copyright notice
  • use open licensing where possible.

govCMS has all of these bases covered. So long as the site is built properly, these should not be a problem.

Paul Shetler has indicated that the DTO will be releasing a number of design patterns which can be used to achieve design consistency across website builds, whether they are on govCMS or not. In the future, it is forseeable that these principles could possibly be incorporated into govCMS, although this has not as yet happened obviously.

SEO is another important aspect of any website. Organic traffic from search engines is crucial when users are searching for content across websites where they may not be aware of the correct website to go to.

Drupal is well known for its on page SEO capabilities:

  • solid basic page metadata,
  • ability to customise metadata when required,
  • use of semantic markup,
  • clear structure through taxonomy and menus,
  • good linkage between pages,
  • XML sitemap module for pushing updates.

Content editors must still take care to write compelling, unique content hitting on words likely to be searched for by users. It is also important to build up in bound links to content on the site. If these content objectives can be achieved then govCMS will provide the technical underpinnings to ensure the content has the best chance of ranking well.

Website development

The Design Guide extols open source software and encourages Agencies to “make source code open and reusable where appropriate.”

govCMS is a leading example of this approach, being an open source project of its own:

The platform is based on, Drupal, is one of the largest open source projects in the word with thousands of active developers contributing modules to the ecosystem.

The Design Guide states that websites should work across a range of browsers and devices and function correctly for 90% of users.

Interestingly a table presented in the Design Guide has IE8 usage at 19.05% (at the time of writing). This would suggest that IE8 needs to be supported. Other real world statistics suggest that IE8 usage is much lower at around 1%, meaning that it can be safely ignored. It is up to the agency to determine the audience and the compliance.

Not a silver bullet

govCMS is not the answer to all of the requirements of the Design Guide. It is a tool which can be used to deliver certain kinds of websites to users. 

Not suitable for all websites

govCMS has been built for sites which are based around content and are mostly informational in nature. govCMS can be used to collect feedback and to help engage with social media. However, in many cases it will not be suited for certain applications including those which:

  • require custom functionality,
  • need to integrate with third party services.

In these cases there are other options available:

  • a custom Drupal build hosted on Acquia or elsewhere,
  • a custom app build in another framework entirely.

govCMS is just a delivery mechanism

At the end of the day, govCMS is designed to serve webpages effectively. It is the delivery mechanism at the end of a long chain of processes including research, discovery, design, development, testing and iteration. These processes are vitally important and exist outside the delivery of a govCMS (or any other) website. The Design Guide does address many of these areas. The real challenge for agencies will not just be in deciding which CMS to use, but rather how they are going to change the design of the services they offer and how to organise themselves to realise the new services.

Agencies will challenged in the areas of agile development, building capability, engaging with users and collecting and evaluating their feedback. Getting these things right will clear the path for designing websites which will be effective no matter which platform they are served from. At this point govCMS delivers a solid platform to quickly build and deliver content based websites.

Conclusion

The DTO has the aim of bringing digital transformation to Australian Government agencies. The Digital Guide outlines a number of requirements for agencies to address when delivering digital services. govCMS has been designed to address the needs of agencies and is a good option when functionality, security, cost and ease of procurement are considered. govCMS does however have its restrictions and will not be the answer to every need, especially where bespoke functionality is required. However, out of the box it provides a solid foundation which will address the needs of many agencies.

About Morpht

Morpht is a Sydney based Drupal web development company. We are Acquia partners on govCMS and as such are able to implement govCMS sites onto the govCMS hosting platform supported by Acquia. We have six Acquia certified developers on staff and are experienced in all aspects of Drupal site development. We are happy to answer any questions you may have about this article or govCMS. Please get in touch.