Finance forks govCMS, DrupalGov founder gets on board

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday May 27, 2015

The govCMS project is moving full steam ahead in 2015, with an important technical milestone passed and a new delivery partnership with a firm that just hired one of Canberra’s top Drupal experts.

The new web publishing platform promises to raise the standard of government websites by giving agencies a cost-effective, robust and flexible go-to option. It does that by leveraging the combined expertise that has already been poured into Drupal, the world’s largest open source software collaboration.

Christopher Skene
Christopher Skene

Last month brought word the relevant version of Drupal — a distribution called aGov designed locally for Australian government agencies — had been forked, which is to say it was split into two versions, with the new one intended just for govCMS. In some ways it’s uncharted waters ahead, says Christopher Skene, one of the architects of aGov and founder of Canberra’s annual DrupalGov conference.

The open source website building tool is already very popular among Canberra’s public service agencies; this year, the conference organisers are aiming to sell about 250 tickets. Over time, govCMS is expected to draw more of the IT industry into the Drupal scene.

Skene recently went to work for strategic marketing agency Komosion, where he is building its Drupal practice, and the company has just been signed up as the latest govCMS delivery partner. Skene helped lead development of aGov until early this year while working for a different firm which still maintains the open source project. The fact that it can be picked up and used freely by others — including as the foundation of govCMS — neatly demonstrates the value of open source software: nobody controls the core intellectual property.

“So when the Department of Finance was looking for a Drupal solution, I guess this was the obvious choice; there was nothing else on the market so they took that and started working with it,” Skene explained, speaking to The Mandarin one afternoon with his new boss, John O’Neill, who headed up Tourism NSW in a previous life.

As well as the obvious savings on software licensing, O’Neill points out it eliminates the risk of a proprietary software company going belly-up or shifting direction. “You’re in a lot of strife if that happens, whereas if you’re on a Drupal platform you’re not beholden to any particular company or its decision making,” he said.

“They needed to have more control over the way that product goes and the direction that it heads in than was feasible with something maintained externally.”

According to a post on the govCMS website, it was the “ideal time” to fork, as the two distributions would surely diverge to serve different customers.

“I think, though, that [the Department of Finance] probably realised that at some point they needed to have more control over the way that product goes and the direction that it heads in than was feasible with something maintained externally,” Skene elaborated.

“And the reasons for government to do that are primarily concerns about security and reliability rather than what new features go into it. They’re more concerned about making sure that they’re able to deliver on those basics, than they are about the bells and whistles that come with it. So being open source, they were in a position where they could say: ‘We’re going to go in a different direction.’

“But my feeling there is that this is probably likely to encourage more competition in the market, so we’ll see what the results are over the next 12-24 months.”

That’s because the department’s optional govCMS distribution is again, open source.

John O'Neill
John O’Neill

“The new forked instance will still be available,” O’Neill explains, “and I think the way in which the government would see itself differentiating its offering from someone else picking up a govCMS offering is really first of all there’s a speedier pathway for procurement. You go onto a hosted environment that has the security checks and balances ticked for you as an agency, and it’s an environment where the work that might go into modifying or extending the core instance of govCMS, by adding new things into it, is also supported and quality assured through the Acquia relationship.”

Acquia holds the master contract with the department as the main govCMS delivery partner and provides cloud hosting services, with Komosion sub-contracted to them. While the project will be clearly the go-to option in most cases, O’Neill suspects that won’t always be the case in the longer term: “It will be horses for courses. Some agencies will see the benefit of the Finance-led, hosted solution and others may choose to do other things.”

Skene says the whole project is “quite a disruptive model” and where it will end up in the next year or two is anyone’s guess. “It depends on how many people take up the service, how well the government manages to engage with the open source community — there’s lots of different stuff that could happen there.”

“And it’s being watched around the world too,” he added, “because this is the first time a government has ever gone and said: ‘We will not mandate, but provide you an open source solution, tailored for your fit.’ So it’s being watched in America, in India, in the UK. There’s a lot of people really keen to see what happens.”

“It’s not just about what content you publish at an audience, it’s the ways in which we put together digital tools to enable our audience to better served and more effectively engaged.”

O’Neill explains that Komosion’s role in the project is to help agencies successfully use govCMS for their websites, from the basics to consultancy around content, design, and audience engagement — “digital experience management” as it is known these days.

“It’s not just about what content you publish at an audience, it’s the ways in which we put together digital tools to enable our audience to better served and more effectively engaged, and this means that you start to see a content management system as one of a number of enabling tools,” he explains. “We’re very interested in the evolution of the use of digital tools to help government agencies better engage audiences, provide more value, provide contextually relevant information and ultimately, better services.

“And this is of course where this all leads, done well. Done badly, it’ll lead to a bunch of cheaper websites that are just not interesting to people.”

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