Tom Burton: can open source cure Canberra’s Kremlin web?

Will Canberra’s anointment of an open source publishing platform finally usher in the world of modern digital engagement? Australian agencies have some catching up to do.

Some times small decisions matter. In a single tweet the Australian government’s chief technology officer John Sheridan last month announced a special government version of the Dutch open source web publishing system Drupal had been selected to power the Commonwealth’s websites.

FREE membership to The Mandarin

Receive unlimited access, get all the latest public sector news and features, plus The Juice, our daily news update sent direct to your inbox.

The Mandarin is where Australia's public sector leaders discuss their work and the issues faced within modern bureaucracy. Join today to discover the latest in public administration thinking and news from our dedicated reporters, current and former agency heads and senior executives.

  • A great read, Tom.

    I applaud AGIMO’s decision to go open source and standardise. However, notwithstanding their feat of navigating the bureaucratic minefield it would’ve taken to achieve this, I can’t help but feel that announcing a standard CMS for government would’ve felt more groundbreaking in 2009. Much has happened in government digital in the last five years, not the least the establishment and success of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) and it’s GOV.UK platform.

    Despite several envoys to and from Whitehall to learn from GDS, including one by Minister Turnbull, seemingly little osmosis has occurred thus far. Where is our own centralised team of the best and brightest digital/UX people, located in and given authority by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPC), in the same way GDS is by the UK Cabinet Office?

    Sheridan mentioned in his keynote a forthcoming ‘Digital Service Standard’, but who will enforce it? The UK’s Digital by Default Service Standard is a success because it enforced by the GDS, who have the authority and mandate to guide, assess and approve key online services before they go live. I sincerely hope AGIMO is given sufficient clout if oversight remains with Finance rather than DPC, as I’ve seen no evidence to date that devolving digital governance to siloed departments and agencies, no matter how well-documented and intentioned, actually works.

    Where is our own GOV.UK? The code for GOV.UK and the CMS on which it’s built – ‘Whitehall Publisher’ – are both freely available on GitHub. Effectively, GDS has done the heavy lifting for every government in the world, and made freely available not just their code, but their whole playbook. Given the unprecedented level of user research that went into the design of both and their subsequent success, did AGIMO consider adapting either? New Zealand has successfully forked and adapted the GOV.UK code for it’s website, saving huge design costs and time. It beggars belief that in such tight fiscal conditions Australian jurisdictions didn’t consider doing the same.

    Despite being a “dedicated centralist”, Sheridan has admitted to me on Twitter that there are no plans at this stage for an Australian GOV.UK because “We have a different model of govt & a different web approach.” Quite what this means, I’m not sure; our system of government isn’t called the Westminster System for nothing.

    As for a different web approach, sure, MyGov represents a head-start on the UK in the identity management space, but how does this ‘different web approach’ extend to every department and agency needing to create and maintain its own website? The machinery of government is complex and fluid; this shouldn’t be exposed at the user/citizen interface level, which today is predominately via the web. Anyone who has established a small business lately will have lost count of the number of Commonwealth and state websites they transacted with before being able to operate legally.

    The number of Commonwealth government websites last quoted to me was 1,200. At the time of writing, that represents just under one website for every 133 APS staff, and one for every 19,000 Australian citizens. Are there really 1,200 government web teams and/or private local digital agencies good enough to create and maintain the kind of design-led user experience you described in your article? Either way, is this the best use of public money – especially in light of GOV.UK’s scaled success? Even if we got to the point of a consistent design template being used on all Australian Government websites, wouldn’t this again beg the question – why not one website? GOV.UK provides a platform the whole of the UK Government; it allows its digital and communications staff to get on with the job of actually creating and iterating content and transactions, without being side-tracked by endless, wasteful internal debates on branding, design, and accessibility, or wrangling external web consultants of varying quality and motives. What exactly is so different about this former British colony that precludes us from adopting this approach?

    Having worked in government for ten years, I accept that none of these initiatives would be easy; GDS never said they were either, but they got there. And remember, that was in a culture immortalised by Yes Minister and The Thick of It! I also accept the Commonwealth may be in the planning stages of some positive initiatives, which aren’t yet public. Let’s hope the promised new e-government strategy due by year’s end will reveal greater progress.