As more Australian state and local agencies begin to experiment with the powerful govCMS content management platform, many are discovering the ability for disparate departments to work together on projects that, previously, had never been possible.
This collaboration extends from planning, to resource management and future-proofing modules on the platform, all of which can be co-designed for future departments to take advantage of.
Federal and state groups including IP Australia, the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Department of the Environment and Energy are now enjoying the fruits of collaboration through govCMS development.“Developers in both the Department of the Environment and Energy and those in the Victorian Government have been working on the module at the same time.”
The key, these groups say, is that working from an open-source code base allows the groups to piggy-back off work done by others, reducing both the workload and asset requirements for users in the future – especially those state groups that don’t have large budgets.
“It’s been a pretty wild success in my opinion,” says Acquia senior technical architect, Stuart Rowlands.
“To see an agency able to move development out to the public space and have others contribute to it has been great”
“Because everyone has a fairly similar set of requirements, as soon as you bring up an idea they’re happy to talk. It benefits everybody. And it makes the entire process of undertaking a new module for govCMS far more interesting because you get input from everybody.”
Rowlands says says the sheer collaboration around the govCMS project has been one of the biggest success stories. He points to the online discussion forums where users from various agencies are able to discuss and have input on modules that could benefit a wide range of agencies.
Moving to a different model
This is a clear departure from previous government software development practices, where individual groups or agencies typically created custom-built solutions solely for their own purpose. Now, Rowlands says, agencies can create modules with their future use in mind by other groups across all levels of public service.
“govCMS was never supposed to be a one-use case, so it’s built in the way that will allow people to extend up on it,” he says.
“It’s a jumping board. Anyone can come along and do their own interesting things with data, or whatever else they’d like to do.”
One key example are the modules developed by the Department of the Environment and Energy in one of the agency’s first major digital pushes in this collaborative context. The new modules have allowed the agency to share data and information visualisations through the release of a new report – those modules are now available for other agencies to use as well.
“If you’re a small agency, and you don’t have much money to spend on it, the hosting on the govCMS site is totally affordable. It’s peanuts,” says Megan Watson, assistant director at the Environmental Resources Information Network at the Department of the Environment.
“You get great support from the govCMS team, and you get access to other development that might be underway that’s going to get pushed back into the govCMS code core distribution,” Watson says.
The Department of the Environment and Energy started experimenting with govCMS with the upcoming 2016 release of its five-yearly report. Watson knew the department wanted to deliver the information in a more tech-savvy way, but didn’t have the resources to make that a reality.
Environment came up with a plan to release a stand-alone site showcasing information from the report. Using govCMS allowed the department to come up with a site that needed very little maintenance once it was released – but could still showcase a significant amount of power.
The site, which takes information from data.gov and showcases it online, is designed to give ordinary citizens a chance to view government information in a more interesting way.
“It’s actually by far the most complex govCMS site to date,” says Watson.
A new, collaborative vision of government
The real jewel in the crown for the project has been the CKAN graphing module, which Watson says has been the catalyst for a significant amount of collaboration between agencies.
“I did find, really early on, that we needed something that was interactive, and we’ve got really complex graphing requirements. Instead of trying to do everything on the top layer, we set about creating a module,” she says.
“When we started on that journey of creating a module, and that was way back in February, the Victorian government had contacted govCMS, and said we want to do some interactive graphing stuff on our site. We all agreed that we could develop that in tandem.”
Developers in both the Department of the Environment and Energy and those in the Victorian Government have been working on the module at the same time thus future-proofing the module for any future needs.
“And some of their requirements have actually helped us with our graphing needs. They’ve developed parts of it that’s actually required us to do more complex graphing stuff,” she says.
Stuart Rowlands points to the complex nature of the module itself as proof that govCMS can provide both powerful solutions within a framework that encourages collaboration and adoption by agencies of all sizes.
“The data stored in CKAN is entirely transparent and available for everyone to view. The module plugs into that backend data store and provides a highly customisable visualisation layer,” he says. “That module was born out of the State of the Environment report, but it has seen further traction through community members.”
That traction began when code for the module was posted on Github, which allowed other developers throughout government to see and access it. This led to collaboration on features that could be used across a wide number of agencies.
“We received feedback from other parties, and that helps us drive development — it was the first real world example of a module that was designed for one specific use case, and then broadened by the community.”
For Megan Watson, smaller agencies should see this as an opportunity to collaborate with larger ones on modules that could possibly work for them – even in the middle of their development process, thereby reducing resource burdens for everyone.
“It’s been a really good experience to work with the govCMS side of things, and to work with the developers in there. It means that you can reuse modules that other people have spent the time and money and energy thinking about, and have gone through all of the development rounds, and have discovered all pitfalls about it.,” she says.
“By the time it gets back into the govCMS core distribution, it’s been thoroughly tested and vetted.”