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LocalGov Drupal finally happened!

Sit on mower — https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffreyww/

Many years ago, I used to mow grass for East Sussex County Council (ESCC). Not on the council’s patch though. We used to mow the grass of Hastings Borough Council, ESCC having won that work through a bidding process.

In around 2013, over 20 years later, my agency, Miggle, had just finished helping Brighton & Hove City Council (BHCC) build its first Drupal 7 website.

BHCC’s Drupal 7 site from 2013

At the same time, while looking for new work to pitch for, I found a council in Hampshire looking for pretty much what we’d just built. It occurred to me that if one council could mow another’s grass, then why couldn’t one bid to help to build another’s website, using shared code as a starting point, generating a bit of a return on the city’s investment?

Why shouldn’t it happen?

For a number of reasons it didn’t happen, but of course there is every reason why it could have, because there is nothing new in sharing open source software. Many agency owners, as I once was, will know that while clients rightly focus on what makes them different, from a content management perspective, underneath the hood, features and requirements are pretty common. Within particular market sectors, unique differentiators become even scarcer. That is especially true of entities like councils or local healthcare services.

What is also common with local public sector is that they have to deliver digital services with small budgets that are always under pressure. Open source software is obviously a great solution here because it is free from license costs. That is such a strong factor that I feel often buyers don’t think about additional benefits, the key ones being that open source and the solutions built with it are great for sharing and collaborating.

If at first you don’t succeed

Between 2017–19, as one of the last web development projects Miggle worked on as an agency, we played a more comprehensive role in building BHCC’s new Drupal 8 website and gradually decommissioning the Drupal 7 one. This was a much bigger multi-agency project, where several suppliers (Miggle, Zoonou, Clearleft and Clearspot Media) worked with BHCC’s internal Digital First team, where Will Callaghan was responsible for product management.

BHCC’s 2018 Drupal 8 website

The codebase is a small part of it

When you are delivering a project like this, the codebase is one thing, but the real challenge is in managing all of the varying needs of multiple stakeholders. Clearleft, I believe, had proposed this concept of content bankruptcy, where effectively you wrote off all of the debt inherent in the bloated content and IA that had swollen over time. It’s a sound idea (and is a developer’s dream compared to the alternative of migrating content). The challenge though is in getting those who are responsible for great swathes of content within a particular website section to both cull the content and be realistic about its level of importance versus everything else.

Delivering at speed

Collectively though we had a talented, multi-skilled team and we set about resolving these problems together quickly and efficiently. Development budgets were pretty tight and we were delivering at speed. There wasn’t much opportunity for user acceptance testing, or the bandwidth to write the same level of regression tests we were used to doing with other projects. So there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity to refine what we built.

Resource wise though, BHCC were in a better position than one of other our clients, the local NHS CCG, who were in the same building, but struggling to have the bandwidth to solve the same problems that were being worked through successfully on another floor.

Sowing the seed again

So, with the above in mind, in Feb 2018, I emailed Will to explore again the possibility of code sharing. Both he and Ali, who led Digital First, were really keen to look at it further, and in particular Will and I spoke about it a lot over the following months. To move the code forward, a few things were obvious even before we started to think about how we might productise it:-

— We’d moved at such a speed, that to work more effectively as a distribution others could use, we’d need to make the solution more generic and get some test automation in, particularly around regression.
— We’d need a vanilla theme — and one in which headers and footers were distinct so that they could be used with other online services councils tend to run, like transactional and other form based services.
— BHCC were using Acquia for hosting and search — so we’d need to make sure that if our solution was dependant on anything here that we’d strip that out.

The idea is one thing, making it happen another

Like I said earlier though, the codebase is one thing. Sharing open source is obvious, but to get an idea like this to gain traction it really needs a lot of focussed effort and patience from someone who knows when and where to have the right conversations. Will, with his wider experience in local government, was the best person to do that. No surprise, it took some time, but almost 18 months after we’d first discussed the idea, it was great to read about this going on at Croydon Council — as well as to learn that people like Annie and Rich were part of that too, bringing all the benefits of user centred design and solid process respectively, which had been applied to their work in Brighton.

For me, I’m no longer running Miggle as an agency, so with no more developers on my books, I won’t directly shape the future of the code, or supplement internal teams like we did with Brighton. However, as a consultant who now helps clients make effective requirements based decisions around which technologies to use, agencies to engage, or in-house teams to build, I’d like to think that one day I’ll get the chance to help councils with those sorts of challenges, or guide agencies in using the solution effectively.

Finally, I’m proud this started in Brighton and Hove. The city is a fantastic digital hub and BHCC has been able to attract great talent over the years because of that. I’ve seen how smaller, neighbouring councils have looked up to BHCC as a beacon of best practice, so all credit to them to agreeing to open this up so that others can get the benefit. When our local government bodies don’t spend scarce budget resolving and building the same challenges that their neighbours next door already might have, then citizens win. And right now citizens need some wins. The solution you can read more about here is a shared initiative that allows that to happen. It’s a great platform on which local government can improve their digital publishing capabilities together.

Digital decisions are never a walk in the park, so please get in touch and let me help you find the right way through the technical landscape.

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There’s only one choice that’s the right one — an informed one

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alickmighall

alickmighall

Dad and Husband who loves the great outdoors. Own @miggle, digital product management consultancy.

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