Originally published in IT in Canada Online.
It’s a well-known fact that websites are driven by content. Public service websites in particular produce and deliver content and services that are designed to be as user-friendly as possible. But how can governments effectively manage all this content for their constituents?
The Australian government is one prime example of a government looking to deliver large amounts of content while maintain a user-friendly web presence.
“In Australia, anyone who is running a government website would interested in improving the offering for their (users),” says John Sheridan, CTO for the Australian government. “We want to get the best user experience we can for them.”
When people visit a government website, they often have a specific goal in mind. They could be searching for an answer to a question, contact information or certain downloadable documents as quick as possible. Thus, the onus is on the government to ensure that their web presence is as simplified as possible.
“We know that not many people come to government websites just because they like us,” says Sheridan. “They are usually coming because they want a particular service, and they want to get into that service, find the information they need, do whatever it is they want, and then leave again. Our role in offering things on the Internet like that is to facilitate that arrangement to the best of our ability.”
Cultivating a user-friendly website experience begins with a reliable content management system (CMS) in place. Government websites are content powerhouses that feature a great deal of material, and a good-quality CMS allows webmasters to create, manage, edit and arrange this content in way that it is easy to find and understand.
As Sheridan explains, when looking for a good CMS, the Australian government took a number of important factors into consideration.
“First of all, we want value for money in all the work that we do,” he says. “We want to make sure that we are efficiently using government funding, so we want to ensure that everything we do is done on that sort of basis. When it comes to websites, we want a good user experience, and the CMS needs to be able to facilitate that experience.”
A proper CMS should also “be accessible. We have a requirement to meet the WCAG 2.0 AA standard in accessibility, so we want to make sure that can happen,” says Sheridan.
Security is another area that the Australian government focused on for their CMS selection. “There is a requirement that ensures that people can’t change the website, place the wrong information on it or use malicious code,” Sheridan says. “We wanted a system that is secure in the sense that if there are things that require security handling, we want to make sure that it’s in place.”
Sheridan adds that the system must be as user-friendly for citizens visiting the website as it is for administrators who manage it. As websites often rely on certain format for page and form conception, the CMS must also provide template creation.
Many governments are now relying on open source software to manage their online content and perform other internal functions. The Australian government is also no exception, and as Sheridan clarifies, the use of this software is now a requirement for them.
“We have a policy about using open source wherever we can,” he says. “I think there are some areas where open source is more powerful than others. Content management systems are a very strong area of open source software usage, and given the strength of the open source market, we would find a solution there.”
With many open source CMS options available, the Australian government opted to use the Drupal GovCMS system for the management of their website.
“We use Drupal for australia.gov.au. We did a study in 2012 when we were rebuilding the site, and that led us to the choice of Drupal,” says Sheridan. “We found that it was the best possible solution for our purposes.”
Since then, the Australian government has successfully transitioned several of its websites to Drupal’s GovCMS platform. The results of the initial study showed that between 182 and 450 websites could be using the platform within the next four years. Drupal’s open source software allows various public service departments to seamlessly share Drupal modules amongst themselves and with the community at large.
A later development saw the creation of aGov, a free open source Drupal 7-based system that was specifically created for use by Australian public service organizations. This new platform has the ability to build an entire website that adheres to the standards of the Australian government in less than 10 minutes.
Going forward, Sheridan expects that more improvements will continue to be made to the open source CMSs used by the Australian government which, in turn, will make their web presence even more user-friendly.
“I think we’re going to see continual improvement in this area,” he says. “The executive arm of the government wants to meet their requirements to get things for the citizens that make best use of public money and that customers want to use. Therefore, there is going to be more pressure on the public service to deliver those results. People want to do the best job they can to meet their responsibilities, and that gives them the drive for continuous improvement.”