I attended the Roundtable Discussion about Bristol City Council’s Future Web Platform, an interesting insight into how local authorities think about their web presence. Something about the presentations & process jarred with me, and it took a little while to work out what the problem was: the assumptions.
I’d glanced through the requirements, which were relatively good for a Council, but obviously include everything and the kitchen sink. The presentation gave a brief outline, these are some key slides for the requirements:
I think these requirements will lead the Council down just the same path they are trying to escape. Particularly:
- Using Java or Microsoft (internally support technologies)
- Having a 5 Year roadmap
- Over-arching requirements that affect all other functionality; such as being multi-lingual, personalised, and accessible. Assuming that each of the specific functionalities (e.g. forum) has to meet those over-arching requirements (which is implied), they create an enormous overhead. Not that they are unachievable, but the chances of a traditional CMS being able to meet them across all the specific functionalities are non-existant.
Although not in the slides, there are two implicit requirements:
- BCC do not want to be trapped using a niche product with limited suppliers.
- The ‘solution’ would be a single product
- It assumes people unfamiliar with the website’s development will edit it.
- Even if a Java CMS were used, why would Council staff mess with the CMS? Perhaps if the internal staff are involved in the development work it would be ok. But then, why use an external supplier at all? Assuming that the Council physically host it then they can and should administer the system, but it doesn’t need to be in Java for that. I would separate the development from the (hosting) administration, and have a contract with the developers for support for the application(s).
- Another option would be to hand-off the hosting to the company developing the website (or their hosting partner).
- Java isn’t used by people creating modern websites.
- I have nothing against Java, and it is eminently suitable for many purposes. Unfortunately quick development of a modern website is not one of them. I recently looked around for a Java framework that produced good, clean, accessible HTML. There are some promising developments (e.g. Grails), but as a general rule Java developers/development doesn’t tend to care about the front-end. For example, a client was considering the Java Icefaces framework, who’s knowledge of accessibility is years behind current thinking.
- How future proof is Java?
- Another count against Java (especially in a 5 year time frame) is whether it will be open. Since Oracle bought Sun, and especially since they sued Google over Java, Java’s future direction is in doubt. Not that I think BCC would have a legal issue, but Java could be a legacy technology in 5 years.
- Java is inherently a heavy technology.
- We used to use Java for our CMS, and using the JVM plus database and webserver is a lot for a server. Compared to a LAMP stack (or our preferred Linux/Nginx/Postgres/Python) you won’t get a lot of bang for your buck. A modern website tends to integrate multiple streams (e.g. RSS), databases of things, and related components, and if you look at the big players (Yahoo, Facebook etc.) they aren’t using Java as their primary technology. Neither are the products catering to small players (e.g. WordPress & Drupal)
- Quick to implement
- Flexible functionality
- Have an easy to use interface
- The website will be highly customised and that a traditional CMS is not going to meet the council’s requirements.
- Start with only the core requirements to provide the most important services, and a roadmap.
Unfortunately there isn’t a solution that will meet those requirements.
NB: There was no-mention of Microsoft ‘solutions’ at the meeting, so I’m assuming BCC don’t believe one would be open or cheap enough.
I would ditch this requirement for several reasons:
5 year roadmap
This requirement is inherently going to discriminate against open source solutions. The nature of open source development is distributed and reactive, there isn’t a “guy in marketing” who will draw up a customer friendly roadmap.
You need to either to find a partner company with a good track record who looks like they will be around in 5 years, or go into the initial development assuming that you’ll have to be able to move off the solution with a 1 year turn-around.
I also don’t think that proprietary solutions are realistically better here, it’s just as likely they’ll get bought out or go under. The difference between an open source CMS dying out (like APLAWS) and a proprietary one going under is negligible, you’d have to migrate in both cases.
These are useful and necessary requirements (e.g. accessibility), I’m not suggesting they are ditched, just that combined with the desired functionality, the Council should not be looking at one product.
Start at a lower level
Council (in fact most) procurement starts with the assumption that you can draw up a list of requirements, and assess a series of products and see how well they match. CMS products (commercial and open source) are built to meet these tick-lists.
The thing is, the more boxes a product can tick, the less likely it is going to do it well. You know that joke about consultants? They can be quick, good, cheap: pick any two.
There is a similar ‘law’ of content management systems, pick two out of:
Take WordPress as a well known example, it’s got a reasonably good interface, and it can be very quick to implement. However, it isn’t going to be flexible enough for the Council’s requirements (e.g. changing the workflow).
Drupal can be quick to implement (for sites which have the same assumptions that Drupal makes), it is quite flexible, but it’s a pig to use for non-technical authors. (You can modify the interface, but then it’s not quick to implement.)
Having done some Reddot development, that is fairly quick to implement a site, and the interface for authors is ok, but extending it can be a nightmare.
So what to do? The most important change in assumptions are:
I’ve done a lot of user-research with local authorities, and if you don’t get the basics right (easy access to core services) all the fancy ‘Web 2.0’ style functionality is wasted.
My recommendation for technical direction would be to use a framework based approach. Use a lower-level framework like Django, Ruby on Rails or MS MVC. These were created as toolsets for creating modern web sites / applications. Some companies have CMS type products that provide an easy-to-use interface that sit on top, just be careful they retain the flexibility of the underlying framework. The key is that you start with a core website and build exactly what you need.
Another approach would be to assume the use of several technologies. For example, use Drupal as the main tool for the website, but assume that there will be an extended development time for customisation, and other products will be used, skinned and customised.
I prefer the framework approach, as you spend less time working around the assumptions of the CMS, but it depends on the situation. Let’s hope the Council can get past the standard thinking.
I think everyone at the meeting has some inherent bias or agenda, I’ll make mine explicit:
I work for a company (Nomensa) that does work with local authorities (and others) in the area of user-research, web design and content management. The usual disclaimer that these are my words applies.
So in experience terms, I’ve run or seen lots of usability testing, Information Architecture sessions, and focus groups of citizens/customers for local authorities. I’ve also been involved with many CMS-migration / redesign projects at local authorities (and other markets).
I’ve also spearheaded development of our (DJango based) Content Management System Defacto (website updating soon), which was born out of frustration with inflexible and inaccessible CMS products.
However, what I’ve written above is my honest assessment, we haven’t bid for the website and I don’t have any commercial interest at this time, just a Bristonian’s interest!