Why 4 councils are sharing website code (and others should!)

Councils rarely shared code in the past, but that's starting to change. Here Bracknell Forest, Brighton & Hove and Oxford City explain why they're doing it, and why you should too.

Any collaborative project is a leap of faith. Developing a codebase to power your crown jewels – in a council’s case, its main website – is a bigger leap still. 

Our 4 councils have been working together for a while. Brighton & Hove and Croydon have developed working websites, while Bracknell Forest and Oxford are reviewing our work and deciding whether to go all in. We hope they do of course.

We asked our new friends and colleagues why collaboration is a serious option for them. Here’s what they said.

Bracknell Forest Council

Colin Stenning, Digital Services Manager

The council has been using Drupal for just over 3 years to develop our public website. We replaced our existing proprietary CMS, feeling that the time was right to find a solution that would give us the flexibility to develop and design websites ourselves. We trialled Drupal because it was open source – built, used, and supported by an active and diverse community of people around the world. It’s been very successful, enabling us to develop our website iteratively to meet the changing needs of the council and our residents.

We have no in-house Drupal development and use an agency to provide cost effective and tailored support. This gives us the agility to make improvements as and when required. A good example is our accessibility work in which over a period of just 6 months we managed to meet WAI AA accessibility requirements, and attain second place in the Sitemorse INDEX for local government for 3 consecutive quarters. It’s unlikely these achievements would have been possible in this timeframe using standard licensed software.

A further reason for choosing Drupal was to try to break the cycle of having to carry out a major redevelopment of our public website every couple of years. We chose to use Drupal to develop our website in an iterative, ongoing basis. However, about a year after going live we learnt of a fundamental change on the horizon for Drupal that requires not only an upgrade in the software (from version 7 to 8), but a full redevelopment of our public website. 

Just as we had steeled ourselves to start work on a full site redevelopment, we learnt of an opportunity to be part of a local government-led approach to share a common codebase for websites, initiated by Croydon and Brighton & Hove.

We chose Drupal to benefit from the support of an active community of people, so what could be better than collaborating with other local authorities to develop our new website? We actively explored opportunities to work with other local authorities, but got nowhere as there appeared to be little or no interest at that time in councils working together to develop websites. What a difference a few years can make! Now councils are being actively encouraged to collaborate and to stop reinventing the wheel.

The time is now right for us to join with other local authorities to develop a common approach to building local authority websites. The savings from collaborating in this way are potentially immense and so are the opportunities to add new and improved functionality. Working together we believe that we can provide our respective residents with a better and more advanced offering.

Brighton & Hove City Council

Andy Wallis, ICT Analyst – Digital

Brighton & Hove is a unitary authority with a large development team that provides over 100 online services. We use Drupal as CMS for our main website and several smaller microsites, and Mendix and Achieve for our transactional services. The Drupal development team consists of me and co-developer Andy Broomfield. Our digital communications team handles product decisions and content design.

We’ve been developing in-house since the late 1990s. We adopted Drupal in 2012 and our team has extensive experience of developing in Drupal 7 and Drupal 8. We’ve worked with external agencies, but are now doing most of our development in-house. This year we’ve delivered Jobs, Campaigns and Directories, and have made our site accessibility compliant. We’ll complete a major content transition from the current Brighton & Hove website by March 2020, and then look at migrating our microsites to Drupal 8.

We’re really excited to be part of this collaboration. Our Drupal 8 work is ongoing, and we’re looking forward to developing new features with our partners. We’ve already received considerable value back from the development team in Croydon, including:

  • a whole new feature, Step-By-Step
  • bug fixes, patches and quality assurance for the code that we have shared
  • upskilling around automated testing and developing new code sharing standards

With our successful MHCLG bid, we’ve a great opportunity to take this partnership further. As well as new development, we can formalise sharing, break down the barriers and create a reusable playbook for other authorities. Through collaboration, we can get further, faster and we are looking forward to what 2020 will bring.

Oxford City Council

Neil Lawrence, Digital Development Manager

We’re a small district council with no real in-house development resource, and our procurement approach is largely based around COTS and local customisation. We don’t carry a large staffing overhead, but it means we’re sometimes forced to compromise costs against flexibility.

For a number of years we’ve been looking at how we can work with other local authorities to share expertise rather than be dependent on our suppliers. We worked with Kings Lynn and West Norfolk to make some custom changes to our website’s Contact Us page. We also led one of the Round 1 MHCLG-funded projects to see if local authorities could work together to develop a sector-led approach to using chatbots and AI on a shared platform.

When the opportunity arose to be part of a local government-led approach to sharing a common codebase for websites we were really excited about the opportunities this might offer, and agreed to take part in the research. The work that Brighton & Hove started, and Croydon are now developing in partnership, looks really exciting.

For us the benefits look to be:

  • developing a common, sector-led approach to local government websites, rather than each authority ‘reinventing the wheel’ every few years
  • working together to devise an agreed development roadmap based on what local authorities themselves identify as the needs
  • saving time and public money in developing functionality, and sharing user testing results to shape development

The challenges we think the project will address are:

  • how do we make it easy for councils with no in-house development resource to pick this up and run with it?
  • how do we all contribute our fair share?
  • how do we best collaborate and scale up any finished product to cope with multiple partners?

Watch this space 

Thanks all for your contributions – it’s great to be working together. 

Our sharing project has now started – we’ll be posting on Croydon.digital at least once a sprint, and posting updates on Local Digital Slack.  

Please do chip in with your thoughts and suggestions. See you in a fortnight if not before! 

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