WordPress And Government

Update (August 2013):
Sadly, the vast majority of issues outlined below are still relevant in July 2013.

Some of the issues I mention below, such as update frequency and automatic updates, have been topics of recent discussion in the WordPress community, following Matt Mullenweg’s announcement in his State of the Word 2013 talk that we’re moving toward more frequent updates.

This has provoked further discussion in the community about the impact of this on the enterprise, most notably in Chris Lema’s Developing WordPress for the Enterprise article.

Having said that, today I learnt of one state government department here, which has gone with WordPress for 3 of their sites. None are huge, but it’s encouraging to hear!

This article extends my presentation, titled “WordPress and Government – the Australian Perspective”, originally given at WordCamp Gold Coast on Sunday 6 November, 2011.

You can view the video of my talk and download the slides on my WordCamp Gold Coast 2011 – WordPress in Government post. I won’t include the video here because things have moved on in the time since I gave the talk.

Introduction

I’m a passionate WordPress developer and have been creating WordPress plugins since 2007. I also work for a Queensland Government department, managing their websites since 2008.

In this article, I’m going to discuss the reasons why WordPress hasn’t been used more in government and how we may be able to change this, as well as looking at the trend toward adopting WordPress that’s happening in government around the world.

My hope is that this is just the start of an ongoing conversation – or rather a continuation of an existing conversation, as I’m sure there are many others discussing this already.

Disclaimer

Before I get too far, I better start with a disclaimer:

In this discussion, I’m representing myself. I work for the Queensland Government, but I in no way represent them. My views are entirely my own and not those of Queensland Government.

I’ll draw on my experience, but I won’t get too specific.

Scope

This is based on my experience within Queensland Government.

There is no guarantee that my views will hold true across government in other parts of the world, other State and Federal government agencies within Australia, or indeed even within other parts of Queensland Government.

However, I’m confident that what I’m saying will at least sound familiar to people within government around the world. Certainly feedback from people who were at my talk indicate that that it’s common within Australia.

If you do work for government, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether your experiences have been similar or not. Having said, the prime target audience for this article is the WordPress development community – people outside government who may want to work with government.

WordPress And Government Is A Popular Topic

The use of WordPress in government is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. I hadn’t quite realized just how many other people are also interested in the topic.

When I originally approached the organisers of WordCamp Gold Coast about talking, I had a technical talk in mind. When they suggested that I talk about WordPress and government, I was a little taken aback.

At first, I thought this topic may be a bit dry and boring for most people. However, the organisers were really keen to discuss the topic. The more I thought about it, the more value I could see and the more I wanted to talk about it.

As I’ve talked to various people, both within and without of government, I’ve been surprised by just how many people are interested. It seems many people have either worked for government or for a company that has done something for government in the past, is currently doing something, or who want to in future.

So thanks to the organisers, and in particular to:

all of whom expressed their desire to see the topic presented. Without them, there’d have been no talk and all of these thoughts would still be locked up in my head.

Successes

Originally I planned to look at the challenges first, then the successes. However, as I collected my thoughts I realized that the successes help frame the challenges, so I’ll look at them first.

Mark Jaquith’s List From 2008

Way back in 2008, Mark Jaquith wrote a post with a list of US government agencies using WordPress (whether privately or publicly). He listed:

  • Air Force
  • Army
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Coast Guard
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of State
  • Department of Treasury
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
  • Marine Corps
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • National Geospatial Intelligence Agency
  • National Reconnaissance Agency
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • Navy

That’s a great start, but how many were using it for things other than blogs? Unfortunately, not many.

So although this list looks amazing, it’s not really what I’m after. I want to see government using WordPress as a general purpose Content Management System rather than just for blogs.

The Showcase

When looking for successful sites using WordPress, a good starting point is the WordPress Showcase. Sure enough, they have 22 sites listed under their government tag (at the time of publishing).

I’m sure there’s more than that!

There are some notable entries in that list, including the Library of Congress (but blog only) and Number 10 Downing St (full site). They have sites from around the world, although none from Australia (yet).

It’s still a little underwhelming – I’m really looking for more than this. That said, the Number 10 Downing St site is a poster child for WordPress and government and has been since it was created way back in 2008.

WordPress And The UK Government

Now, we’re getting somewhere! The UK is at the forefront of the adoption of WordPress in government.

I follow what’s happening in the UK Government web space reasonably closely, as a lot of what we do here in Queensland has its basis in the UK model. It’s an exciting time there at the moment, with the new Government Digital Service working to revolutionize government web delivery in the UK.

The GDS team seems to be keen on using WordPress, although only where it fits, not necessarily everywhere. For example, they use WordPress for their blog, but not for the GOV.UK beta site, and they recently re-launched the Civil Service website using WordPress. Excellent!

In the days leading up to WordCamp Gold Coast, I read about Word Up Whitehall, a get together of UK Government personnel who are working with WordPress. I took this as a sign of the positive happenings in the UK and gave it a dot point in my slides.

I didn’t realize that a) that it was actually happening the day after my talk or b) just how positive it really would be. Departments actively sharing what they’ve done with WordPress, discussing how they can share code better, and to cap it off, sharing the details of just how much money they’ve saved by moving to WordPress.

Wow. From the outside, it looks as if they must have gotten through most of the challenges I’m going to talk about. The following write ups of Word Up Whitehall outline what happened in detail:

The UK Government is really at the forefront of government using WordPress, with more and more to come.

As well as an exciting future, the UK has had the WordPress and government poster child since 2008: The British Prime Minister’s website, number10.gov.uk. Although I’m not sure if it’s technically a ‘government’ website (here in Queensland, Ministers can do what they like with their websites and are not bound by departmental rules), it is still one of the most impressive examples I can find.

WordPress And The US Government

I personally know less about what’s happening in the US, but I have heard there is a move towards WordPress. Whether it is as aggressive as that in the UK I can’t say, although I’d be hard pressed to believe that government anywhere is a match for the UK at the moment

There’s been news in the WordPress developer community about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC): They’ve been developing plugins for their installation of WordPress, which they’ve subsequently released back into the community.

This is a big step: a government body identifying areas where WordPress doesn’t meet its needs and not only rectifying them, but making the solutions available for anyone else who may have similar needs. To those of us in the open source community, that’s just normal, but it’s a big step for government to be actively doing this.

The WP Document Revisions plugin, created by Ben Balter as part of the Google Summer of Code, was also developed for the FCC.

It looks good – although its goal seems to be to turn WordPress into an EDRMS (Electronic Document Records Management System), whereas this article is about WordPress as a Web Content Management System. Although there can be overlaps, and SharePoint does both, in my experience most departments have 2 separate systems.

Apart from what the FCC are doing, I’m not sure what else is happening with WordPress and the US Government. From what I can see, WordPress is mostly used for blogs, except for the occasional site like the Administrative Conference of the United States.

I’m sure there are better examples than that – if anyone knows of some other government websites in the US using WordPress, please let me know!

WordPress And Government In Australia

I don’t think there can be much argument that Australian government is behind that of the UK, but there have been some successes.

At a Federal level, there is govspace, which the Department of Finance and Deregulation set up as an ‘online communications platform which hosts blogs and other websites on behalf of government agencies’

At the time of writing there were 74 ‘spaces’ or websites, 3685 articles and 12345 comments (yes, I got the screenshot when it was 1 2 3 4 5 – hat tip to Japh Thomson and Ryan McCue for noticing this).

So, a hosted solution, run by government, for government, that’s actively being used. That’s pretty fantastic. It’s a little limiting in that you can only use a small set of approved plugins and themes, but still it’s fantastic to see.

After that, I don’t know of any specific government websites based on WordPress at the Federal level or in other states, but I’m sure there will be some. Once again, I welcome information from anyone who does know this.

Edit: Ben May let me know of Digital Ready News and the Digital Ready Service Provider Forum

WordPress And Queensland Government

Here in Queensland, we’re even further behind, although hopefully what’s happening at other levels and in other countries will help open the path here.

Around about a year ago, our department contacted all the other Queensland Government departments and asked them what Content Management Systems they used. Not one response included WordPress, even though most listed several CMSs.

Our department recently chose a new CMS. WordPress wasn’t even on the radar – although we ended up selecting an open source PHP based solution.

I know of a couple of partnership sites, which don’t have to follow Queensland Government web standards, but I just can’t find any official Queensland Government sites using WordPress.

Well, except for one I worked on for a while (but more on that later).

And several that people told me about at WordCamp Gold Coast, that they were either working on or knew of.

It seems that WordPress is finally starting to see some use in Queensland Government. However, there’s a big if: I suspect that none of the sites I’ve heard about have gone through normal ICT processes. We’ll explore that later.

Almost A QLD Gov Poster Child For WordPress

Over the years there have been many cases at work when I’ve come across something we’d like to do and I’ve thought “I’d know just how to do it if we were using WordPress”.

But we couldn’t use WordPress because we already had a CMS (RedDot) and WordPress didn’t do everything we needed (although it’s come a long way since then). Even if we got past those two particular issues, there are a whole lot of other obstacles.

It has been a frustration for me and I’ve spent several years now wishing we could use WordPress in government and thinking about the issues and how they may be overcome.

Then a couple of weeks before my talk at WordCamp Gold Coast, a strange thing happened. I was pulled off my normal job and loaned to another department to help them with a high priority website that was built on WordPress.

This doesn’t happen normally. People in my position don’t just get taken out of their management jobs and sent to a coding job in another department – I’m probably a couple of levels higher than a senior web developer. The move only occurred after discussions at the CEO level.

It was a great opportunity for WordPress, because the project was of such high priority that it could cut through all the red tape that normally prevents WordPress being used. As it happens, the project didn’t go so well.

The site in question was qldalert.com, which will be the website that Queenslanders will go to in times of emergencies. The site pulls in content from various relevant sources and places them in one place for users to access.

A cornerstone of the project was to move the Twitter API calls to the server side, because some users were running into the Twitter API Rate Limit on the client side. Given that 20 Twitter accounts were accessed on each page load and the client required it to be as close to real-time updates as possible, we needed to do some pretty clever stuff:

  • grab the latest tweets for all 20 accounts in a single Twitter Search call every 12 seconds, then store them in the database against the appropriate account
  • query the database and creating the output for each of the 20 widgets on a page
  • caching that output, using the Transient API, so as to minimize the server load

I could go into a lot more detail, but you can see we were shifting a pretty reasonable amount of work to the server. A shame that their shared hosting (with a thousand other sites on the same server) couldn’t cope! I’m sure my code could have been improved, but shared hosting…

Anyway, time ran out. I went back to my normal job and they were left without any WordPress expertise. They tried another plugin that did something similar, but the server couldn’t cope with that either.

Now they are on Squarespace and the Twitter API calls are back happening on the client side. So they are back where they started from, except they no longer use WordPress! That’s a real shame, but it seems to be working for them and it probably suits their level of technical expertise.

Challenges Facing WordPress in Government

For those of you who have never worked for Government (or even in a large enterprise), it’s difficult to get your head around some of the challenges facing the adoption of WordPress in government.

For me, stepping from small scale freelance web development to government / enterprise web was a real eye-opener. Even though I’d been developing websites since 1997 and was well up on the standards based approach and basic usability and accessibility principles, it was a steep learning curve.

I’d guessed that accessibility would be all important, but I wasn’t prepared for:

  • Just how risk averse government was
  • Just how hard it was to make any sort of fundamental change
  • The levels of governance required
  • People who just didn’t get web (IP wanted to stop people linking to our website!)
  • Record keeping. What the…?

and a whole heap of other challenges. I can’t cover them all, but I’ll discuss some of main ones below.

Conservative ICT Department

The first elephant in the room is the conservative approach to ICT that the default in government.

A colleague of mine got a new computer a couple of months ago. The browser that came installed on it? IE6. But that’s alright, he’s allowed to upgrade to a more modern browser: Yes, that’s right, IE7. Before you take pity on me, I’m allowed to use Firefox because I’m in web.

Staff on some parts of the network don’t have access to YouTube or Facebook, even though the department itself has accounts on those services.

So government ICT is extremely conservative by nature (as indeed are most large enterprises). Most people who haven’t worked in government don’t really appreciate this.

There are good reasons for this conservative nature in some cases. If you are building a multi-million dollar system of critical importance (think payroll, or a system that runs a hospital, etc), you want to do things in a considered manner, following proper project and change management procedures.

However, there are a range of other areas, including web, that could benefit from a more agile and adventurous approach, balancing risk with business benefits. Government ICT is typically slow in recognizing this and indeed in allowing it.

Thankfully, there are pockets of government that are starting to realise this. The shining example at the moment is the UK again, having set up the Government Digital Service to be more like a startup than traditional government.

We’re nowhere near that in Queensland Government, but there are occasions where we take a more enlightened approach. There’s a growing recognition of the need to rebalance the risk / benefit tipping point, in order to get stuff done and to realise significant benefits.

This drive comes from the business rather than ICT. It’s always been there, but the people at the top are increasingly seeing the negatives of being too risk averse. The traditional enterprise level ICT approach of putting risk mitigation and process above delivering benefits to the business and to customers is starting to come under pressure.

Unfortunately, this is still far from the norm in government around the world. That means that people trying to use WordPress in government have to go through a body of process that often ends up blocking them. Let’s look at a couple of the more obvious issues.

Change Management

Change equals risk.

Government is very risk averse, as are all large corporations. They have a lot to lose if something goes wrong, so they’re very cautious. With government it can be about cost, but also there is a lot of focus on government and people are quick with criticism. That’s only natural, but it leads to increased conservatism.

As a result, there are very rigid controls around change. A typical government ICT change model looks something like this:

There are development (DEV), test (TEST) and production (PROD) servers. Changes are never made on PROD, they are made on DEV and are then promoted through TEST and PROD. There is a plan for each change, including a test plan at each stage and a roll back plan in case something goes wrong.

Depending on the magnitude of the change, it may need go before the Change Advisory Board (CAB) for approval (which may take several weeks). Routine changes don’t need to do this, although there will be some standard procedures to follow.


Sometimes government can really go over the top with their processes. Here is a real example:

When I was running the web team, we had a case where we could not get small, non-critical CSS tweaks in the template onto the site without having to go through dev > test > prod. This despite the fact we’d tested it on our own local server. At least we didn’t have to go through CAB for this level of change, but it still took a couple of days for the server team to push the change through to the live server. And when I say live server, it wasn’t a public facing website, it was an internal facing one, with non-critical information, which no one knew about yet.

That’s an extreme case and thankfully not the norm, but it highlights the hoops that government sometimes have to jump through.

Potential outages need to be communicated to stakeholders. Updates need to coordinated so there is zero chance of the site going down when the minister is launching an initiative or something big is happening on the website, etc.

Depending on the nature of the change there may be other things required, such as training if a user interface has changed. In some cases, this may entail training sessions for all users, which may have to be held in locations across a wide area. No small thing.

Note, this approach is required for all changes, even 1 click updates. Let’s not mention updates to plugins shall we?

If the initiative is larger than a ‘change’ (ie “implement a new CMS” vs “apply an update to the existing CMS”), it will need to be managed as a project. For Queensland Government, this means following the Prince 2 project methodology. That’s a lot of process and a lot of documentation.

Security

I’m far from an expert in this field, but every change is considered from the security point of view as well. Want to update some software? The security team need to investigate the implications..

Servers are generally kept in the DMZ, with firewalls on either side, tightly controlling what traffic can pass through. Only minimal permissions and access are given and its difficult to obtain approval for anything more.


I had a case where we couldn’t serve Flash .swf files on a server, because a) the server wasn’t configured to allow .swf files to be served and b) the firewall was stripping the embed tags out of the HTML that was served. We needed to get a Flash file up ASAP, for the Director General (CEO), but the Security Team couldn’t just change the firewall, so we ended up having to find a different server to host that file on.

Security is often as a step during Change Management.

Other Issues

I’m sure there are lots of other issues coming from the ICT department, but Change Management and Security are the bigger ones for me.

Gavin Tapp tweeted the following after my talk: “Other issues are training, warranty, license”. I’ve got training above briefly, but warranty and license are definitely issues, as is the closely related topic of support.

Government ICT departments want some sort of warranty / support agreement in place in case something goes wrong. The support agreement must be with a company who are:

  • accredited to work with government
  • unlikely to go out of business (no single contractors, no matter how skilled)
  • work to a tight SLA

If the website goes down, there has to be someone whose fault it is responsibility it is to resolve it ASAP.

I’ll leave it there. I could talk at length about Queensland Government’s preference for Microsoft solutions. I could talk about other issues. But, really, I think that’s enough for now.

Implications For WordPress

So how do conservative ICT departments affect the chance of WordPress being adopted? What are some of the WordPress specific issues that arise?

Update Frequency

Government ICT prefers stable software which rarely changes. IE6 is once again evidence of this (although dependencies on IE6 by applications is the main reason).

WordPress updates a little too often for their comfort.

Remember, when an update is released, they can’t just upgrade. They’re going to need anywhere from several weeks to several months to digest the changes, analyse the security implications, plan the update, get it approved by CAB, do extensive testing on the impact on functionality (including on plugins), come up with a plan for training if anything’s changed, etc.

If you have to do that every couple of years, fine. A couple of times per year is another matter. It’s not just a case of a one click upgrade.

One Click Upgrade

I love this feature! I can pretty much guarantee all of you do too. However, a government department is unlikely to ever use it, at least on a live site.

Even if they’ve done all of that testing first, the best you can hope for is that they’ll click it in DEV, then promote it through to TEST then PROD, after security and change management due diligence has been done.

Update Immediately For Security

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard people state that the number one measure for keeping WordPress secure is to upgrade immediately when an update is released. A lot of very high profile people in the WordPress community take this stance.

Unfortunately, it’s incompatible with the change management approach of the enterprise, and government in particular. They just aren’t going to ditch their normal change management process no matter what the WordPress community says.

Automatic Updates

There have been recent discussions in the community about introducing a Chrome like ‘auto upgrading in the background’ feature. It seems almost certain that this will happen at some point, with the debate being whether it should be opt-in or opt-out.

Automatic updates are just not going to cut it with government. That’s why Chrome isn’t on the list of approved browsers in my department, leaving aside all of the other compatibility issues – it upgrades itself which means it can’t be controlled.

Of course they could turn it off, but rightly or wrongly, even the discussion itself highlights the disconnect between those behind WordPress and those in government ICT.

Disclaimer: I actually have a strong opinion on this one, as I tweeted:

I’m opt in, not opt out, for automatic updates. WordPress isn’t Chrome. Opt out will endup costing some people $. Guaranteed.

Plugin Code Quality

As we all know, the code quality of plugins is wildly variable. Some are rock solid. Others less so. Right now, there is no manual quality assurance done on plugins in the repository (like there is with themes). So it’s use at your own risk.

This makes government ICT nervous. They’d rather pay for software that works out of the box, than use free plugins that were written by someone other than ‘the vendor’. There’s no warranty with free open source software.

IE6

Support for IE6 disappearing has hurt things.

During my short time at another department, an internal WordPress blog was launched at very short notice. The theme chosen was Twenty Eleven. Looked great on my computer. But when we looked on a computer with IE6 (which many people have) the posts were blank! The content was in the source, but not displayed. The Dashboard was screwed up as well.

I’m like all web developers – I wish IE6 had died years ago – but it’s still a reality for government departments and any software which lacks support for it will struggle for acceptance.

The Enterprise Level CMS Challenge

Anyone who’s followed WordPress for a while will be aware of the periodic “WordPress is / is not a CMS” debates.

This typically involves one person saying “WordPress is not a CMS”, followed by a hundred people saying “WordPress is too a CMS, you douche”. I don’t want to come down on the wrong side of that particular fence, but there are definitely challenges for WordPress at the higher end of the CMS market.

Please read this all the way through before you start writing your posts!

Types of Government Websites

First, we need to understand the different types of government website. The challenges WordPress faces will be very different depending on the type of the site in question.

I tend to think of government sites falling into one of the following categories:

  • Campaign sites: Promoting a government initiative. Short life span. Needs to be developed quickly. Not much content. Not much updating
  • Blogs: Still rare in government, but growing. Expect there to be more and more of these in the future
  • Specific purpose: Doing something different with a specific purpose. Generally not much content, may be more focused on user action
  • Enterprise level: Huge informational website. Everyone has different definition for enterprise, but we’ll come to that shortly

WordPress is more suited to some of these than others. It is ideal for blogs and campaign sites. It’s probably as good a base for a specific purpose site as anything else. But there are some serious issues when it comes to the larger ‘enterprise level’ websites.

Enterprise Level Websites

Everyone has a different definition of ‘enterprise level’. It’s probably not sensible to try to tie that definition down. Instead, I’ll describe the sort of website I’m talking about:

  • Anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 pages (and let’s not talk about PDFs!)
  • Anywhere from 3 to 7 levels deep: the site I’m currently working on will be 7 levels deep minimum
  • The majority of content not chronologically based
  • Several hundred distributed authors, located around the state, spread throughout maybe 60 business areas, each with their own signoff processes.
  • Centralised editorial quality assurance
  • Complex workflows:
    • One piece of content may need to go through 5 levels of approvals
    • Another may only need to go through 2 levels
    • There will be different approval steps and different users for different content types and different categories
    • Example: Content author -> Manager -> Communications -> Web Editor -> Tech QA -> Publish.

Note: It’s not about traffic. We all know WordPress can scale, for example as in the case of WordPress.com. Rather it is about complexity and the ability of WordPress to handle this sort of site out of the box.

If we rewind to the Successes section above and look at those sites which have been a success in government, none of them has been one of these larger sites. Number 10 Downing St gets closest, but it’s only a couple of levels deep. The govspace sites are all smaller. None of them meet my criteria of an enterprise level site above.

If anyone knows of such a site using WordPress, let me know! I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some out there, but I’ve yet to see them.

Implications For WordPress

In the talk at WordCamp Gold Coast, I asked a few questions:

  • How many of you have experience working on a site like that. Answer: Only a couple out of 150ish people
  • How many think WordPress out of the box could deal with a site like that? Answer: They all said “No”
  • How many think WordPress could deal with it with some customization, plugins, etc? Answer: They all said “Yes”

I totally agree. To quote Dion Hulse, WordCamp organiser and WordPress core-committer:

WordPress can do anything – and I mean anything

But government ICT doesn’t want to run third party plugins that haven’t undergone any formal quality assurance and which have no warranties. They don’t want to have to customize the code themselves either – they want an accredited supplier who will support the code to a tight SLA.

So what are some of the issues that stop WordPress being suitable out of the box?

Functionality

There is some functionality that most enterprise level CMSs include, that WordPress is lacking out of the box. Yes, most of this can be done via plugins, but read above about the reluctance to use third-party plugins.

Workflow
Out of the box: Very limited functionality. No ability to customize workflows.
Plugins: I’ve heard good things about the Edit Flow plugin, but I haven’t tried it. It seems like it’s a start, but I’m not sure it’s robust enough to implement the different workflows I mentioned above. http://editflow.org/

User Permissions
Out of the box: Very limited functionality. Only a few predefined roles and no way to tweak these.
Plugins: Justin Tadlock’s Member’s plugin might do the trick, but once again I haven’t used it much.

Amount Of Pages
Out of the box: Very limited functionality. Navigating 10,000 pages in the backend will be horrible.
Plugins: I believe there are plugins out there that can help, perhaps a tree explorer for pages (via category).

Search
Out of the box: Very limited functionality. Lets face it, the default search sucks!
Plugins: There are a variety of plugins out there that can help.

I won’t go on. There are things that other enterprise level CMSs do that give them the edge, such as link libraries, in page editing, etc. Most can be done via a plugin, but the point is that out of the box WordPress comes up short on quite a few fronts.

Terminology

I said above that Microsoft don’t speak the same language as the rest of us when it comes to ‘web’. Well, WordPress doesn’t speak the same language as enterprise level web teams do: It’s all posts, posts, posts:

  • Custom post types? Great feature! Wrong name. It should be Custom content types
  • Post formats? Should be content formats

If you want to fill enterprise level web teams with confidence that WordPress is going to suit their needs, you have to use the language that they understand. The term “posts” is synonymous with blogging. To convince people that WordPress is more than just a blogging platform, the terminology needs to get generic.

Censorship

The controversial capital_P_dangit() function forces the correct spelling of WordPress on all WordPress sites.

I understand people’s frustration with WordPress being spelt incorrectly, but you don’t mess with people’s content. If people do type WordPress with a lower case P (as I typed it here, but which you can’t see), you let them! You don’t censor their content!

You don’t see Microsoft building functions into SharePoint to make sure that people don’t call it Sharepoint. They rise above it.

Censoring content sends a message to government and large organisations. When they look at Microsoft they see a mature reliable organisation. When they look at the WordPress project they see an organisation with juvenile tendencies who could decide to mess with their content on a whim.

You want to compete with the big boys, you better grow up. #justsayin

There’s A Plugin For That

In August 2011, WP Tavern published a poll about how conversations about possible new features in WordPress were killed by the core team. The winner was “There’s a plugin for that”.

I understand the argument for keeping WordPress core as lean as possible. We don’t want code bloat for features that only a handful of people are going to use. So I agree that much of the ‘enterprise level functionality’ that government wants is actually better placed in a plugin than in core.

However, as I’ve mentioned above, government doesn’t want to be using 3rd party plugins. They are more likely to choose a CMS targeted at the enterprise, with all that stuff built in, than to choose WordPress with it’s plugins.

Note: Yes, I know, the plugin system is one of WordPress’s greatest strengths. I get that. My employers don’t.

Maybe this is where the mythical core plugins come in? Core plugins were announced back in 2009 and they were preparing the infrastructure in January 2010, but as far as I know that was the end of it. I don’t think they took it anywhere.

If we could get some core plugins built that provided the ‘missing enterprise level functionality’, this might go a long way to solving this problem. There wouldn’t be any warranty, but there would be a greater level of trust because of the extra authority a core plugin would have.

There are other solutions, such as:

  • a plugin certification system which occasionally gets raised as a possibility
  • one area of government stepping forward and writing its own plugins, that other areas of government would then feel comfortable using

If I were a betting man, my money would be on that last option.

It’s just a matter of finding an area of government willing to overlook all the problems I mention here and throw themselves into WordPress whole heartedly. A few months ago I would have been skeptical, but the stuff going on in the UK makes me confident it will happen.

Enterprise Level Support

One of the strengths of WordPress is that there are so many other people using it. It’s easy to find information that you can use to help yourself. Google, WP Stack Exchange, even the official forums help sometimes. But…

As I mentioned earlier, government want more than that. They like the comfort of having a clearly defined support agreement in place. Especially for those big enterprise level websites.

WP Help Center may have been the start of that model, but it faltered and was sold and I don’t know how it’s going now. It wasn’t really pitched at enterprise either. And it wasn’t in Australia. And they’d probably have to be an accredited supplier to government. I’m not aware of anywhere here that people could go for this sort of support.

The Government View Of WordPress

So, to summarise all that:

Government typically sees WordPress as an immature organization, which doesn’t provide support or warranties, whose software doesn’t do everything it needs out of the box, and who won’t bother to add that functionality into the system.

That’s explains a few things…

The WordPress As A CMS Debate

Back to this old chestnut. In the past I’ve let myself get involved in debates in places such as WP Tavern, about whether WordPress is a CMS or not.

My position back then (18 months ago), was that:

  • WordPress is a CMS
  • WordPress is NOT an enterprise level CMS

I generally find that people who come out strongly in the Yes camp are those who work with small to medium sites (which WordPress is perfect for), while those in the No camp generally work on enterprise level sites.

CMSs Used Within Government

If WordPress isn’t being used within government, which content management systems are (at least here in Queensland)? Is there anything WordPress can learn there?

SharePoint

Microsoft have the slickest sales people I’ve ever seen. They come in twos and threes and there is never a pause in the selling. They pitch a “savings through the economies of scale of having a single, integrated, organisation-wide solution” message which CIO’s lap up.

In one meeting, I challenged one by saying I’d read reports that SharePoint (2007) could only do 85% of what most leading CMSs could do. He admitted it straight up, but turned it back to the economies of scale argument. My CIO never even blinked. These guys are good.

I’ve never used SharePoint, but from what I’ve heard it’s complex to set up and people with SharePoint skills are expensive to hire and difficult to keep. There were some significant issues with SharePoint 2007, but SharePoint 2010 is apparently much improved.

One thing that does worry me about Microsoft is that they don’t quite get the web. Or maybe it’s just that the web they do get, is different to the web that everyone else gets. They don’t use the same language as the rest of us. But it doesn’t matter, because they speak the language of the CIOs.

WordPress doesn’t have sales people and even if they did, they wouldn’t be as slick as the Microsoft ones.

Also, as Ben Balter said:

If you ask me why an organization should use SharePoint, I have at my fingertips focus-group tested ammunition. Ask me why you should use WordPress, and I’m left to pretty much fend for myself. Curators of innovative technology need to make themselves known, and give those empowered to affect change, the tools to do so.

Interwoven TeamSite

This is the most common CMS in Queensland Government at the moment (or at least at the beginning of the year when we asked around). However, I’ve never used it and I don’t know much about it, so there’s not much I can say about it.

OpenText / RedDot

RedDot is the CMS that I’ve had at work for since 2008. For various reasons we’re not on the latest version. The version we have has significant issues (eg deleting things in the CMS does not delete them on the server).

That’s right, unlike WordPress, the CMS publishes to a separate server. There are benefits to this, especially relating to the security model: the CMS can be inside the Firewall, publishing out to a server in the DMZ.

Apart from that, I can’t think of much that WordPress could learn from RedDot, but as I say we have a pretty old version of it.

Squiz Matrix (formerly MySource Matrix)

Squiz Matrix is “The most widely used enterprise content management system across the Australian Government and Tertiary Education sectors”. It’s not used widely in Queensland yet, but it’s starting to gain traction.

From all the demos I seen, and the people I’ve talked to, Matrix is a superior product to the others listed here.

The department I work for recently selected a new CMS to replace RedDot. Squiz Matrix was the product selected. WordPress wasn’t even considered.

What’s worth noting is that this CMS is:

  • open source
  • PHP based

Sound familiar? Which raises the question: why is Squiz at the table when WordPress is not? When government does choose open source, why do they choose Matrix over WordPress?

We’ll looking at this in detail shortly.

The Selection Process

This is the single biggest challenge that WordPress faces in being used for the larger government websites. Forget all that other stuff I mentioned above – they’re problems, but they can be overcome. This is the real problem.

Every government department will have different procurement processes. But whichever department, in whichever jurisdiction, in whichever country, there will be rigid rules around the procurement of software solutions.

For small projects (ie small websites), it may be possible for a department to just decided to use WordPress or their platform of choice. They may or may not have to make a business case for why they want to use it, but there’s a possibility they could push it through.

However, for larger projects, such as changing the CMS that runs the larger ‘enterprise level’ websites, there will almost certainly be a formal selection process that must be undertaken, whether it be:

  • Selective Tendering: where a small number of suppliers are approached to offer a proposal
  • Open Tendering: where an Request For Offer (RFO) is put out to all qualified businesses

This process is how the organisation works out which CMS is best for their specific requirements.

There are more options than that, but I’ve tried to keep it simple. The argument’s the same anyway.

So how does WordPress get into the mix of CMSs that are considered as part of this process? Someone has to spend days, or even weeks, replying to the RFO with WordPress based solution. Who’s going to do that?

Hint: It’s not:

  1. Automattic
  2. The WordPress Foundation
  3. The department selecting the CMS
  4. You (WordPress based design studios)

Answer: It’s no one. WordPress isn’t even in the mix.

The Government ‘Niche’

I’m not sure if anyone has ever described either government as a niche before, but that’s one way to frame this conversation.

How many WordPress developers / studios are out there creating themes and plugins for the real estate niche? Lots! And more all the time. Why? Because there is money to be made from providing useful solutions to the real estate niche.

No one is out there developing for the government niche.

I understand why. If I’m a commercial theme shop and I can sell a $70 theme to real estate companies around the world, I could make some decent money.

You can’t transfer that business model to government. There’s not enough government agencies to make money off a $70 theme. You can’t sell in bulk to them. That’s not their main need anyway.

Their need is to have an accredited company who can provide them with tailored services, support and hosting and who can invest a lot of time (can take 6 months) to convince them before seeing any return, if at all.

They generally don’t mind paying if they can get all that. It can be quite lucrative.

So far, I’m not aware of any company who has targeted government using WordPress as the base solution. This could be an opportunity for someone out there! But most WordPress developers / studios won’t go for it because it’s a *lot* of extra effort.

Hmm, maybe the best path would be for a WordPress studio to partner up with an accredited supplier who’s already selling other software to government (hint hint).

Case Study: Squiz Matrix vs WordPress

Earlier I mentioned Squiz Matrix, the open source PHP based CMS that is widely used in both enterprise and government. I thought I’d take the time to explore why it is successful in the government niche and what we may be able to learn from that.

First, we need to separate the organization from the software. Matrix is the open source product. Squiz is the company who developed Matrix, who control commits to the product and who offer end to end services related to Matrix.

There’s an obvious comparison to the relationship that Automattic has with WordPress, although Squiz has far tighter control of the Matrix project than Automattic has of WordPress and there is no equivalent to the WordPress Foundation. So really, there’s no comparison.

I do want to have a look at the business models of the two companies, which are almost opposite. With WordPress.com, Automattic has gone for huge volume, low transaction value. Building their company around enterprise level services, support and hosting, Squiz has gone for low volume, very high transaction value.

Automatic reached 100 employees world-wide on 11 November 2011. At the same time, Squiz had 130 staff in Australia alone. That in itself doesn’t mean much, but it shows that Squiz must be doing something right.

Where this is of interest to us, is that Squiz has been very successful in the ‘niche’ we are discussing and the Matrix product has got a decent market share, while WordPress is almost non-existent. Here’s what they’ve done right.

Squiz are an accredited supplier to government
They are actively out there pitching to government, making connections, answering tenders, selling the benefits of Matrix (and their services) to government. This ensures Matrix is in the mix in a majority of cases. There’s no-one doing this for WordPress, at least not in Australia, so WordPress doesn’t get a look in.

Out of the box functionality
Squiz ensures that Matrix includes all of the common functionality that government wants. Things like link libraries, a flexible workflow capability, comprehensive user permissions, etc.

Custom functionality
If Matrix doesn’t do something that a particular government agency needs, Squiz will add it to Matrix for them – for a fee (which reassures government). They then build that functionality into the core, where appropriate, so that it can benefit others. Squiz control that process closely. There are no third party plugins, lacking quality assurance and warranties – although customers are free to make their own changes if they want to invest in the skill set.

Tighter focus
Squiz only go after enterprise level clients, who have very similar needs. That results in a product that is closely aligned with the needs of their clients. Because of the nature of these clients, things that enterprise wouldn’t understand, like capital_P_dangit(), aren’t included. WordPress is for everyone, so it needs to be a little more generic, making it less suitable for government.

Lots of other government clients
Squiz have lots of other government clients in Australia. They can leverage these for recommendations and case studies, etc, reassuring potential clients. WordPress doesn’t have anyone out there selling it to potential government clients, and even if there were, they’d have very few decent reference sites.

Secure hosting, used by other government clients
Squiz provide enterprise level hosting. Some government agencies will have existing hosting agreements or will want to host their websites on their own servers, but for those that need hosting, this is an added benefit. It’s secure, has solid SLAs and is tailored to meet government needs. Once again, Squiz can roll out existing government clients as referees.

Services and support
It’s not just hosting, Squiz offer end to end enterprise level service and support. They can do everything from analysing your requirements for you, designing and building the site, training your staff, providing enterprise level support etc. Where do you get that for WordPress? There are some good companies out there, but none that provide enterprise level end to end services.

So to sum up, Squiz has tailored their product and their services to government and are actively out there selling it. WordPress is neither tailored to government, nor does it have anyone marketing it to government or offering end to end services.

Where WordPress Can Succeed

Watch out government, WordPress is coming! At least for blogs and campaign sites. Maybe not in many agencies to start with, because of that conservative ICT department, but coming nonetheless.

WordPress is a perfect fit for these smaller sites. It’s quick and easy to set up, easy to maintain. The out of the box functionality does most of what’s needed for these sites.

Of course, every WordPress blog needs some plugins, so that will still be a concern to the ICT department (as will themes), but there are enough things happening that will counteract this in many cases:

Greater emphasis on business benefits
Government ICT is being forced to become less conservative, as the need to deliver innovative solutions increases. The balance is swinging to putting more emphasis on the business benefits and less on the risks. When ICT shift to this mindset, WordPress becomes an enabler for them.

Trends towards WordPress in government
The trends towards using WordPress in government is growing both here in Australia and especially overseas. As more agencies use WordPress, the more traction it will gain.

People using WordPress at home
I kid you not, this may be the biggest one. People are coming to work and thinking “hmm, I could get this site up right now if I just used WordPress”. Sometimes this leads to rogue sites, but equally it means more people lobbying to use it. Selling from the inside!

So, over the next few years, I think we’ll see more and more WordPress sites within government.

What’s Needed For Total Adoption

Unfortunately, I don’t expect that success will carry over into the enterprise level sites. There are many challenges, not least the fact that no one is selling WordPress to government.

For WordPress to gain more traction with enterprise level sites, some or all of the following need to happen:

  • The terminology needs to be aligned with what enterprise level organisations expect, eg: Custom Content Types not Custom Post Types, etc.
  • Core plugins (or plugins by government agencies) need to be created to address the common needs of government, such as workflow.
  • Some brave souls need to use WordPress for their large complex site, setting a precedence for others.
  • Ultimately, there need to be more companies targeting the government niche, offering end to end services tailored to government, built on top of WordPress.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the odd success here and there, but unfortunately, I don’t see wholesale success anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong!

3 responses on “WordPress And Government

  1. Bronson Quick

    Hey Stephen,

    I am well aware that you composed this post on and off for 3 months so you’ll have to excuse my response cause I tend to respond in sequence but your post mentions some things that you address later on.

    It’s pretty awesome to hear that you were pulled off your normal job to work on a high priority website powered by WordPress. I am disappointed that the qldalert.com website didn’t go to plan but a 12 second refresh rate on a shared host for all those accounts was never going to work. Surely a few hundred a month for a VPS for such an important site wouldn’t blow their budget! One day they’ll learn what’s good for them :)

    The issue of “Change Management” in government is something that we’ve encountered and have been exceptionally frustrated with whilst we’ve been working on The Edge. When we took on the project we had to work on the production site cause nothing else was in place. So it was all “cowboy coding with the pink sombrero hat”. We eventually asked for a dev server because BuddyPress was going through some major code overhauls and we weren’t game to upgrade cause I’d been keeping an eye on the BuddyPress trac and lots of plugins and themes were breaking for people.

    The dev server took about a month for their ICT to set up, after that was set up we had to request our IP addresses be allowed access to the new box (which took 4 weeks), after that we had to ask for SFTP access (another 4 weeks) then after that we had to ask for read, write and delete access.

    You probably wouldn’t be suprised by how many emails were sent over that period of time but it was a big surprise for us because we’re used to dealing with private companies.

    You’re spot on about the government liking CMS that don’t have frequent updates. I used to work for an agency who were doing sites in Joomla for the Queensland Government. We were using a version of Joomla that was a couple of versions behind the latest Joomla version. There were loads of security holes that were published on the net for those versions but seeing the Government were used to one version and they didn’t want to upgrade. It’s definitely not good enough. It’s like thinking “I know someone has keys to my house but I’m banking on them not wanting to get in”.

    Plugin code quality is definitely a big thing with the lack of WordPress adoption in the Australian Governemnt and I understand that completely. I still get annoyed that the Govt think that “out of the box” software is fine if it’s from Microsoft (or someone similar) and the “Patch Tuesday” is perfectly acceptable to them but a WordPress update on an infrequent basis isn’t!

    IE6 support being dumped in WordPress core is definitely an issue for the Australian Government. Although, that being said I’m prepared to put my hand up to code up a plugin that will do IE6 conditional statements to squash the IE6 bugs and throw in some JS to fix up the transparent png issues to get Twenty Eleven working in IE6 if that will help get more Aussie governments using WordPress!

    The whole ‘enterprise level’ website is definitely a tough one to deal with at the moment. I think most of that boils down to the fact that the roles in WordPress aren’t editable out of the box. You need plugins like Justin Tadlocks Members plugins to start customising them and lots of WordPress people don’t know about this awesome plugin: http://editflow.org/ for making a content approval process that is different to the default WordPress content flow.

    When you talk about the “Implications for WordPress” you definitely hit on a major point that makes WordPress what it is right now. The question that you posed: “How many think WordPress out of the box could deal with a site like that?”

    The answer for that question was always going to be “None”. That’s because of the age old WordPress rule: If 80% of the users won’t use it then it needs to be a plugin. As a developer, I love this rule because it means I have leanest codebase to start with and I build on top of it but I think it’s depressing to think that our government thinks that everything should be packed into the one CMS. All they want is options to suit every department in the one CMS package. Because they have that attitude the Government end up with Sharepoint sites which they don’t update because the staff can’t understand how it all works because there are so many features they don’t use and the UI is so cluttered.

    In regards to the “Amount Of Pages”: It’s not too bad with the Search box in the backend for a site with loads of pages.

    In terms of “Search”: Yes, the out of the box search with WordPress does suffer a little. Relevanssi is definitely one of the best search enhancing plugins for WordPress. Because WordPress is open source someone who is a code geek could submit a patch to enhance the search using the ‘Relevanssi’ plugin code. Such is the power of GPL!

    In regards to “Custom post types” being called “Custom content types”…I couldn’t agree more. I have noted this numerous times in Meetups and at WordCamps but I can understand why they were called that. As you’d be aware they were created based on the original post structure which was then modded into pages which was then modded into “custom post types”.

    I do have to disagree with your thoughts on post formats being called “Content formats” especially when you mentioned that you’d like “Custom post types” to be called “Custom content types”.

    If you did that according to your thoughts then there would be too many “content” labels being thrown around the WordPress admin area which would be confusing for end users.

    Spank me silly and call me ‘Bronson’ but I’m in agreeance with the capital_P_dangit() function! :)

    Let’s talk about “There’s A Plugin For That”. I definitely agree that there is always a plugin for some extra functionality in WordPress but as you’ve stated you never know who has coded it, if it’s secure etc, etc. This is where http://vip.wordpress.com/why-vip/ kicks in. They offer support, they review plugins, they will code plugins for their clients. They are freaking awesome! I think there is a small chance that eventually the CodePoets might be able to look after government and listed companies around the world after the WordPress VIP peeps dp cpde reviews and qualify them in an official capacity. This could lead to to some hardened VIP CMS plugins for extended functionality!

    In regards to “The Selection Process” comments I can understand that it often takes days or even weeks to do an RFO. I guess I was lucky with that process for The Edge’s site because I was invited as a consultant for a meeting on a Friday afternoon. I left that meeting at 4pm and had a 15 page proposal in their inboxes 24 hours later. The proposal was for the first Australian Government social network as well so there was a lot of privacy issues that we had to address.

    In regards to “The Government ‘Niche’”, we actually have a to-do list that has converting the CUE html template into a WordPress theme and putting it into the WP repo. Once that’s done we’ll fill out the accreditation. The support will definitely be a difficult thing because we like to think that everything we make doesn’t need support. We make everything so easy to use that we don’t get support calls. We always install “Video User

    Manuals” on all our clients sites so that they can always watch vids to get the basics of WP. Any custom post types and features are always coded so we don’t get support calls too.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to post about this because there aren’t too many people in Australia in your situation and there definitely isn’t anyone in Australia in your position who would be willing to post about this issue in detail!

    I guess we all get to watch this space from here! :)

  2. Rick

    It doesn’t surprise me that our Government is behind the times when it comes to CMS’, especially WordPress. Give it a couple of years and I have no doubts that WordPress will take over the world!

  3. Ty Cahill

    Although this article is a little dated, everything still applies. In the U.S. we’re seeing many government sites using Drupal and Joomla. In Washington State, Drupal is being evangelized quite a bit within state government.

    I develop within an enterprise CMS on a daily basis. I prefer the WordPress admin interface because it’s simple, but there are some features to make it more CMS-friendly that should be in the core by now. The #1 complaint I have is no treeview of my pages. The long list of pages is impossible for a site with thousands of pages that need to be organized hierarchically. Permissions and workflows are problems too, but the admin not handling basic sorting and display of pages (without a plugin) is an instant death trap for WP.

    And security is a biggie. If WP could publish content to an outside web server, things would feel a lot safer to government types. If the site was compromised, just fix the problem and republish, without your source having the chance of becoming corrupt.

    And there needs to be a clean and easy way to manage PDFs. Government agencies live on PDF files! :-)

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