The Local Digital Declaration promotes sharing across local government and 45 councils have signed it. Could a few of them team up to build a common publishing platform?

Something a bit like this? The new Brighton & Hove website

“Is there such a thing as a great local gov site as a service?” I asked on Twitter last week. Not expecting much of a response, I went to bed and woke up to an encouraging tweet from Neil in Oxford. Thanks Neil. Then I got a few more.

It’s great to see people are interested in this idea. I promised to post outlining what we’ve done in Brighton and where we think it’s heading. Here it is.

The story so far

Brighton & Hove City Council has an aging Drupal 7 website, and content that’s well past its sell by date. Its navigation is confusing and user journeys often leave you back where you started.

Thanks to Ali, and the council’s Digital First transformation programme, our team are rethinking the lot. We’re reviewing all the content based on user needs, and rebuilding the platform in Drupal 8.

This website is the start. It includes:

  • content types for everything you would expect, such as landing pages, detail pages, guides, start pages, map pages
  • single page campaigns with a simple page builder (multi-page campaigns are coming soon)
  • a prototype directories product. It’s easy to surface a venue or service (eg a school) in multiple directories
  • a flexible tag based taxonomy
  • customisable on-page alerts
  • service updates for waste services, highways, you name it…
  • a great looking newsroom with its own dedicated search
  • site wide search currently powered by the non profit version of Google Custom Search Engine (could easily be Solr or something else)
  • 2i workflow based on the Government Digital Service Whitehall model
  • the potential to integrate with data sources such as Open Active. We’re hoping to work on something in the next sprint or two
  • WCAG AA compliant mobile first front end for citizens (about half way through this)

The platform doesn’t include form building for transactions (Brighton uses Mendix amongst other things for this). Nor does it have billing, ID verification or My Account type functionality. We wanted to do publishing well, and are on the way to achieving that.

With a bit of work, the platform could be used in a ‘headless’ way to drive screens, kiosks and the like.

What next?

Brighton’s Digital First programme comes to an end next month, but website development will continue in other teams.

A few of us, notably Alick, Annie and Jim, think our work could benefit the wider local gov community too. Councils across the country have similar (if not the same) publishing needs, and we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. It’s the same argument that led to the development of the Whitehall publishing platform for all central government departments and agencies.

There’s a few options in my head:

  • Brighton could open source its Drupal 8 configuration for anyone to use. I could talk to our bosses about it. It might lead to many versions of the same thing though, rather than collaboration around a shared solution. We wouldn’t be much further forward
  • We could make a vanilla version of what we’ve built. It would be free of Brighton edge cases and easier for others to pick up, but we’d need to fund the work somehow
  • The next round of G-Cloud is coming up, and we could turn this platform into a service. Either by as is, or buy a place on a roadmap, buy support etc. But the cost would be a barrier to entry for some councils, and that would limit take up

These ideas all fall short to me. I’d love to see a not for profit organisation, like a Community Interest Company, take the platform forward. Not a local GDS, but a looser thing that councils could chip into if they like. FE colleges have something similar – The Blended Learning Consortium develops and shares course content for around 100 colleges across the UK, over 40% of the total. Then there’s the inspiring LoGov CIC which creates bespoke services for councils across the country. Could a model like this work for a local council publishing platform too?

Apologies if this post goes over old ground. I’m still quite new to local gov, and know that ‘site in a box’ conversations have happened before.

All thoughts welcome, either post below or look me up on Twitter. Thanks for reading.