The Case for a Federated Open Departmental Web Strategy
Originally posted on LinkedIN in two parts.
The Government of Canada’s Web Renewal Initiative has failed. It may not be public yet, but there really is no way to redeem this half-conceived initiative to centralize all government pages onto a single website - Canada.ca.
This goal was lifted from the UK Government’s Government Digital Services (GDS). The goal of the GDS team was no less than digital transformation. Our government appears to have mistaken the alpha.gov.uk site as the end goal, rather than a platform with which to experiment with new ideas in government usability. The GDS is continuing to innovate to better serve the needs of their citizens, and having an open strategy allows for them to have their ideas validated by the world.
The Web Renewal Initiative (mega-migration to Canada.ca) was started by the Conservative government who was obsessed with centralizing communications & outsourcing as much as possible to the private sector.
Centralizing on Canada.ca was a Bad Idea
Serving all public Government of Canada content via a single site guarantees that this project will not be able to Fail Forward and learn through constant iterations. If governments are going to learn and grow with their IT projects they need to be structured so that public servants are able to take on small risks. Building the “one site to rule them all” will ultimately leave everyone focused on limitations of the tool rather than the needs of the user.
There is not a single user for government sites. There is no way to appeal to the scientists, students, seniors, travellers and businesses owners, just to name a few, through a single voice. You do need a single Canada.ca site to be able to effectively answer most questions of citizens, but also need to be able to direct them to a more detailed department site if they want more information.
Many departments also have websites or web apps that they have built for specific purposes. Most government sites aren’t as active as weather.gc.ca and won’t need their content to be updated 100s of times an hour. People go there for one specific reason (to get a permit, to find out if a drug is approved, to find the address of our High Commission in DC), and Canadians depend on this service. There are countless other examples where an agency might choose to set up a new website to try to target an audience or need which their departmental site cannot satisfy.
This project went off the rails before the RFP was even awarded. The very first item in the UK Government Digital Service’ Design Principles is to Start with user needs. Although there are great Usability folks who have been involved, there hasn’t been a mandate of “service transformation”, to really put users first. The rushed mandate of Canada.ca started with a bunch of assumptions and hasn’t brought on the user researchers or data analytics people to understand how to better meet user needs, let alone talk to users. The best hope with Web Renewal would be that it could save money, it was not designed to improve service.
It is worth mentioning that this initiative is built on proprietary software and managed completely by American-based international corporations. This approach does not support the broader public policy of a modern, open by default government that is supporting Canadian innovation. The process of centralizing and outsourcing Government IT makes it inevitable that multinational corporations are going to win contracts. Most Small & Medium-sized Enterprises (SME) just don’t have the resources to bid on multi-million dollar contracts let alone win them. When leveraging open-source, large projects can be broken down into smaller ones that will allow more Canadian companies to become involved.
Whether it is a giant multi-national or a small business, it is never a good idea for government to give a monopoly to a private sector company, like they did for Canada.ca. The vendor lock-in that comes with proprietary software makes it even worse as any transition away will include both migrating to a new technology stack as well as finding a new company to provide support.
I’ve previously highlighted the many problems with the implementation of Canada.ca. It is now time for everyone to admit that Web Renewal has failed. But if we do that, what should it be replaced with? What can be learned from this experiment and pulled forward into a plan that to help build the innovative modern government that Trudeau has promised Canadians?
I don’t think anyone is calling for a return to how government developed websites before Web Renewal. There does need to be more structure. There were too many orphaned projects that lacked proper accessibility, security & branding. What is the alternative?
10) Make things open: it makes things better
This is the final item in the UK GDS Design Principles. Last but not least, particularly since it frames the Open Government approach that is framing this discussion around the world. Building in the open has a great many advantages which have been articulated very clearly by government leaders in the UK, USA, Australia, France, Spain, and indeed most of the G20.
“Open source software can support the Digital Government Strategy's "Shared Platform" approach, which enables Federal employees to work together-both within and across agencies to reduce costs, streamline development, apply uniform standards, and ensure consistency in creating and delivering information.” - U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Website
At the 2016 Open Government Partnership meeting in Paris the importance of Open Source was acknowledged by governments around the world, including the Government of Canada.
So start with an open platform. The tool doesn't particularly matter, but the approach absolutely does. There are almost no acceptable reasons why the government should ever build software from scratch. Governments need to find existing software communities and become engaged with them.
- Review open-source software in use by our closest allies (USA, Australia, New Zealand, the EU & it’s members countries)
- Experiment with public repositories other governments have shared
- Adopt several that meet Canada’s unique needs in specific domains
Adopt an “Open” IT Workplace
With the rate of change in IT, just to keep up, organizations need to be constantly investing in their workforce to ensure that they have the modern skills required. Working in the open makes developers more careful with their code. If your work is going to be published, you want to make sure that it is well written, documented and not introducing embarrassing bugs. Having a good reputation is increasingly important in the internet age. Working in the open also allows governments to have their work verified by external developers (for free).
“By making our code open and reusable we increase collaboration across teams, helping make departments more joined up, and can work together to reduce duplication of effort and make commonly used code more robust.” - Anna Shipman, Open Source Lead UK GDS
To increase the collaboration outside of government it is always useful to release code under a commonly used license (such as the GPL, MIT or Apache) which aid with the distribution. The Open Government License adopted by Canada might become well understood in Canada, but not internationally. The US government defaults to Public Domain, which is very pervasive and also well understood.
Prepare for Linguistic Diversity
The ability to fully manage bilingual content is difficult for many sites. The Government of Canada also needs to be able to support languages of First Nations, Inuit, Métis and New Canadians. Any Content Management System (CMS) chosen should be able to support, at a minimum, the orthographies of Ojibwe and Inuktitut in addition to languages like Arabic & Chinese which is the first languages for many Canadians. There are several open-source solutions that can already address our complex linguistic requirements.
With a commitment to open-source one could also build in decentralized readability evaluator to ensure that the content author knows how complex their work is (in real time) and that departments can assess a cross-site picture of their content. Writing in Plain Language isn’t something that comes naturally, but it is an important part of any accessibility or usability goals. There are well established open-source tools that already allow for multiple ways to evaluate language complexity, it is simply a matter of ensuring that it is built into the new websites that are used for creating the content.
Commit to Adopting Open Standards
When the Government of Canada formally gives up it’s goal to implement one site for the entire public service, We need to see a real commitment to Open Standards. Software interoperability allows the government to move the discussion away from specific tools and to broader cross-departmental needs. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defines them this way:
“‘Open Standards’ are standards made available to the general public and are developed (or approved) and maintained via a collaborative and consensus driven process. ‘Open Standards’ facilitate interoperability and data exchange among different products or services and are intended for widespread adoption.”
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is such a body, and has ongoing committees that work to improve standards like HTML, Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) as well as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 & Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0. Some of these are used to base government initiatives like the Web Experience Toolkit, as well as the Common Look and Feel before that.
An important W3C standard for this discussion are the Semantic Web Standards most fundamentally the Resource Description Framework (RDF). One could also look at a machine readable markup language like the W3C’s eXtensible Markup Language (XML) or even cutting edge features like Web Components. The important thing is that there is a set of agreed to standards with which government websites can effectively exchange information with each other.
A Coordinated Decentralized Approach
I don’t know of a government that has fully embraced the Semantic Web, but the technology is already well established. Adopting this set of standards would allow for the realization of much deeper content sharing between networked sites. With a cohesive implementation you can divide the roles of content generation and content curation.
In Part 2 of this article I will elaborate on how this approach could be leveraged within the Government of Canada.
Part 2: Implement a Federated Architecture
The Government of Canada may require 1000+ websites to effectively engage with all of the various people, organizations and other government agencies stakeholders. Maybe it is as few as 100, but it doesn't make any sense to select an arbitrary number here. We will only know how many sites the Government of Canada needs when we understand the users better. The GDS’s first principle, Start With User Needs, is key. We know that there are going to be more than a handful and that there will inevitably be overlapping content.
Certain departments must have authority over some content and that this content should be distributed across government so that it is timely and accurate. This was one of the problems that Web Renewal was attempting to resolve by centralizing everything.
With a commitment to Open Standards it is possible to build a federated approach to content so that this can be accomplished. Any modern CMS ca expose content in a machine readable format (to everyone) so that it is open by default. It can then be consumed (either by people or machines) so that it can be easily syndicated within another sites domain.
Some Practical Examples
Health Canada should be the authority on all information related to health. We can identify places where health information should be included in:
- Global Affairs Canada to help assist travelers
- Immigration and Citizenship in the application process
- GCTools for the public sector employees
- Weather.gc.ca might be useful for seasonal warnings
- Canada.ca the central government hub
Health Canada would be responsible for generating the content, and other government sites would simply be responsible for curating it. For the next SARS or bird flu-like scare Canadians need a central means to manage and update health information, but that can be automated through a federated architecture.
Similarly it would be useful to be able to use government sites to alert people if there are weather warnings in their area. Obviously you only want to include location specific warnings on government sites, when you have confidence about the location of the user. However, it would be possible through a federated distributed network to be able to share this information so as to protect Canadians.
Some Advantages of a Federated Approach
The current configuration of Canada.ca presents a number of security challenges, that can be overcome with a federated approach. You could set up a workflow of content between internal departmental sites that are inaccessible to vendors, contractors and non-authorized personnel until it is published to external public facing sites where content is exposed to the public after it has cleared the appropriate approvals.
Having multiple sites in multiple environments will make it much more robust, Web Renewal has created a single point of failure (as well as a huge bottleneck for content). Working with open-source communities that have a critical mass of users will also ensure that your infrastructure is not relying on “security by obscurity”.
The site that generates the content doesn't need to be the site which displays the content. It makes sense that it would in most instances, but perhaps not all. The point of a central site though is to curate information to help see that users are able to get the information that they need as quickly as possible. The central site should not be where most content is generated.
The Government of Canada is attempting to modernize. The new Experimentation Direction for Deputy Heads, has a lot of potential but is severely restricted by Web Renewal. Being able to provide a sand-boxed version of Canada.ca for people to experiment with would be a game changer for people wanting to innovate. Providing a simple framework for A/B testing is key if we are to know how to best to interact with Canadians.
If Canada.ca becomes just a light framework that collates information from other government sites, there is no reason that this couldn't be distributed. A central agency could experiment with several versions each of which could independently build up-to-date information from live departmental sites. With a proper cloud-based environment it would be trivial to spin up a new variation, direct a percentage of the traffic to the new instance of the site and evaluate what impacts a change has on user’s behavior.
The Fate of Canada.ca
Obviously we still need a central website for citizens to engage with citizens. Like Ontario.ca, there needs to be a good starting point for everyone looking for government services. Citizens who don’t know where to go need a starting point. But frankly it doesn't even necessarily need to be a CMS as one could use a static site generator to generate static web pages that are secure & robust, much like GitHub Pages does.
Ideally it would be great to have personalization in this central site to help guide people to the resource that they need, but there are many ways that it could simply aggregate information from federated departmental authorities and display it as part of Canada.ca.
Obviously search will be key with this. However, once all of the departmental information is in a machine readable format it will much easier to provide one or more search options which may be better suited for different needs. Many users are already going to start at Google.ca, so simply embedding a Google Search into the government doesn't necessarily give Canadians a better experience.
Integrating with other Levels of Government
Once you have Government of Canada departments onboard, you it will be also possible to integrate with other government agencies. Citizens don’t really care what level of government is responsible for their problem, they just want the problem to go away. But using an open, federated architecture provincial and municipal departments can both include information from the Government of Canada in their sites (in real-time with no manual intervention) and share their data (which could be aggregated as needed).
If everything developed by the Government of Canada is developed with an Open by Default approach and shared back to the public, then it will be easier for other organizations to engage with government as a platform for innovation. We will see the solutions spearheaded by government (like the Web Experience Toolkit) used and extended by other organizations. We will find it easier and more cost effective to implement secure, accessible, bilingual solutions which can be adopted by Canadian organizations for their own needs.
Long Live Canada.ca
There is a path forward. Let’s stop spending money on expensive American proprietary software solutions, and start investing in a Federated Open Departmental Web Strategy. Canada needs the public sector to be championing open-source and open standards if we are going to catch up with our allies.
A cultural change is needed to make this happen. It won’t be easy, but we know that with leadership and courage that huge changes have taken place in the least likely places. Dave Rogers and Steve Marshall of the UK’s Ministry of Justice, have said that their “public code repository is an important part of our recruitment strategy.” If the government is interested in recruiting new talent, this could be an important step.
That being said, because they are built in the open, we can catch up quickly if we are able to find the leadership to make it happen.
This outline has been mostly focused on changing the technology, but this federated distributed network will allow communications departments to be more agile & responsive as well. I have trouble imagining any modern organization starting to write a web page by opening up a Microsoft Word document. The web has more than enough capacity as a publishing framework that this step simply gets in the way. Canadians expect their government to be less rigid and more timely and by decentralizing communications tools we can help make that a reality.
Having the right tools in place allows for better workflow management with proper content controls. The end result should be empirically knowing that government sites are always getting better at meeting needs of users.
About The Author
Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.