Fantasy CMS for government

Glass of water in the sunlight

The good doctor‘s brilliant piece on the tyranny of content management systems has spurred me on to write this post I’ve been contemplating for a while, about my own frustrations with WCMS software and what an ideal platform for government websites might be capable of right out of the box.

Having been close to the requirements spec, procurement, implementation and testing of a couple of CMS-based websites in government in recent years, and used a dozen or so CMSs before that, I am consistently astonished by the (to my mind) fundamental things some of the big name platforms struggle to do, and the lack of features to help organisations manage website content as opposed to just publish it. And I feel that if any industry needs to innovate, it’s this one.

A quick blog search suggests I’m not alone. Even their free pens get a ribbing.

The best of breed tools have considerable strengths, of course, and it’s not fair to expect them to be all things to all men nor automate everything. But if the amount of bespoke modding by customers with common needs can be kept to a minimum that’s got to be good, right? There’s a lively discussion over on David’s post about ways to do just that through consistent schemas for government content, better interoperability, clearer client specification and even open sourcing a government-ready platform. So in that vein, what would a perfect gov CMS need to do?

I’ve started this list on uservoice of the stuff I’d like to see any platform capable of doing from the off. It’s a mix of crushed hopes of yesterday and starry-eyed dreams for tomorrow. (There’s prizes if you can tell them apart).

Feel free to chuck more ideas on there, vote them up or down, tell me why I’m wrong and what software can do it all already. I’ve learnt a lot from your comments on similar posts in the past.

Here’s my personal top five as a taster:

See the full starter list of 35 ideas here and please do comment, vote and add your own.

The stakes are pretty high, if you ask me, with the reputations of individual digital teams and the profession as a whole at the mercy of what their chosen system will let them do. (“That cool thing you saw on that website you like? Sorry boss, we can’t do that with our CMS.”) Vendors should be mindful of the power they yield, for as long as they still yield it.

Image credit: zaveqna

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Having initiated a full-scale procurement exercise for a local government CMS implementation, as so many other web professionals in local authorities, one of the biggest barriers to ultimate success of the selected product is invariably the vendor’s claims as to the product’s capabilities versus the reality experienced by the web team when trying to deploy it in line with their original aspirations.

With the benefit of hindsight I would have much rather preferred the vendor to have admitted that the product couldn’t do all that we aspired to achieve with our selection, and was better prepared for selling into the local government marketplace.

Can I float a few more ideas Neil? Here’s a few of the things most Govt webbies want (well Corp ones anyway):

1) MoG proof and no link breakages ever

Links break when we move pages and files between depts. So why move them? How about uploading a page or file and it stays at the same… location forever. You could use style unique urls or something more friendly like

If you want it to be available on a particular dept’s site, tag it. If that dept changes just rename the tag or add a completely new one. Re-tagging en masse is way easier than shipping files around or conjuring up hundreds of page to page redirects.

2) Show the big picture

If all files and pages are tagged with a common taxonomy (needs to be much more granular, layered and rooted in plain English than IPSV) then it’s far easier to show the relationships, including those cross government.

3) Global design language

I think we all want greater visual consistency (BBC example at compared with what we currently have ( Sites don’t all have to look the same, but they shouldn’t require users to re-learn navigation as they pass from one Govt site to another

4) Common templates

A speech is a speech is a speech irrespective of the Minister that made it or the dept that he or she is part of. Nuff said.

5) Common faceted search

See results from This site/ Related sites/ All Govt sites across the entire network and provide the ability to filter in a logical and usable way.


For me this points to a common approach to building corp sites across government – taxonomies, templates and perhaps even the CMS technology that’s used. One CMS even?

But rather than level down, any system should be open enough to allow technical contributions from any quarter. Each organisation ought to be able to make customisable local versions of the core stuff if needs be.

I don’t massively care if it’s WordPress or something else. What Corp webbies want is something that’s cost effective, stable, easy to use and customisable with code snippets and widgets. It could be a hotrodded version of an existing CMS or built on a framework – Symfony anyone?

It won’t work if we get bogged down in change control boards and endless paperwork. It should work if we all want best practice and are happy to chip in to reach a common goal.

Just think…

Re-launches could be a thing of the past. Who needs them when the platform(s) and widgets are constantly upgrading?

Convergence headaches would magically vanish too. You don’t want to converge with us? Well, how about converging with In fact, why not converge all sub sites with – it’s MoG proof.

The good doctor talked about the tyranny of moving content from one CMS to another following a MoG change. Well, what if that move involved leaving the pages and files where they are and simply re-tagging a few sections. We could re-tag a policy section in 5 mins.

If this is tyranny, bring it on. Less time shovelling links, more time concentrating on effective communications.

Before anyone says it, I’m not advocating one monolithic dinosaur of a CMS but rather common or one tech to save us all a lot of time. It needs decent data in/ out as I’m sure off platform work will continue to thrive – exactly as it needs to.

Hope this makes sense and hasn’t put people’s backs up too much.There are some sketches to go with this if I ever finish them.

That’s an interesting list of ideas, some of which I’d like to see in non-gov systems as well. When scoping a CMS, how hard is it to get past the vendors claims and get real-world feedback from technical and non-technical users? I’d love to see some transparency in user case scenarios rather than a list of capabilities.

As ever a provocative and well informed post. I do not know much about CMS and I rather frightened of these beasts. My ideal CMS would have something of the spirit of Tumblr and Posterous. A CMS should enable you to get content out with minimum hassle. Also CMS should not only publish content to websites but also to ‘social media’. In a small way Hootsuite kind of acts like a CMS for social media.

Dare I suggest that some of these features are (or at least should be) met by the government super-sites? And that consequently the way to meet your requirements is to converge onto a single CMS platform rather than attempt to standardise multiple products? Some degree of tongue in cheek there, clearly…
I think a lot still boils down to needing a better communications about what WCMS are meant to do and a better way to procure and implement them. As my post suggests, that’s not just a problem for government.

I just voted up the idea of auto-suggesting tags.

Glad to see IPSV is mentioned, but the real power in IPSV is in its contained “non-preferred terms” ( or “plain english to IPSV mappings” as I prefer to think of them).

There are links from my post to the site, where they are trying to orchestrate and formally document requirements and eventually solutions to problems such as “semantic lifting” (term extraction).

I also concur with the remark that Posterous and Tumblr-like tools could have some role to play, but then again I am bit of an extremist in that I think in principle all your images should be on Flickr – all your CMS should do is manage the relationship with your user(s) and Flickr.

Is there a place for such a “Federated content management” tool, it all boils down to what you understand as being content.

I send an email to posterous, and it ends up on my website as a new article.
I take a photo with my phone and it gets sent to Flickr (via posterous, haven’t tested this personally)
I tweet something with a #tag and it ends up on my website as a flash-info news ticker.
I enter something into my Tumblr account and it ends up on my website as a new FAQ.

This is me perhaps making the incorrect assumption that in this discussion by CMS you mean a WCMS.

I personally dont like the idea but it might be that a Federated Web CMS is a layer that can be constructed atop of your existing CMS with the right hooks.

[...] Fantasy CMS for government – "Vendors should be mindful of the power they yield, for as long as they still yield it." [...]

I’ve just voted for ‘User friendly publishing’ feature that should include an ability to add the unlimited number of pages, quick image upload, ability to write meta data, alt and title for images
+ convenient WYSIWYG editor
+ preview and publish on the fly

I’m not sure if you mentioned “Infomodule” in your Feature list, but it would be a nice addition to a website. Your visitors will be well informed as soon as they enter your website.

(If you’re averse to my usual WordPress propaganda, look away now.)

I left a comment on David Pullinger’s piece: ‘ask not what open source can do for you, ask what you can do for open source.’ The real beauty of the open source concept is that if you can’t find a tool that’s perfect, you’re entirely within your rights to take the one that comes closest, and built upon it, to make it your perfect tool.

We collectively, and BIS specifically, have built considerable momentum behind WordPress. I’d suggest it’s the platform which comes closest to what most people would want. Sure, it isn’t designed to be a large-scale content management system. But it is designed to be enhanced, forked and cloned beyond recognition, if you so desire. And the GPL licence says you’re free to do so.

Just because you haven’t seen something done on WordPress, just because there isn’t an ‘off the shelf’ plugin already in existence, doesn’t mean it isn’t easily done: the last couple of versions have added significant ‘under the hood’ functionality with huge potential, and there’s more due in a month or two. You won’t have seen these possibilities if you’re just writing blog posts into a fairly basic installation. But they’re there, and they’re often remarkably easy to activate and build upon.

There aren’t many of your killer features which couldn’t be done relatively easily, relatively quickly and relatively cheaply – with a custom theme framework, a few plugins, a bit of experimentation, and the right people.

@Will and @Simon – makes absolute sense to me. It needn’t be *just* WordPress (or just Puffbox!) – I’m all for choice in the marketplace. But I’m also all for tools that are easy to work with, build upon, feed back into the pot so there’s less duplication and reinvention; and with more coherence and consistency than we have now for both design and content. Making that happen goes some way above my pay grade, of course, but suffice to say the idea of it excites me personally.

@Will, definitely keen to see your sketches and remember you’re more than welcome to guest blog them here!

@John, Andy – ah yes, the sales folk. Not that they’re dishonest: most platforms *can* do all the things you want; it’s the amount of effort involved in implementation that’s the issue. And usability, usability, usability. Too easy to focus on features and forget the poor folk who have to use the back end.

@paulG – yes I mean WCMS throughout. Agree re IPSV. Not sure I agree about Flickr being all that important! But get the point about thinking differently about content.

@Phillippe – actually, this sort of consolidation is happening now through the website reviews (aka rationalisation and convergence) led by @digigov. Great strides being made there, by no means baby steps.

Thanks everyone for the comments, votes and ideas. Keep them coming.

[...] platform. It’s not quite my fantasy CMS but it’s the best I’ve yet seen of its class. We ran a tough competition, won by a worthy [...]

One thing that is sorely missing in CMS systems is backward-compatibility requirements for upgrades. Too many things break with each new update, even minor updates. With a CMS with addons/plugins, users are wary to update because they know that their systems will have a good chance of not working properly afterwards. If only a CMS could have rules that new updates could modify the code of addons/plugins in order to make them work afterwards.

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