How cloud, open source enable new digital experience government

Government agencies have been on the web since the 1990s, but today’s digital government strategies look very different. Far from the static sites of past years, great government sites today must be less agency-centric and more reflective of the needs of citizens and others. Sites need to be engaging, easy to navigate, available on any device and make it easier than ever for citizens, businesses and other stakeholders to access. Re-imagining digital for citizen engagement is a major investment, but the payoff is a more efficient, accessible and responsive government.

Many government agencies have yet to cross the chasm from ’90s-style web presence to modern era digital experiences. Federal agencies have an opportunity to lead by example, aided by the right strategies that help them move fast and be more responsive.

Dan Katz is the technical director for the public sector at Acquia.
Dan Katz is the technical director for the public sector at Acquia.

Digital strategies aren’t just about increasing user engagement; they’re opportunities to bring citizen services into a digital realm and gain long-term cost savings through delivering new, better, more cost effective services across digital channels. Managed cloud platforms and open source software are enabling agencies to meet user needs while providing substantial cost savings.

What is a managed cloud platform?

In the early days of the internet, running digital services on-premises was standard practice. Internal resources were dedicated to building the infrastructure, and then, running applications that ran the website and delivered limited services online. An on-premises solution is like buying all the ingredients and making a pizza from scratch in your kitchen — requiring you to put in the time and effort.

Today, service providers like Amazon Web Services are focused on offering infrastructure-as-a-service (often referred to as “cloud hosting”) to anyone looking to run cloud-based solutions. IaaS provisions the hardware; your team still needs to manage all the systems and software that run atop of it. Your IT team will also need to build the orchestration layer with features like security, monitoring and failover, DevOps tools, and a support team.

A complete solution requires a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), the next evolution of digital experience management. PaaS comes with the orchestration layer pre-built, and provides organizations with a software stack specifically designed to support digital experience delivery. It adds applications that automate key requirements for scale and security, including automated monitoring, security and DDoS protection, as well as hooks and prebuilt APIs for seamless integrations. The platform brings this all together, enabling your developers to work on strategic initiatives that improve services and allowing organizations to focus on the experience itself rather than the infrastructure behind it.

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Digital experience management requires much more agility than web management solutions of the past. PaaS environments today allow digital teams to focus on creating experiences that serve users and connecting all the systems required to power those experiences. So when you start evaluating providers, discover who is powering the experience platforms for agencies that are doing this well. Pick the vendors that understand the particular needs and challenges of federal agencies and are committed to public sector service. Governance requires constant diligence, and those providers that have established protocols around FedRAMP, ISO 27001 and other security and compliance protocols have made big investments to make their platforms ready for agency adoption. Set a plan for evaluating opportunities where a fully managed PaaS may bring welcome cost and productivity efficiencies.

Don’t forget:

  • When evaluating cloud options for your application, compare apples to apples. A PaaS solution like Acquia cloud provides a great deal more functionality, support and value than an IaaS only solution. Account for that by comparing the cost of PaaS solutions to other PaaS solutions, not to IaaS systems.
  • Ask potential PaaS vendors to provide access to their SSP, FedRAMP package or other proof of compliance. Just because they say they adhere to security standards doesn’t mean they do.

How to succeed with open source

Open source software is software that can be freely used, changed and shared by anyone. Because anyone can contribute to open source software (OSS), innovation is rewarded. Compare this approach to proprietary, closed-source software where the code and road map are controlled by a single organization.

OSS projects come in all shapes and sizes. Linux, Apache and Drupal are some of the largest and most successful communities. Drupal currently has more than 95,000 active contributors, 35,000 contributed projects and 1 million registered community members. The common themes that make OSS communities like Drupal so successful are diversity, transparency, openness and collaboration.

During the last 10 years, government adoption of open source software has skyrocketed. Agencies like Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Justice, and the State of New York have seen success engaging with citizens while also gaining internal efficiencies by using open source software to power their digital experiences. In addition, Drupal now powers nearly 40 percent of all U.S. government websites. The Australian federal government has decided to standardize on Drupal through their govCMS initiative. In governments around the world, “open by default” is becoming policy and mandate.

Here in the USA, through the work of the Obama administration and the establishment of Digital Services teams such as 18F and U.S. Digital Service (USDS), open source is recommended as a part of several memorandums and policies, including the CIO Playbook, a series of 13 best practices to help government build effective digital services. Recently, our federal government released a draft open source software policy. True to the spirit of open source collaboration, comments were collected via GitHub.

Open source initiatives abound in government, and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. If you’re not familiar with the White House’s action plan for Open Government, that’s where you should start. It details the initiatives that are driving open, citizen-centric government, and open source plays a role. Open source software brings together the collective innovation developer communities, and agencies that participate will set a course toward reimagining digital government initiatives. Attend a MeetUp or conference (Drupal GovCon happens in July), or follow companies such as RedHat, Phase2, and others that are helping government agencies succeed with open source.

Please remember:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Well-supported, mature open source solutions like Drupal are popular for a reason — they work! If a vendor or agency proposes a custom or gov-only solution, evaluate whether your requirements could be met by a proven open source product instead.
  • Decide who will implement and maintain your open source software. Yes, it’s free, but it’s like a free cat. You still need to pay for the food, the litter box and the vet visits. Work with your vendor to understand those costs and make the right decisions for your team.

Individually, both the cloud and open source software will help organizations find internal efficiencies and enable them to meet digital experience goals faster. However, the real benefit lies in combining the two approaches. For agencies to operate in the modern era on shoestring budgets, they need the managed PaaS in the cloud, and the flexibility and innovation of open source. Agencies that are able to do so successfully, like the Department of Justice, are emerging as leaders and paving the way for others to follow.

Dan Katz, technical director, public sector at Acquia, drives product strategy to help governments leverage Acquia’s digital solutions for increased citizen engagement, mission support and web operations.