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Leveraging Drupal for Enhanced Local Government Portals

Photo: Saaremaa vald
Photo: Saaremaa vald

I am Ivo Nellis, the Chief Technology Officer at ADM. With an extensive background in information technology and a Master of Science (MSc) from Tallinn University of Technology, I have spent over a decade leading our teams in developing cutting-edge solutions. My journey has allowed me to specialize in a variety of technologies, including Node.js, AngularJS, MongoDB, and notably, Drupal. This post delves into a recent project where we leveraged Drupal to build new local government portals, showcasing our commitment to innovation, efficiency, and security.

Transforming Local Government Digital Infrastructure

The genesis of the project was to create a unified and modern web platform for Estonian local governments, ensuring a consistent level of information services, positive user experience for citizens, and technical sustainability. With the outdated Liferay platform, our challenge was to develop a solution that could be quickly deployed, cater to all local governments’ unique needs, and offer a significant upgrade in terms of technical capabilities and user experience.

Our client, the Estonian Association of Cities and Municipalities (ELVL), faced the challenge of finding a solution that would suit the majority of local government entities. The diversity in requirements and the need for a cost-effective solution added layers of complexity to the project. Our objective was not just to build a website but to create a comprehensive service platform that local governments could rely on for their digital presence.

The Role of Eesti Linnade ja Valdade Liit in Local Governance

In the landscape of Estonian governance, the Eesti Linnade ja Valdade Liit (Estonian Association of Cities and Municipalities) plays a pivotal role. The union’s primary mission is to represent and protect the interests of its members both within the country and on the global stage.

The scope of the Association’s activities spans the entire organization of local governments, from budgeting to international relations. Estonia’s local government system is comprised of 79 municipalities, which include 15 cities and 64 parishes. These local authorities independently decide and manage issues pertaining to local life. Regardless of their size, all municipalities across Estonia are tasked with fulfilling the same duties and providing similar services to their residents.

This comprehensive framework ensures that, regardless of the municipality’s size, every citizen has access to uniform services and governance. The Eesti Linnade ja Valdade Liit’s involvement in our project underscores the importance of creating a digital solution that not only meets the diverse needs of these municipalities but also aligns with the overarching goals of national cohesion, efficiency, and accessibility in public service delivery.

Understanding Drupal as the Backbone of Our Solution

Before we delve deeper into the specifics of our project, it is essential to understand what Drupal is and why it is particularly suited for projects like the Local Government Portal. Drupal is an open-source content management system (CMS) known for its flexibility, robust security features, and extensive customization capabilities. Its modular architecture allows developers to build complex websites and applications that can easily scale to meet the demands of any organization.

Why Drupal for Government Portal?

  • Security: Drupal’s core is designed with rigorous security standards, making it a preferred choice for government websites where data protection and security are important.
  • Flexibility: The ability to customize and extend Drupal with thousands of modules means that we can tailor the solution to meet the unique needs of each local government.
  • Scalability: Whether serving a small community or a bustling city, Drupal platforms can handle high traffic volumes and complex content structures without compromising performance.
  • Community Support: With a global community of developers contributing to its development, Drupal stays at the forefront of technology, ensuring that government portals remain up-to-date and secure.

The Government Portal project required a platform that was secure, scalable, and customizable, and Drupal’s features matched these requirements well. Drupal was a perfect fit because it would allow the portal to grow and change over time, incorporating new features and meeting the varying needs. This flexibility, along with Drupal’s established reputation in the public sector, made it the best choice.

Background of Valitsusportaal as the foundation of Local Government Portal

The Valitsusportaal (Government Portal), based on Drupal, serves as a cornerstone in Estonia’s digital governance infrastructure, providing a unified face to the State Chancellery, ministries, and numerous other government institutions. It sets out specific guidelines for how information should be presented, ensuring consistency, accessibility, and user-friendliness across all government web pages.

Core Principles of Government Portal 2.0:

  • Lean and Efficient: The website is designed to be lightweight, with information that is easy to find and use. This approach prioritizes the user’s ability to quickly locate the information they need without navigating through unnecessary content.
  • Accessible to All: Government Portal ensures fair treatment for all visitors by adhering to WCAG 2.0 AA standards, making the portal accessible to users with disabilities. This commitment to accessibility underscores Estonia’s dedication to inclusive digital governance.
  • Modern Visual Design: The portal’s visual design is bright, modern, and correct, reflecting the government’s commitment to presenting information in a user-friendly and appealing manner.
  • Device Agnostic: The design and development of the portal ensure that it is fully usable on all devices, acknowledging the varied ways users access information in today’s mobile-first world.
  • No Information Duplication: In Government Portal, information is not duplicated. Instead, references are made to the original sources, ensuring users always have access to the most current and authoritative content.
  • Simplified Content Management: The administrative solution behind the portal is straightforward, supporting content editors in their role and making it easy to maintain and update the site.
  • Collective Development and Management: The development and management of Government Portal are a collaborative effort, involving contributions from various government entities. This collaborative approach ensures that the portal evolves to meet the changing needs of its users and the government.

The Government Portal principles of accessibility, modern design, and user-centred information presentation have been foundational in the development of the Local Government Portal project. By adopting and adapting these principles, the project extends the ethos of Government Portal to local government levels, providing a cohesive and integrated user experience across Estonia’s digital governance platforms.

Overview of the Drupal Implementation Process for the Local Government Portal

The development and implementation of the Local Government Portal on Drupal involved a comprehensive process that underscores the collaborative and systematic approach to project management and execution.

Here’s an overview of the key steps in the process:

  • Kick-off and Steering Committee Meeting: The project began with a steering committee meeting, where partners were introduced, tasks were distributed, a project timeline was provided, and the committee’s roles and expectations were clarified.
  • Interviews with Pilot Local Governments: Interviews were conducted with the local governments participating in the pilot project (Saue municipality, Elva municipality, Jõgeva municipality, Saaremaa municipality, Kose municipality) to gather requirements and understand their specific needs.
  • Clickable Prototype Design: A clickable prototype of the user interface design was created, validated, and approved with ten end-users and the procurement entity, ensuring that the design met user expectations and project requirements.
  • Business Panel Meeting: A meeting was held to present the project goals, participants, implementation plan, and to showcase the developed prototype’s UX/UI aspects, fostering a shared understanding and alignment among stakeholders.
  • Specification and Analysis: An in-depth analysis was conducted, and a specification document was prepared for the development work, laying the foundation for the technical aspects of the project.
  • Hosting Options Analysis: The team explored hosting options in the State Cloud, ADM’s Cloudtech, etc., to identify the most suitable infrastructure for the project.
  • Development Work: Necessary development work was carried out to build the platform’s functionality, adhering to the specifications and ensuring a robust and scalable solution.
  • Hosting Solution Creation: A hosting solution was created on the Government Portal infrastructure by RMIT, tailored to the project’s needs and ensuring a secure and reliable environment for the portal.
  • Application Deployment: The application was deployed on the infrastructure provided by RMIT for the ELVL and all participating municipalities (Saue, Elva, Jõgeva, Saaremaa, Kose), setting up individual environments for each entity.
  • User Interface Testing: End-users were involved in testing the user interface, ensuring that the portal was intuitive, user-friendly, and met the project’s usability goals.
  • Documentation and Refinements: Necessary documentation was prepared, and refinements were made based on the testing feedback, ensuring that all project deliverables were comprehensive and user centric.
  • Issue Resolution and Further Development Needs: Problems identified during testing were resolved, and additional development needs were compiled, setting the stage for continuous improvement and future enhancements.

This process highlights the project’s collaborative nature, the emphasis on user-centric design, and the strategic approach to development and implementation. It showcases how leveraging Drupal, combined with a well-structured project management approach, can result in a successful digital solution for government entities.

Enhanced Functionalities of the Portal

The new functionalities added to the portal enable local governments to personalize and modernize their web presence significantly. Here’s a breakdown of these enhancements:

  • Service Description Management: Creation of a module for local governments to manage and display their services in a standardized format, allowing citizens to easily access service information.
  • Advanced Web Form Solutions: Improvement of the web forms system includes features like converting web forms to PDFs, digital signing, and integrating e-form solutions with external systems (for example x-road). These additions streamline the process of form submission and handling, making it more user-friendly and efficient.
  • Dynamic Content Types: The development of a new dynamic for creating various lists of content types, such as council meetings and detailed planning documents. This feature allows for a more organized and accessible way to display information pertinent to municipal governance.
  • Contact Information Management: A new system for entering, managing, and standardizing the display of contact information for local government institutions, linked with open data portals. This ensures that contact details are always up-to-date and readily available to the public.
  • Event Calendar Enhancements: The event calendar has been improved to allow for the display and grouping of events, such as cultural activities, sports, meetings, and exhibitions. This categorization enhances the user experience by making it easier to find events of interest.
  • GIS Mapping Capability: Introduction of a simple GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping capability that enables the display of maps in different sections of the website. This feature is particularly useful for users to locate services, events, or facilities within the municipality.

Each of these enhancements is geared towards providing a more personalized and user-centric experience on the Local Government Portal.

Navigating Challenges

One of the primary challenges was the hosting solution, which needed to be both scalable and financially viable. Initial discussions with various service providers did not yield a feasible plan. However, by leveraging our strong partnerships and deep understanding of public sector needs, we were able to guide the ELVL towards a solution that RMIT (Information Technology Center of the Ministry of Finance) ultimately provided. In Estonia, RMIT´s role is to offers information and communication technology development and management services mainly to institutions under the ministry’s governance area.

Our team’s proficiency in Drupal was instrumental in this project. Having developed the Government Portal’s platform, we were equipped with valuable insights and the ability to extend its functionality to meet the new requirements. This expertise, combined with our dedication to service design and digital media, enabled us to address the project’s technical and user experience challenges effectively.

Delivering Impactful Results

The project culminated in the successful launch of the first five pilot local government websites, setting a precedent for future additions. This solution not only streamlines the process for local governments to establish their online presence but also eliminates the need for substantial IT investments on their part. The platform’s cost-effectiveness, coupled with its advanced functionality and security features, represents a significant advancement over previous solutions.

Lessons Learned and Future Directions

This project underscored the complexity of developing a centralized platform that satisfies a diverse clientele. The collaborative approach with the client and other partners was crucial in navigating these challenges.

Looking forward, this case study serves as a potential model for other countries seeking to implement similar platforms for local governments. The scalability and adaptability of the Drupal platform suggest a promising avenue for expanding digital governance solutions worldwide.

For an IT manager considering Drupal as the foundation for a platform where multiple sites are needed, there are several key takeaways from our case study that underscore why Drupal stands out as a highly suitable option:

  • Security and Compliance: Drupal’s robust security framework makes it an ideal choice for government and enterprise-level projects where data protection and compliance with regulations are paramount. Its proactive security team and community-contributed modules ensure that security is always at the forefront.
  • Scalability and Performance: Drupal’s ability to handle high traffic volumes and complex content structures without compromising performance is a critical factor for entities managing multiple sites. Its scalability ensures that as your needs grow, Drupal can grow with you, accommodating more sites, users, and content seamlessly.
  • Customization and Flexibility: The modular nature of Drupal allows for extensive customization, enabling to tailor the CMS to the specific needs of each site within their entity. This flexibility is vital for entities with diverse requirements across different sites.
  • Community Support and Innovation: Being open-source, Drupal benefits from a global community of developers who contribute to its continuous improvement. This means access to a wide range of modules and themes to enhance your sites, as well as support from a vibrant community for troubleshooting and innovation.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Drupal’s open-source model offers a cost-effective solution for entities looking to deploy multiple sites. While there are costs associated with development, hosting, and maintenance, the lack of licensing fees makes it an attractive option for entities with budget constraints.
  • Unified Platform for Diverse Sites: Drupal’s multisite capabilities allow to run and manage multiple sites from a single codebase. This can significantly reduce the overhead associated with managing separate sites, streamline the deployment of updates, and ensure consistency across the digital ecosystem.
  • Content Management and User Experience: Drupal’s sophisticated content management features support a wide range of content types and user roles, enabling entities to deliver rich, personalized experiences to their audience across all sites. The ability to manage and share content across multiple sites from a central platform enhances operational efficiency and coherence in messaging.

Clients’ perspective

“Finding a solution for a new website platform for local governments was an inspiring yet challenging task for ELVL.

The project involved multiple parties, so smooth cooperation with various partners was crucial. ADM played a vital role in the project’s success, offering versatile and professional solutions and ensuring timely execution of the work.

Thank you to your team for helping elevate the web as the primary channel for information transmission for municipalities to a more user-centric level!”

Katrin Rajamäe-Soosaar
ICT advisor

Conclusion

As we reflect on this project, our journey was about more than just deploying a new technology. It was about forging partnerships, pushing the boundaries of digital governance, and delivering solutions that make a tangible difference in the lives of citizens. At ADM, we are proud to contribute to such transformative projects, and we look forward to continuing our mission of delivering exceptional digital experiences.

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