Take the pain out of website management

Here’s why the Obama administration’s new digital strategy directs agencies to adopt a content management system sooner rather than later.

The Commerce Department has found a lot to like about Web content management systems. By using a standard open-source platform called Drupal to produce and deliver digital information, the department can offer more citizen-friendly websites with much less effort and upkeep.

“For content producers, a CMS improves efficiency, lowers the skill level needed to update the website, improves conformity to Section 508 and other usability items, and moves us toward the data-first future,” said Mike Kruger, director of digital strategy at Commerce.

But the department doesn’t have a lot of company. The Obama administration’s Digital Government Strategy launched in May notes that fewer than 60 percent of agencies have CMS solutions in place. And even fewer agencies — about one-third — have standardized Web policies and procedures.

“An uncoordinated approach at some agencies has resulted in the development and maintenance of dozens — in some cases hundreds — of separate websites and supporting infrastructure, and application of varying degrees of quality and fiscal control to these resources,” states the strategy document “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People.”

Part of the solution is to reduce the number of duplicative federal websites, which is a source of frustration for people who are searching for government information and services. The White House’s plan also directs agencies to phase out the use of custom-built technology and better coordinate their Web management activities with centralized processes and systems.

However, roadblocks to CMS adoption include resource constraints and the need to get content managers up to speed on the new Web publishing approach. Standardizing on a CMS is not a cure-all, but it can give agencies a common platform that offers more support for workflow improvements, greater administrative efficiency and, ultimately, more effective services to the public.

Why it matters

Agencies running websites with thousands of pages need an automated system to stay on top of all that content.

However, “if you are a federal Web manager with a small site with 12 pages, you can do that by hand,” said Don Bruns, managing director of the federal practice at NavigationArts, a consulting firm that specializes in Web design and development. “If you have hundreds or thousands of pages — like most agencies do — you need tools, technologies and processes in place to support that ecosystem of content and to regulate it.”

Furthermore, a CMS can also help agencies keep pace with the array of mobile devices that people use to access data and the various channels through which they receive it — a traditional website, a mobile website or a social media outlet, for example.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ AIDS.gov website uses Percussion’s Web Content Management software to support its multifaceted strategy, which includes a mobile channel that has become particularly important. In 2010, the site’s mobile visitors represented about 2.5 percent of overall traffic, said Jeremy Vanderlan, a technical specialist at ICF International who serves as technical lead for AIDS.gov. By June 2012, that slice had grown to about 25 percent of traffic.

Agencies without a CMS would need to create two versions of the same content to publish it in one instance to a conventional website and in another to a site designed for users who access it via small-screen mobile devices.

A CMS lets organizations create content once, house it centrally, and then distribute it to an array of devices and through multiple channels. The approach is referred to as create once, publish everywhere (COPE), and this is where content management intersects with the digital strategy, which specifically references COPE. A CMS enables organizations to separate data from the presentation layer, thereby providing the flexibility to deal with the rapidly evolving ways users wish to consume government data.

Kruger said a centralized approach to content management aligns well with the digital strategy’s information-centric approach. “CMS allows departments to easily adopt the COPE method of distribution,” he said. “In conjunction with responsive design, content published once can display on any screen an end user has.”

Whereas COPE encompasses Web content creation, management and presentation, responsive design focuses on the presentation phase. It aims to create Web pages that detect and adjust to the device the site visitor uses to view content. The technique employs flexible website layouts and images to accommodate myriad devices and therefore syncs with the “publish everywhere” theme of COPE.

The digital strategy’s emphasis on standards also dovetails with what agencies are doing with CMS-driven websites. The strategy states that an information-centric approach “ensures all agencies follow the same ‘rules of the road’ by using open standards.”

“A big thing that we push for is Web accessibility and forward compatibility,” said Ryan Celesnik, enterprise Web project manager at the Naval Supply Systems Command’s Business Systems Center. “The presentation layer can be a portal, a mobile device or any new device, and the content and data can be represented in a number of different ways using the standard core Web technology. If you understand those standards, you can make that happen.”

The command currently uses Oracle Portal 10g, which includes CMS technology from Stellent, a company Oracle acquired in 2006. Navy officials plan to migrate to Oracle’s WebCenter platform; one of its components is the Oracle WebCenter Content CMS.

The fundamentals

At the most basic level, a CMS automates the process of publishing and updating website content. In doing so, it provides a way for agencies to maintain a consistent Web presence. It also frees sites from flat HTML or static Web pages, which are difficult to update and subject to the whims of individual coders.

“CMS allows for uniform display of content and ensures browser compatibility,” Kruger said. “Under a flat-HTML system, each page is hand coded with differing codes used by different coders. This leads to pages displaying differently or using different code for similar content.” It also makes sitewide changes to design or navigation extremely difficult and prone to errors.

By contrast, a CMS separates content from presentation. The content for each page is stored in a database while the code that determines the site’s design and operations resides elsewhere on the Web server. That approach not only helps with consistency but also makes it possible to move, sort and re-order content with relative ease.

Because of that consistency and flexibility, a CMS can contribute to Web governance — the practice of establishing common Web policies, design principles and performance metrics. However, the government’s State of the Federal Web Report noted that only about a third of agencies have standardized Web policies and procedures.

“Accountability and governance are really huge topics right now for federal Web managers,” Bruns said. “Having a CMS provides a technology framework for those managers to adhere to those governance policies.”

Agencies ready to explore CMS technology have a lot of ground to cover. Dustin Collis, technology solutions partner at NavigationArts, said the current market features about 1,500 products. There are many ways to slice and dice it, but Real Story Group, a research and advisory firm focused on content technology, divides the market into products and platforms. According to the firm, CMS tools in the product category can be set up more quickly than those of the platform variety, but they lack the latter group’s long-term flexibility. Meanwhile, platform-oriented systems are more powerful but require more development time and resources.

Real Story Group puts vendors Joomla and WordPress in the product category and considers CMS providers Adobe Systems, Drupal, Oracle, Percussion and Sitecore to be members of the platform segment.

The hurdles

Although a CMS can bring substantial benefits, financial, technical and organizational challenges can impede adoption.

On the money side, agencies might lack the budget for a CMS rollout. An open-source system can eliminate software-licensing costs but not the investment in planning, configuration and deployment. And once the system is in place, an agency must dedicate staff to maintain it. That is particularly challenging for smaller agencies, where the task of running a site is no one’s core mission.

“Most departments don’t have a Web team,” Collis said. “It is really hard to even deploy a CMS but to provide governance and upkeep? If you don’t have a Web team, it is hard to do that.”

Deciding where an agency’s CMS and website reside in the technical infrastructure can also present challenges. The AIDS.gov website was hosted in the same server environment as other HHS Web properties, but the arrangement limited the site’s ability to implement device detection and other features the team wanted to pursue, Vanderlan said.

In recent months, however, AIDS.gov has migrated from that shared environment to its own virtual server in the cloud. The move opened up more configuration options, such as dynamic loading of content from other websites, he added.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is getting site owners and content managers to change their ways. Migrating even a medium-size site to a new CMS is a complex and often painful process, filled with fears of broken links, deleted content or the loss of custom features. Early education and careful planning are critical to addressing those concerns and can also pay dividends as employees rethink how they manage content and learn how to make the most of the new technology.

Celesnik noted that the Naval Supply Systems Command stores a large amount of file-based content, including PowerPoint presentations and PDFs. “That’s all good, valuable content, but there’s probably a better way to represent the content to make it more findable and searchable and usable,” he said. “That is why we are doing our best to teach content managers. We can move things out of a more stagnant, stale format and into a more dynamic format so we can share across multiple environments and…devices.”

It’s a similar story at the Energy Department, which is now in its second round of consolidating sites onto a common Drupal platform. “There’s been a combination of attitudes,” Cammie Croft, senior adviser and director of the department’s Office of Digital Strategy and Communications, said of the effort, which has migrated 11 program offices to date and has seven more under way. “There are some who have been thrilled to be offered a solution that empowers their communicators…[but] there were certainly folks who were a little wary of what this would entail.”

The key to success is “working with them to show the results and the performance and what they can gain from it” while being willing to acknowledge that in some cases, the move doesn’t make sense. “Flexibility has been inherent in the project,” she said. “And managing relationships at all levels has been important.”

Next steps: Get the style but don’t forget the substance

Already have a content management system in place? It’s not time to relax yet. Government and industry executives have a few suggestions for what you should be doing next.

  • Institute a CMS regimen. A CMS is a useful tool, but it requires a governance structure and the discipline to maintain it. Lax management results in inconsistencies across websites and duplicated effort. Although a CMS has the potential to serve up fresh data with less effort, that won’t happen without the proper supporting workflows. Therefore, you should assign roles and responsibilities for managing and contributing to the CMS, and establish a standardized process for creating and publishing content.
  • Focus on metrics. A CMS helps standardize and improve the way your agency’s information is presented on the Web. The other half of the picture is providing content that is compelling and meets users’ needs. You should regularly assess visitor activity on your site; brief surveys are a good way to gain insight into the user’s perspective.
  • Consider syndication. Content syndication makes material available to other sites and allows offices to more easily share content and Web resources. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use the syndicated content approach with 700 registered partners in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and 15 countries. The setup accounted for an additional 1.2 million page views of CDC content in 2011.