Government websites have come a long way since the Clinton administration in the US launched the White House website July 1994—one of the first of its kind on the web in July 1994. Today’s government websites have to do it all for everyone within their jurisdiction, whether that’s a small town of 5,000 people or an entire country. They’re expected to serve as appealing digital front doors, offer a wide range of online services with the utmost efficiency, and provide an inclusive and accessible experience for all—as we saw in our recent blog post on the best government websites of 2023.
Governments are also expected to be responsible with the taxpayer dollars they spend on building and maintaining these websites. When a Government of Canada web overhaul ran over-budget by over $7 million in 2016, the media had a field day with the story.
It’s little surprise that many government websites struggle to keep up with the tall orders placed upon them. A whopping 80% of US federal agencies ranked “poor” or “very poor” compared with just 14% of private sector brands, according to Forrester’s 2019 US Federal Customer Experience Index. While COVID-19 helped accelerate the move towards e-government, the public sector still has a lot of catching up to do.
What Matters Most for Governments
Creating an optimal website for a municipality, region, or federal department means checking off a lot of boxes. Key priorities include:
- Flexibility – Government websites are expected to facilitate a wide range of public services. This helps reduce the burden on government employees, whether in person at offices or on phone lines.
- Scalability – Government websites need to be able to expand and evolve alongside the services that they provide access to.
- Accessibility – Governments are held to the world’s highest standards when it comes to web accessibility for people with disabilities. In a growing number of jurisdictions, compliance with WCAG 2.0 level AA and beyond is required by law.
- Security – Government websites are particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks, ranging from ransomware and data breaches to election security and unemployment fraud.
- Transparency – Governments are expected to be transparent in their use of public money for expenditures such as website development and maintenance.
The Popularity of Drupal for Government Websites
When it comes to government websites, Drupal is everywhere. As of 2021, roughly 56% of the world’s government websites used it. Several countries—including Australia, Estonia, France, Germany, India, and South Africa—house their central government portals on Drupal, while nearly every other national government uses it for at least some agencies. Whitehouse.gov famously lived on Drupal from 2009 to 2017, an early move by the Obama administration aimed at showing transparency.
Some of the other major jurisdictions on Drupal include London, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Buenos Aires, New York State, New South Wales, Western Australia, and Northern Ireland to name a few.
Among international bodies, 78 out of a total of 117 organizations within the United Nations and World Bank used Drupal as of November 2022, including un.org itself and the International Criminal Court.
Some 25% of all government websites in Canada now live on Drupal. These include the:
- Office of the Prime Minister
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
- Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)
- Open Data Canada
- Government of Ontario
Why Do Governments Choose Drupal?
There are many reasons for Drupal’s outsized presence globally among government websites. Here are a few of them.
1. Transparency and accountability
There are clear cost advantages to opting for an open-source CMS like Drupal versus a proprietary one, as highlighted by the Government of Canada’s expensive misadventure with Adobe Corp. While Drupal sites aren’t free to build, the costs are much easier to manage due to the lack of licence fees associated with the platform. This is especially true when expanded across dozens, if not hundreds, of government departments.
Drupal also makes cost management easier after the sites have been built. Prior to their consolidation under Canada.ca, the Government of Canada maintained a fleet of unique websites on different CMSs, making for complex and costly maintenance and upgrades. By contrast, Drupal makes it easy for government departments to share existing customizable website code and replicate designs, features, and functionality.
Furthermore, as an open-source platform, Drupal makes it relatively easy for organizations to migrate their sites to a different platform (in the unlikely event they want to!). This isn’t the case with proprietary platforms, whose customers have the choice of either sticking with the provider or starting again from scratch—as proved to be the case with Canada.ca and Adobe.
From a taxpayer accountability standpoint, the choice is clear—open source is the way to go.
2. Performance under pressure
How important is performance optimization? For high-traffic websites like many government sites are, immensely. In 2018 the BBC found it was losing some 10% of its audience for every extra second it took their site to load. For government websites, delays in loading mean frustrated constituents at best, and at worst can jeopardize the relaying of vital information.
Government websites may not be high traffic all the time, but they need to be ready to manage massive spikes in traffic.
- Federal revenue agencies are pushed to their limit at tax time.
- Disaster relief agencies must be ready for major surges in traffic at any time.
- National and regional health authorities were caught off guard during the pandemic.
Even small municipalities should have the digital capabilities to respond to an unexpected crisis—as we explained in our recent blog: Surviving Snowmageddon: Is Your Comms Strategy Emergency-Ready?
When it comes to performance under pressure, Drupal significantly outperforms other open source platforms such as WordPress. Drupal was created from the very beginning to be highly efficient and capable of managing heavy traffic loads. Drupal also has built-in caching and file aggregation mechanisms that allow site managers to speed up page loading time and save the data transfer.
There’s no truth to the widely held belief that proprietary websites are more secure than open-source ones, as we discussed in our recent open source myth-busting blog post. While open-source code is available to anyone, including bad actors, Drupal has a veritable army of contributors working behind the scenes to identify and patch up weaknesses in the platform’s armour.
Drupal’s popularity among government agencies attests to its peerless security. Drupal beats WordPress in its handling of complex security situations such as PCI compliance, which requires database encryption, while WordPress’ greater reliance on third-party extensions makes it more vulnerable. There’s also the simple fact that there are far more WordPress sites out there than Drupal sites, which means WordPress gets targeted more frequently than Drupal. Of course, it’s worth remembering that any CMS is a sitting duck when not properly updated.
A further advantage of Drupal for governments is its handling of sensitive data. WordPress is notably vulnerable in this area. It stores files in the /wp-content/uploads/[YEAR]/[MONTH] directory, meaning it’s fairly straightforward for someone with basic knowledge of WordPress (and a bit of luck) to gain unauthorized access to files. Drupal is much more secure in this regard: it only grants access to these types of files if the user has appropriate permissions.
According to a recent analysis, WordPress accounts for nearly three quarters (74%) of all hacked websites, while representing around 64% of the web. Drupal, by contrast, represents around 2% of all cyber attacks. Considering its share of over 10% of the top 10,000 sites, those are pretty good odds.
4. Flexibility and scalability
Another important need for government websites is an ability to adapt and expand alongside government services. Your site must be both flexible and scalable, whether you’re introducing a new bus pass system, rolling out pandemic protocols, amalgamating with a neighbouring municipality, or adding services in a new language.
The open-source model of Drupal means you’re never really stuck with what you’ve got. Its vast community of developers contributes to an ever-expanding library of plug-and-play-ready modules—nearly 50,000 as of mid-February 2023—meaning there’s very little Drupal can’t do. Meanwhile, the lack of licensing fees makes expanding your site significantly less costly than it would be on a proprietary platform.
Drupal is overall a more flexible platform than WordPress and thus a better option for deep customization. It offers a flexible and extensive taxonomy system that makes it better suited to handling large volumes of content. And it has built-in multi-language support—a must for many jurisdictions. Drupal is also more flexible than WordPress on the back end. With advanced user permissions for unlimited roles, it’s better suited to marketing and IT teams whose numbers are liable to expand.
Government services and personnel are forever adapting with the times, and you need a CMS that is similarly adaptable. Drupal is that CMS.
One of the inherent strengths of open source platforms like Drupal is their ongoing commitment to inclusivity and the diversity of their contributing communities. This has made open source platforms the major driving force behind web accessibility.
Proprietary vendors will get you to bare minimum level of accessibility—WCAG 2.0 AA for most government websites. But anything beyond that in terms of customization for web accessibility will quickly get very expensive. By contrast, Drupal is constantly introducing new accessible components that teams can easily use to expand their sites while ensuring accessibility throughout.
While Drupal isn’t inherently more accessible than any other platform, its customizability and the sheer volume of its contributed accessible modules make it the logical choice for governments.
Governments have been slower to embrace digital personalization than the private sector, but some have made noteworthy advances in this area. Personalization enables governments to foster 1:1 online relationships with citizens. And it helps site visitors navigate the enormous volume of information typically housed on government websites by promoting content that’s relevant to individual users.
When it comes to personalization, Drupal leaves all other open-source platforms in the dust. Its capacity for deep customization includes a range of built-in and contributed personalization modules. Meanwhile, its close partners at Acquia offer a cloud-based, Drupal-optimized personalization platform that provides state-of-the-art personalization across multiple channels.
Bonus for Canadian government agencies
If you’re a Canadian federal government agency—or simply want your website to have the look and feel of the Government of Canada—Drupal has you covered. The Web Experience Toolkit (WxT) is a version of Drupal tailored for the Canada.ca design system as well as other government sites, covering similar requirements regarding accessibility, usability, interoperability, and bilingualism.
For more information on how to install WxT and its many features, read our recent blog post on the subject.
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