Co-created with Nathan Vexler, Trainer at Evolving Web with 9 years of Government of Canada/Higher Education developer experience.

The domain is home to the subdomains and websites of hundreds of Canadian government departments and agencies. While each has its own function, they're all joined in their mission to inform and serve the people of Canada.

Despite this unity, these websites face major challenges in sharing information with the public:

  • Different information architecture and content types on each website results in a confusing user experience.
  • Siloed workflows slow down content publication and promotion.
  • Use of different content management systems hampers integration between websites and departments.
  • Lack of structured metadata makes content meaningless to other systems, resulting in missed opportunities to reach the public.
  • Ensuring that content is fully accessible and translated in both official languages.

Implementing a standardized content model and the methodical selection and configuration of a CMS can help overcome these issues. In a recent webinar, my fellow Drupalist Nathan Vexler and I looked at how Drupal—and the Drupal WxT distribution of Drupal in particular—is an ideal tool for Government of Canada websites. In this article, we'll present some takeaways from the webinar. If you prefer to watch the full video, you can access it here.

Leveraging Key Modern CMS Capabilities

Content creation and management practices vary across Government of Canada (GoC) departments and agencies. While some have implemented modern conventions like structured content, rich metadata, and efficient workflows, others are lagging.

Even where fully-featured CMSs are implemented, day-to-day publishing often relies on barebones practices, with copy-and-paste HTML blobs and manually-created teasers and snippets. This reality turns publishers into mere CMS gatekeepers and creates bottlenecks in the publishing process.

This doesn't work for end-users, either. Stretched content resources result in content publishing lags, uncorrected errors, and frustrating searches through inconsistent and often obsolete content. And department-by-department content models and presentation standards create a disjointed and disorienting experience for general audiences.

Alleviate Key Challenges with Modern Content Practices

Fortunately, modern content practices can alleviate some critical challenges in managing vast amounts of timely content across large organizations serving large and diverse audiences. Content management best practices include:

  • Efficient and effective workflows with smart permissions and automation reduce demands on stretched resources.
  • Structured content, automated listings, contextual presentation, and faceted searches allow end-users to find what they need.
  • Standardized content models allow end-users to have a cohesive and predictable experience and allow the implementation of modern service, search, and distribution tools.

Now comes the good part: many GoC sites are already on CMS platforms, such as Drupal, that have the tools to apply these practices.

Enter Drupal WxT: a Toolbox for GoC Websites

Drupal WxT is a distribution of Drupal, meaning that it's a version of Drupal which comes already configured with a few content types and views, mobile navigation, languages, a language switcher, and out-of-the-box responsiveness and accessibility. It relies on the Web Experience Toolkit/Boîte à outils de l'expérience Web (WET-BOEW), which conforms to WCAG guidelines and supports the implementation of the GCWeb theme standard.

Drupal offers full multilingual support, which is critical for GoC websites that need to be presented in English and French. The Drupal WxT distribution is already configured to manage content in both languages, and includes a theme that offers accessibility and responsive support. The distribution comes with a suite of optional extensions, and additional enhancements are available via Drupal's ecosystem of contributed modules. Drupal WxT is open source and free to any organization that wishes to use it. That said, some departments decide to selectively choose particular components (e.g. the theme) of the distribution to use.

While Drupal WxT provides some content structure, the number of content types it provides out-of-the-box is quite limited, meaning that individual sites then have to define their own content types.

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Structured Content Unlocks the Benefits of the Modern CMS

One of Drupal's greatest strengths is its structured content. Custom content types with predefined fields allow publishers to create rich content and metadata. Rather than simply storing content as blobs of HTML, we can store individual fields that give us more control over the accessibility, formatting, and consistency of the content output. If we want to move past the limitations of unstructured content, we should change how we think about our content.

For example, if you're following a structured content methodology, Video content in Drupal isn't stored as a page with a video on it. Instead, we create a Video content type that defines its properties via specific fields. A Video content type definition might include:

  • Title
  • Release date
  • Video (remote link or local file)
  • Keyframe/thumbnail
  • Transcript
  • Description

A well-defined Video content type contains all the information needed for the individual Video display pages, the landing page teasers, promotional blocks, and other uses. When information on the Video node is updated, all the places where videos are displayed also automatically display the up-to-date information. Drupal uses the correct display settings according to the context. If we decide to change a setting in the display of the video player, we can do that across the website with one change to Drupal.

The power of content types is amplified by the core Views module. Views provides a user interface to define how lists of content should be presented and the criteria for what content they display. That may sound basic, but you can configure these lists at a very granular level based on fields, content relationships, and a broad selection of conditions to define when and how content should display.

Using tools like Content Types and Views to structure the storage and presentation of content transforms the whole content publishing process. Let's compare the two approaches:

Content stored in an HTML field

  • Only web publishers can enter content into CMS
  • Content entry requires knowing how to write HTML
  • Presentation is prone to inconsistency
  • Content is vaguely defined and difficult to search
  • Bottleneck: web publishers

Structured content using Content Types and Views

  • Anyone in the organization can enter content into the CMS
  • Forms make it easy for subject matter experts to enter content
  • Presentation standards are automatically enforced
  • Content is clearly defined, faceted, and searchable
  • Web publishers focus on auditing and managing content

Why Migrating to a Structured Content Model Is Worth the Effort

Given all the benefits, you might wonder why not all websites adopt a more structured content model. The answer often comes down to the amount of legacy content that so many GoC websites have to support. The fact is that migrating from free-form HTML blobs to more structured fields and metadata requires either time-consuming manual work or automation that requires technical expertise and careful planning and testing--or a combination of both. It also does more to disrupt the content editor experience, since it fundamentally transforms how content is managed.

However, migrating unstructured content to structured content also provides an opportunity for improvements. It's a chance to automate improvements to content accessibility and adherence to WxT, as well as the benefits of structured content listed above. These improvements go hand-in-hand with the content validation and control that structured content types offer.

Standardized Content Models Create Powerful Experiences

It's intuitive to focus on standardizing components across a network of sites. Platforms like the Drupal WxT distribution have the power to do just that. There's definitely an opportunity for the GoC and its participating communities to standardize more content types to allow for greater portability and consistency between GoC websites.

While government departments often need autonomy over particular types of content, sharing the content model for common content types has huge benefits across the board. A standardized content model means that we can build a confederated search experience with a search engine like Apache Solr. And modern service technologies like chatbots and voice search are made possible by standardizing key content types like videos, job postings, and news items.