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Helping the local government on a budget

Introduction

Code Enigma assisted Oxford City Council in launching a new intranet built in Drupal. The Council issued an RFP for a Drupal-based intranet. We thought the proposed budget was unrealistic. So we suggested we mentor the in-house team of two developers. This way, they could build the intranet with our guidance.

 

It was the first time Oxford Council had:

  • Worked with open source

  • Built a web application in-house

  • Used Linux servers

  • Carried out user requirements gathering with an Agile approach

It was a big ask!

User requirements gathering produced a backlog of desired features. Many of these related to flaws in the existing, outmoded system. Such as finding and organising content.

 

The mentoring approach

Oxfam (also based in Oxford) was invited to demonstrate their Drupal intranet. We wanted to stimulate thinking about features.

 

The key features chosen were:

  • An effective staff directory, integrated with Active Directory and the backend personnel system

  • A decentralised content authoring and workflow system

 

These addressed problems with the old system. Finding the right person and outdated content due to editorial bottlenecks. Drupal enabled them to build exactly the staff directory to reflect team organisation. On editorial workflow, they took the approach of letting anyone edit content.

 

Other features included:

  • The media module with some custom views to search for images by tags

  • A simple document management system

  • Web forms

 

The team also focused on making improvements to make editing as painless as possible.

So, Oxford Council then had a working intranet they built themselves in Drupal. Problem-solving is the essence of being a Drupal developer! So it was reassuring that the team felt confident, as a result of the mentoring model.

They explained that rather than provide a solution, our developer outlined options. Neil Lawrence, Project Manager, enjoyed the way we applied Agile. Particularly, our use of standardised documentation, scrum diaries and task breakdowns for features or stories.

There were some hurdles with this project. Neil acknowledged the budget was unrealistic. Admittedly, it had been set before proper requirements gathering. There could’ve been more up-front consultancy to investigate challenges like data migration. That chimes with our experience. Cutting down on initial consultancy and discovery work is always a false economy.

The team didn't factor in needing to have a Linux server within a walled garden hosting environment that can't be externally accessed. Making it impossible for us to assist remotely.

Also, there was a false start caused by using the Drupal commons distribution. This was done on the false assumption that this might cut down on design work. Stripping out unwanted features took longer than building from scratch.

Overcoming these problems delayed the project, and this could’ve been prevented. But, hindsight is a beautiful thing. The Council accepted this. Mainly because it was transparent why it had happened and they owned the timetable.

 

The project sponsor's view

We continued this discussion with project sponsor, Jane Lubbock. She felt the project provided a great opportunity to learn open source. Especially what's possible with a powerful framework like Drupal. She thought it would be basic, so the sophistication was a surprise. She thought working with an agency would be useful for access to design skills and CMS knowledge that would be difficult to achieve in-house.

 

Outcomes

Looking back, it’s a great reminder of the value of Drupal as a tool. It enables committed site builders to produce sophisticated websites without in-depth code knowledge.

The smart move would have been to avoid this project. The budget was too low and the expectations too high. We didn't.

We thought we could achieve something on a tight budget. There was a risk where they might’ve liked the idea of collaborating but insisted on delivery of an impossible specification. The fact that didn't happen is a tribute to a brave project manager, backed by supportive managers.

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