Helping the local government on a budget

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 mentored the in-house team of two developers so that 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 and 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 to stimulate thinking about features.  The key features chosen were an effective staff directory, closely integrated with Active Directory and the backend personnel system, and 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 These addressed problems with the old system; finding the right person, and outdated content due to editorial bottlenecks.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 they needed to reflect how teams are organised in Oxford Council. On editorial workflow, they took the then radical 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, and web forms. The team also focused on making improvements to make editing as painless as possible.

So, Oxford Council now 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 James outlined options. Neil Lawrence, Project Manager, enjoyed the way we applied Agile using standardised documentation, scrum diaries, and detailed task breakdowns for each feature or story.

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

The team didn't factor in the need 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.

There was also a false start caused by using the Drupal commons distribution, 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, 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 and what's possible with a powerful framework like Drupal. She thought it would be fairly basic, but the sophistication was a surprise. She thought working with an agency would be useful for access to design skills and knowledge of CMS that would be difficult to achieve in-house.

The Result

Looking back, James said it’d been a great reminder of the value of Drupal as a tool that 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 big risk that guardians of public money might’ve liked the sound of a collaborative process, but still insisted on delivery of an impossible specification. The fact that didn't happen is a tribute to a brave project manager, backed by imaginative managers.

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