Often, local governments are drawn to open source software for the buildout of their websites with promises of unlimited freedom and flexibility, and the assurance that the open source route will save money by not requiring a long-term commitment to a vendor.
But what seems like independence all too often puts the responsibility of maintaining the entire site on the backs and shoulders of just a few code-knowledgable people, while the product support becomes nearly non-existent or so costly that the site becomes an expensive burden.
First off, a discussion must be had about what truly constitutes as open source. Open source is not simply a matter of a company providing their source code – rather, it is a philosophy that software is free, and a group of programmers are dedicated to sharing improvements they make in a given system that continues to be upgraded thanks to the work of the community.
Sure, some companies give their customers the source code. Then they tell them good luck and leave them to their own devices. If the client needs support, they either have to pay for the company to provide it through costly, unplanned bulk support charges, or they have to figure it out on their own, wasting time that could be best spent on other projects besides de-bugging website code.
If companies that provided their source code were truly open source, they would have the following:
- Free software – No one would have to pay for the CMS, and those communities capable of doing design and content themselves would be able to just download the latest version for free and implement it themselves. Open source is all about sharing ... for free.
- Constant upgrades – Linux is the classic example of open source software. It’s an operating system that no one has ever paid for, but it is always being upgraded and improved thanks to the contributions from the dedicated user community.
- Developer communities – Open source software is reliant on developers that continue to alter the software and send those changes and updates out to all other users.
And support is critical. Don’t be fooled into thinking it isn’t. As an example, let’s say you hack into Microsoft Word and modify it – you change the source code to suit your needs. That’s great, until something goes wrong and you need support. Microsoft will not support any version other than the pristine one that it released. The same is true for any other open source company – they won’t (and logistically couldn’t) provide support for altered versions. The caveat being: Unless you want to pay for it.
And let's be clear: There is always some kind of ongoing cost for maintenance and support. Nothing is ever truly free. The difference is whether that maintenance and support is planned for in advance (so budgets can be accurately defined and managed) or if it is spur-of-the-moment charges that spring up unexpectedly. If in-house staff manages the website support and maintenance, there is a cost for staff time.
Many local governments get attached to the idea of open source because they can change the very core of the code-base, altering the CMS itself. While this allows a lot of flexibility for programming staff, open source goes against one of the main purposes of a CMS – making website updating an easy process for everyone. Programmers may be more comfortable with an open source company’s approach in the short term because it’s attractive – a system they can have on their servers with no long-term commitment to the vendor and the ability to modify the source code. Long-term, they suffer because the support is lacking to non-existent, the system doesn’t get upgraded automatically and for free and, when they need to refresh the look of their site a few years down the road, they typically have to implement a whole new CMS version, not just get a different design.
Lastly, open source has a reputation for being difficult to use for average users, and implementations can become expensive, as new updates take up IT staff and programming time to put into place, taking away crucial time that could be best spent elsewhere besides updating website code.
For a critical look at the best-known implementation of an open source solution on a government website, you can read this article: http://www.slate.com/id/2233719. This article targets Drupal, but the idea is true and the issues remain across all open source solutions.
The benefits of a CivicPlus' Government Content Management System (GCMS™) with an eye towards Open Architecture
Simply put, CivicPlus' programming team has developed our Government Content Management System (GCMS™) over the last decade-plus to meet the specific and unique needs of local governments and their websites. The way a local government website is used and managed is entirely different than a restaurant or retail business website.
Local governments serve a different "clientele" (taxpayers), have different needs (transparency, for instance), and have different expectations placed on them (using their resources for the good of the community) than a business, and a local government website and the way it is managed should reflect this uniqueness.
In an effort to keep the core of our system unified across all clients, all 1,200+ of our customers are on the same version of the system that is upgraded for free every time there is an improvement made or an enhancement added, so there’s no need to support 10-year-old versions (which would be nearly impossible), roll out a dozen different releases of the same maintenance package, or waste client programming staff's time with trying to install new version updates themselves.
Our model saves our clients a lot of headaches and cost.
However, with APIs and the surface-level integrations, our rollouts don’t overwrite applications that are built outside of our system and plugged in as supplements. We keep a strong structure in the GCMS™ that CivicPlus' programming team maintains in order to provide consistent and reliable service, but we open up data structures, allow for API tie-ins and make surface-level integrations as straightforward as possible.
It’s this “open architecture” approach that lets local government IT staff and programmers spend time creating applications and systems that are specific to your community’s needs and tying them into the site, using the site itself as a sturdy platform on which to build. Maintaining the site’s code will fall on CivicPlus’ shoulders, saving you time, effort, and most importantly, money.
Not only that, but CivicPlus pumps millions of dollars back into the system to add new features and upgrade existing functionality. We’ve invested more than $8 million back into our product in the last decade, and our customers have automatically and effortlessly reaped the benefits of that dedication to product improvement.
It's all in an effort to make sure every single one of our customers is on the most advanced version of the system that we offer, that they're using a government content management system that has been developed specifically for local governments, and that they never had to pay extra to remain on the bleeding edge of eGovernment technology.