Like all the best ideas, LocalGov Drupal started in the minds of a few people. They all worked within UK government, building website publishing platforms. Some had built them many times, reinventing the wheel each time. Thankfully those days are behind us.
The big idea
LocalGov Drupal Product Lead, Will Callaghan, worked at the Government Digital Service (GDS) around the time GOV.UK was launched. He was part of the 'Whitehall' team that moved all the central government departments, such as the Home Office and Number 10, to GOV.UK.
As part of that work, Product Manager Neil Williams was interested in finding the common needs of all the departments. The team built a platform that they could all use, and are still using to this day.
Will wondered whether this could also be done for local government. Could a platform of shared components be created that all UK councils could use? At the time GDS was focused on central government needs, so the idea didn't develop further.
Separately, Drupal developer and agency owner, Alick Mighall, was thinking about councils sharing code. In this blog post Alick recalls mowing grass for another council. If one council can mow another's grass, he thought, surely they could build their website too?
These twin ideas came together in 2018 at Brighton & Hove City Council. Will was Product Manager for the new Drupal 8 council website, and Alick's company was building it. Alick emailed Will and his boss, Ali Brady, suggesting that the code be open sourced so other councils could use it.
As Alick points out in his blog, there's a big difference between a website built at speed for a specific council and one that could be used by many. But the idea stuck, and the team pushed forward.
Two councils collaborating
Will left Brighton & Hove and went to work with Croydon. The council needed a website, and Will suggested that the Brighton & Hove technology could be re-used.
The website Product Manager, Tom Steel, and team were keen on the idea. It was backed by Neil Williams, now the council's Chief Digital Officer. He knew the territory as he had already created the shared publishing platform for central government departments at GOV.UK.
The next step was to agree how Brighton & Hove and Croydon would work together. Senior officers in Croydon and Brighton met, and decided that Croydon would use the code. In return, they would share anything new that they built.
Central government backing
Had it not been for the Local Digital Declaration, our story would have probably stopped there.
The Declaration, and the accompanying Local Digital Fund, allowed the team to grow their ambitions. From January 2020 to October 2021 Will Callaghan and the Croydon team applied for and won Discovery, Alpha and Beta funding.
The Discovery allowed us to properly understand whether councils wanted to collaborate on a Drupal publishing platform (yes, they did).
In Alpha, we were able to refactor all of the code so it was suitably generic for any council to pick up and use. We were also able to start work on governance, understanding how decisions could be made across a group of councils and who would make them.
The Beta phase, where we moved our lead council to Cumbria, allowed us to scale and help more councils. We're still growing today.
Currently we're working on Microsites functionality for all of our councils. They will soon be able to spin up small sites with a few clicks, covering all sorts of needs from council run theatres to recycling campaigns. They'll be able to brand them how they like too.
We now understand how new features are built, through creating a working group where interested councils can chip in and work together. The councils decide on their aims, decide when they're going to meet and who will be involved, and then get on with it. It sounds straightforward, and that's because it's designed to be. As the GOV.UK motto goes, we've done the hard work to make it simple for our users.
This funded time has also given us space to think about the future. In addition to our microsites project, we're working on a transition to a legal entity which will act as a custodian of the code and a champion of collaborative working. We expect this to be complete by April 2023.
We've done so much, and there's a lot we still want to do for our councils and their citizens. Colleagues from councils tell us working on LocalGov Drupal is among the best things they've ever done.
We've been overwhelmed by the support LocalGov Drupal has received down the years. See Our People for a long list of people and organisations we'd like to thank.
If you would like to find out more or have any questions just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always happy to chat about LocalGov Drupal, provide a demo of the platform, or show how councils are using it.