aGov: First Impressions of Australia's Government Drupal Distro

aGov is a Drupal distribution, which has recently been adopted as "GovCMS". It is built and maintained by the Australian Drupal shop PreviousNext. The distribution is a foundation for websites built for government organisations. At Code Drop we've been involved in the development of websites for government bodies locally in WA, however it is an area that is forecast to expand significantly and one that all Drupal agencies should be embracing.

The first step to undertaking the technical aspect of a large project is to evaluate all of the code in the Drupal ecosystem for appropriateness and stability. In this post we’ll go through some of the features found in aGov (7.x-1.x) and how they could be applied to a new government website.

Default Bundles

The distro is packaged with 9 default bundles which cater to all of the typical government content requirements you might expect to find. The out of the box content admin experience is highly polished and well considered with searchable taxonomy select lists, great media management and sane WYSIWYG defaults.

While these are very useful for getting something online quickly, managing changes to these bundles while keeping in step with updates to the distro might be a development headache. As the module page suggests “If you are making changes to any of these features, they become overridden and you may need to manually copy or re-create features in order to ensure aGov changes get applied”. I wouldn’t rule out using them as a base for your bundles, but I would perhaps keep abreast platform updates and how they impact the bundles on your website.

Base Theme

The aGov base theme is clean and simple. I imagine most agencies would either start from a fresh base theme they are familiar with or in budget constrained situations make customisations to the existing theme.

The base theme does have several fixes to the generated markup which are important to the validation of the site, however everything else seems appropriately decoupled from the theme layer. If Omega isn’t your flavour base theme, the 2.x branch advertises a Zen base theme, which might be worth investigating.

Content Workflows & Roles

Baked in are well defined content publishing/approval workflows. Anyone who has had to configure these modules manually will be aware of the level of care that needs to be taken to make things just work.

The aGov distro has a series of roles to account for developers, content writers and content approvers. The 1200+ line install file is evidence to the amount of manual work the distro could potentially save a site builder tasked with configuring the workflows and roles required for these workflows.

Display Management

aGov seems to come packaged with Panels and Display Suite, with DS being the primary source of display management for the default bundles. Display management is definitely a topic that divides many Drupal developers so it might be a significant speed bump for those who have significantly invested in an opposing solution.

Accessibility and Compliance

It is clear the distro places a high degree of importance on accessibility and compliance, with a built in validation service. While developers extending the distro will need to tread carefully to ensure markup stays valid, it’s a solid foundation for a compliant and accessible website. Stakeholders can be confident their compliance requirements are being met with a scheduled check of the markup.

Bonuses & Extras

There is no denying the distro is packed full of features which could be overlooked during the final stages of a project. Some of the highlights are:

  • Honeypot spam protection - a must for any site with contact forms.
  • Content scheduling - publishing things at defined times in the future.
  • Metatags - help users who discover your website via search.
  • Paranoia - security best practices.
  • 403 Login - redirect to a login page when you hit an "access denied".

I was really pleased with the niceties that seem to pop up all over the place after testing the distro for an afternoon.

Summary

Using aGov as a basis for a government agency website seems like a good choice for a variety of use cases. Developers will have to work with some opinionated aspects of the distro, but there seems to be some very real gains to be had from leveraging the large amount of work and polish that has been applied to the project.

The aGov distribution has clearly had a huge impact on the landscape of government web projects, and it’s clear there is a bright future ahead those who are embracing the Drupal future of Government web projects. We would definitely look closely at and leverage different aspects of the platform for Government projects in the future.

Author Info

Sam Becker
Developer

Sam is a passionate developer and Star Trek fan who loves tinkering with all things web. He maintains several Drupal modules and has way too many Github repos.

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