Interview: Will Callaghan, interim director of the Open Digital Cooperative, conveys the outlook for the open source publishing platform for local government
A new legal entity, a new governance structure and the need to find new streams of funding. Will Callaghan is facing plenty of challenges but exuding an upbeat mood as the Open Digital Cooperative (ODC) emerges from LocalGov Drupal.
The latter has been one of the success stories of the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (DLUHC) Local Digital Fund, developing a web publishing platform for local government - which now has 34 councils signed up to use it – based on the Drupal open source content management system (CMS).
After receiving around £1 million from DLUHC over the past three years the programme now has to look after itself financially, and has become a not-for-profit co-operative that will operate as ODC but retain the LocalGov Drupal name for the product. Callaghan’s role has evolved from product lead to interim director.
He says the choice of the co-op structure reflects the need to bring money in while maintaining the focus on what councils need without imposing heavy costs on them.
“One of the reasons we formed a co-op is that there are some things in LocalGov Drupal that councils just don’t have the time to do, because they are all running their own products and the pressure on them is growing.
“When do you get time to say ‘It will benefit me but it’s not core to what I’m doing and won’t benefit me today, but I should still do it’. You need some cash for that. DLUHC provided that to the point where we said ‘There’s a critical mass here and you can see ongoing benefits’. We had this idea of a membership fee but it’s voluntary to councils.”
The organisation does not require local authorities to pay to take part in its development work or use the platform, but it provides an option to become a subscriber – which brings the right to join the steering group, help to formulate the collective roadmap and receive additional recognition for support – and membership, which brings part ownership and voting rights.
It is also opening up a route through which technology suppliers can sign up as members – so they can collaborate on integrating their products – based on a subscription fee.
The initial rationale for LocalGov Drupal – for which Callaghan has been the lead since work began in 2019 – was based on councils wanting more control over their IT systems through the use of open source, and needing to share the effort when budgets have been tight.
Based on commonality
“That’s where LocalGov Drupal came from,” he says. “It was straightforward to start with; publishing is one of the easier systems councils have and maybe there is more commonality in it, so you can get around the table and ask what we all need and how we do it.”
He says the support from the Local Digital Fund, and its programme team in DLUHC, has been crucial in helping to build the momentum. It is notable that LocalGov Drupal has gone further than most of the projects backed by the fund, something he says is down to its core function.
“It’s something all councils have to do, publish their own websites, which is ever more important as services move online. There’s been a lot of desire for councils to get that right, which really helps.
“The second thing is people know what Drupal is and it has an established ecosystem.
“Those are the pulls. The pushes are that councils have wanted new websites but can’t afford it and looking across to what other people are doing, and re-using is important.
“Those things have worked in our favour, and there’s something about who makes the decision. The people who make decisions about web publishing are in the digital team and probably understand web technologies, know open source, and are into agile scrum type ways of working as we are. So we’re talking with people very similar to us.
“Also, the people making decisions are similar to those on my team. If you go to other projects you’re probably looking at people who are not digital – finance managers or heads of highways or whatever – and digital is not necessarily making IT decisions. Other disciplines don’t know about any of this, so it will take time for these ideas to percolate across every sector.
“We have lots of conversations with other projects, we’ve burst through a ceiling, and I think that over the next year or so we’ll see others do the same.”
He adds that that there are further advantages in the Drupal core platform, notably that it is “API rich” and can pull in data from a wide range of sources, which provides plenty of scope for developers.
It leads to the question of whether the ODC will look to develop services beyond web publishing. Callaghan says there are no plans to do anything proactively, but the possibility is “in the back of our minds” and that the team would be willing to work with others.
Similarly, there are no immediate plans to extend beyond Drupal into other open source platforms, but “there is a lot of good stuff in the open source world, so I don’t think we would ever say ‘If it’s not Drupal we’re not interested’, and I think we are open to it”.
But the first steps have been taken to do something new in a partnership with low code platform provider Netcall, supporting the councils that want to combine its Liberty Create or Converse platforms with LocalGov Drupal in developing new solutions. A handful of councils – Croydon, Cumbria, South Hams and West Devon – have already begun to do so, and Callaghan says this provides the scope for building new functionalities.
“Our goal with Netcall is that if you have both it and LocalGov Drupal they will enhance each other. And for future supporting partners it would be the same thing. It’s whether they are up for ‘citizens first and foremost’, work in agile way, do user centred design and provide tools that enable people to do that.”
He adds that ODC is open to talking with other potential partners.
“I think you will see more organisations like ours as intermediaries to promote a particular product,” he says. “You might see others in other product areas. Will see more user groups for vendors. This space is heading in a nice direction.”
The team has also developed a standalone microsite system which re-uses features of the main CMS and can be configured to create multiple sites for specific purposes without having to start each one from scratch. Once the site is no longer of use it can be instantly shut down.
Other plans involve supporting platform users through a migration from the Drupal 9 core system into Drupal 10, which was released last month, and developing further capabilities for local government. This ties in with ODC wanting to attract more local authorities as members, with Callaghan saying there is an open door for involvement.
“We aim to be as transparent as possible, sharing information, and our forums are open. Our Slack channel and other places are where we share what we know openly.
“It was being paid for with public money so has to be out there for people to pick up. Our meetings are all open. We’re doing that as a minimum.”
Election and roadmap
Meanwhile the ODC’s structure is being formalised under a steering group comprising Callaghan, Finn Lewis and Maria Young, with plans for the election of a board later in the year and the development of a roadmap for its activities.
He acknowledges that there are significant issues to be faced. One is to ensure there are enough Drupal developers available, reflecting the limited supply of skilled people in the field, but which can be alleviated to an extent by the sharing of resources within the programme and scope to re-use solutions.
Another is that the co-op’s financial model has to prove itself. Against this he says the body has proved it can work on relatively low resources – he puts in a day to a day-and-a-half per week – and that it is working in an environment that gives it a good chance of being sustainable.
“We have a very happy, vibrant and willing community, and there are always ideas from all the councils on what they want to do and a real willingness to co-operate.
“We’re not flush but this is an efficient operation and we have enough money to run right now,” he says “If we have money coming in to do the right thing for councils I’ll be happy.
“We want to deliver for our councils and be effective for them, so they will be interested enough to keep putting money in so we can continue to do the work. We want to continue to be relevant and useful.”