Enterprise Software

CMS solution powers several government Web sites

CMS solutions abound, but only a handful live up to their promises. Take a look at how one CMS software creator solved a massive Web site updating and maintenance problem with a CommonSpot solution.

How would you like to be the CIO responsible for managing the regular updating and maintenance of three Web sites with 250 content contributors? And if you think that’s tough, your boss is also the government, or more precisely the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), which is responsible to the United States Congress for the maintenance, operation, development, and preservation of the United States Capitol Complex.

When James Graham arrived on Capitol Hill after two decades as a corporate graphic designer and Web developer, he discovered that AOC had a slight problem in the management of its content. All the Web pages were created and edited by hand and there was little coordination between departments. Each department maintained its own pages, and there was little coherence in graphics or posting and updating policies. "We gave our content editors Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia Dreamweaver to manage their content. With no design or approval oversight, all control of the look and feel was lost. In addition, content was rarely updated, files were orphaned, and the site was not dynamically driven," said Graham.

Graham maintains the Botanic Garden site, the Senate restaurants’ site, and the AOC Link, an intranet for workers in buildings served by the architect’s office. Working on the principle that no employee should have to create a Web page from scratch, Graham firmly believed that what AOC needed was a content management system (CMS).

Working for Washington
Designing, planning, and implementing a CMS in any organization is hard enough, but trying to do it in a government organization presents extra difficulties because of all the levels of oversight and endless hours of design by committee. "My background is in the corporate sector," said Graham. "Working for a government project is different than working for an organization in the private sector, especially with the number of people involved in the decision-making process. My experience with corporate clients usually consists of smaller groups of decision makers from key departments. The government tends to favor committees, which may or may not have technical experience."

But whether the projects are government or commercial, one thing stays the same: Educating the decision makers is a key to the success of the project. "First you must clearly define what a CMS is, and how it will benefit the organization," advised Graham. "My first task involved educating the agency about the benefits of a CMS system. In particular, I stressed the importance of an easy WYSIWYG interface and providing levels of approval and security."

Selecting the solution
AOC and Graham knew what they wanted from a CMS: First, they needed a solution that could be deployed rapidly using limited resources (only one Web developer). Second, it had to leverage current technologies, which included ColdFusion and an Oracle database. Third, the CMS had to be easy to use. "With a diversity of content contributors with different levels of skills—from restaurant and horticultural workers to administrative staff—a simple and intuitive user interface was a must have," said Todd Peters, president of PaperThin. And last, AOC needed a solution that provided solid controls to effectively manage the look and feel of different sites and subsites, and offered flexible content approval workflow processes.

His agency was already using ColdFusion and Oracle, so he naturally concentrated on a ColdFusion solution. "I was very interested in Macromedia Spectra. So I called Fig Leaf, one of the local Macromedia partners, to talk about CMS solutions," said Graham. “Fig Leaf pointed out to me that Macromedia was discontinuing the development of Spectra, so they suggested I take a look at another ColdFusion solution by PaperThin called CommonSpot."

PaperThin has helped corporations and government agencies of all sizes significantly reduce the time and expense involved in creating, updating, and managing Web content. Its flagship product, CommonSpot Content Server, is a full-featured, browser-based Web publishing and dynamic CMS that provides organizations with an affordable, quick to implement, and easy-to-use tool for creating, publishing, and managing Web content in a controlled, distributed, and collaborative Web development environment. CommonSpot powers Internet, intranet, and extranet sites for more than 150 companies worldwide, including AFL-CIO, Booz Allen Hamilton, Gillette, Kent State University, Northrop Grumman, and Turner Sports.

After looking at other alternatives, AOC selected CommonSpot because of its quick development and implementation capabilities and the ease of use for content contributors. "What really impressed us about CommonSpot was the significant functionality right out of the box, as well as the ability to create custom applications easily for our specific requirements," noted Graham. Peters added, "AOC was able to take great advantage of two of CommonSpot's most compelling features—rapid deployment and ease of use. They were able to deploy the sites quickly because so many features that they wanted were available right out of the box, such as simple forms and content scheduling."

AOC’s CommonSpot Enterprise Edition solution runs on top of ColdFusion 5 Enterprise Edition on a Windows NT platform and Oracle 8i on a separate Solaris platform, along with Compact Proliant 360 Web servers and a SAN device.

From vision to reality
"In my past experience with government and corporate organizations, the design and development of the user interface can take up to six months," said Graham. "In my case, my new page designs and templates for the new AOC site were approved in a relatively short period of time. The agency was so delighted to get a good design so quickly, and with two options to choose from, they selected one immediately and only made a few minor changes."

The next step was to set up a demo using the new site design. "With the design completed, I had a template to work with," said Graham. "Fig Leaf and PaperThin helped me set up a demo using my new design for the committee. It is one thing to see a demo of a fictitious site, but the impact of a live demo using our new design was a home run. The committee could see how the product integrated with the new design and how easy it would be for them to manage their own content."

After the demo was presented to the committee, "I arranged for Fig Leaf and PaperThin to set up a test Web site during the evaluation period, using an Access data base," said Graham. "Once the software was approved, we moved to develop and release three Web sites with staggered and overlapping starts and finishes. But government procurement can be a long process. Fortunately for me, one of my last corporate jobs involved a contract with a large government agency, so I had a very good understanding of the procurement process, which lasted about eight weeks."

While procurement was progressing, Graham began developing content for the three Web sites. Once the purchase order was issued, Fig Leaf and PaperThin went to AOC for a three-day onsite template development session. "We took my design and HTML templates and converted them to ColdFusion scripts and CommonSpot templates," said Graham. "Then I had Fig Leaf return to help migrate the static content from our existing intranet site into the new CMS system," he said. "This took about three weeks. Once the new content was migrated, I began working with the content to make it more cohesive. At this point, all three Web sites were being populated with new content for the first release.

Once the Web site was in the final QA stages, Graham began rolling out end user training for each of the departments, produced and delivered by Fig Leaf Software. Each training session lasted about three days. "After the training courses were completed, I went around to each department and trained them further on their specific section," said Graham. "I set up the approval levels based on interviews with each department head. We really appreciated CommonSpot’s ability to change the approval levels any time we wanted. It is much easier to help the departments define the levels when they are looking at the live site than at a site map. The implementation was by far faster than any I have done before—by a significant margin," said Graham. "It took less than five months from site design to launch. I was actually ready to release the sites after about four months, but I had to wait to give a final presentation to the agency’s senior staff."

"AOC was our first major deployment of CommonSpot for an external customer—we had previously used it to develop our own corporate intranet," said Steve Drucker, CEO of Fig Leaf Software. "With so much out-of-the-box functionality, very little customization was required, resulting in an incredibly fast rollout. We've since rolled the best practices that we've discovered from 20-plus rollouts into a developer's training course that pretty much flattens the learning curve completely."

Distributing the responsibility
With the new CMS, restaurant managers within the U.S. Senate can now create and publish their constantly changing breakfast and lunch menus, without the help of Graham. Restaurant managers can edit everything from entrees to desserts, and can even build menus that repeat themselves for different weeks and months within a specified period. Built using ColdFusion 5 and integrated with a Microsoft Access data repository, this module also uses CommonSpot’s access control security to ensure that only those users with appropriate rights are able to edit content.

CommonSpot’s multilevel approval workflows also help AOC manage each department’s varying internal procedures for creating, approving, and publishing content. This allowed them to use different approval processes for each subsite when content was ready to be published. "Nothing goes live to the Web site until a content approver gives it the OK," said Graham. "Several people can contribute to the same page, although two people cannot edit the same content at the same time."

"We also made extensive use of CommonSpot’s built-in tool for gauging compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998," said Graham. "For example, clicking on a button labeled Warnings/Errors will tell us whether we have filled in the Alt tags in image tags or table descriptions for compatibility with screen-reader software."

Since the initial deployment, AOC has slated additional sites for launch, including a dynamically driven intranet site for employees, engineers, and architects. "This is a testament to the successful adoption of the product, and the value of being able to distribute the responsibility for maintaining Web sites across many users and departments," said Peters.

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