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Project contact person: Xavier Heymans, Zea Partners ASBL Belgium.
Brief description of the project
The PloneGov initiative brings together a community of public administrations with Plone content management-based systems (CSM). The overarching objective is to deliver tools for public administrations and on-line web services to citizens most effectively and efficiently by reducing or eliminating the duplication of effort between localities through sharing and collaboration. The initiative includes participation from European, North and South American and African Public organizations.
As a collation of projects, the PloneGov initiative includes activities that would be difficult or out of reach for the community members to conduct themselves to raise project visibility, promote cases studies, and provide confidence to decision makers. PloneGov activities, which include workshops, conferences, general promotion and outreach, and the maintenance of a community portal, provide useful resources for collaboration and community building.
To better understand some of the challenges, opportunities and successes of the project by its practice, the Belgium based CommunesPlone project was chosen for this study as exemplary for a public agency community collaboratively producing software in this case based upon open source Plone and Zope.
Over 100 Belgian and French local governments (communes and mairies) participate in the CommunesPlone project. Modules available include Intranet/Extranet, council management, online administrative documents requests, electronic identity card, urban planning and building permitting, fine management and deliberation management.
CommunesPlone has produced a suite of software designed primarily for French language Public Administrations with an interest in cooperative development and enhancement of applications and websites for their own use as well as for their citizens. Plone is available in 40 languages and the software is open to any agency to adapt.
Many public administrations have a desire to provide services more efficiently and at a reduced cost with less reliance on costly traditional software licensing.
Content management systems have emerged as highly effective way to provide a host of information services both internal to government operations and externally to citizens but can be out of reach financially for due to the basic licensing costs and also costs to customize the software to reflect the local governments business processes and work flow.
Approach and proposed solution
In 2005 a Belgian city found through a public tender process that implementing FLOSS was an affordable option for a needed intranet solution. Other Belgian cities had common needs, which were similar enough to suggest that a collaborative approach to software development based on a license platform would multiply the benefits of moving to an open source platform, and thus the project began with a small group of municipalities with diverse resource and skill sets.
That same year Zea Partners, a non-profit specializing in open source and promotion of the Plone and Zope platforms, was engaged to educate a number of communes in the manner in which open source development is done from planning and requirements building to software development methods to documentation and information sharing. This strategy created a skilled pool of community members technical and managerial and aided their success as they moved forward in a collaborative effort.
Summary of technologies and project tools used
The platform is built using free and open source tools. These include:
Plone and Zope as foundational.
Subversion (SVN) for software version control.
Trac for bug reporting and enhancement requests.
Community Portal (based on Plone).
Forums, IRC and Mailing lists for communication.
Community governance model
CommunesPlone has a very informal governance structure by design. Frequent face-to-face meetings within the Belgium community help provide a planning and decision-making structure. Inputs from the community forums recommend suggestions to improve or enhance existing code, which are shared by the development team with the public sector management-level community members. Resources provided to the community through financial investments or development resources drive more significant enhancement and additional functionality. This model is enabled through a high level of trust within the community and a passion and commitment for making sound use of public funds as well as providing good technology on behalf of the citizens served.
Licensing for CommunesPlone products is under the GNU General Public License.3
Community operating model
Software development contributions to the project are encouraged. Community members can contribute through municipal developments, writing documentation, providing support during training and workshops, answering questions on forums, run tests, and so forth. Such contributions make the individual contributor a greater knowledge asset for their respective organization.
The community has a well-defined cost structure4 for supporting code enhancements and other development services for members wishing to finance then rather than using internal development resources. This enhances the sustainability of the community as well as broadening participation with public administrations who may repurpose funds saved from licensing costs
Tools are provided under the The CommunesPlone GPL project; free to use, modify and share. They are also are developed by a set of stakeholders who according to the project’s maerials are described as evolving. Stakeholders include:
Developers of the Plone community, in regard to the the tool itself or add-ons.
Developers of the public sector community working on products developed in the CommunesPlone project. This community brings together public officials (municipal sector, regional) and IT consultants.
Open Source Subject Matter Experts and IT Consultants. These stakeholders play essential part of the ecosystem supporting the development of the community itself.
Organizations who adopt the tool but wish to modify it to meet their needs have the option of investing financially in the development, whether through internal development if the organization has the necessary skills - or financing the implementation by an external consultant.
Model of knowledge transfer
Comprehensive documentation is available to any public administration with interest in using tools and applications developed under the CommunesPlone project through the community portal. The project team is also available to answer questions to assist or identify and close information gaps.
Code sprints are popular in the community and are scheduled with frequency (twice weekly). User workshops are organized two times per month. Published case studies have also provided a method to transfer general project knowledge.
Training is provided through workshops, and extensive online documentation, and engagement with third party providers and SMEs.
Refer to Community governance model section.
Tools used to create the community
During the initial phases of the community creation, frequent in person meetings at twice a month played a large role in establishing the project. Telephone and email communication were also frequent.
The subject matter expert Zea Partners provided education and coaching for the development of the organization as an open source project.
The creation of Plonegov.org followed CommunesPlone. In 2007 PloneGov actively promoted participation in the CommunesPlone project, along with other growing Plone-based public sector projects. Workshops, poster sessions, promotion through awards and invited speaking engagements at industry events served to further promote growth of the CommunesPlone community.
The CommunesPlone community portal is the key communication channel with the community. Tools and resources available to support the community include the CommunesPlone portal, forums, Trac ticketing system for bug reporting and enhancement requests, access to support including emergency contact information, and documentation. Community forums provide a means for members to communicate with each other about product, technology and community-related information.
Since its inception, the project has experienced consistent growth. More than 100 municipalities are reported as participants in 2010. The project won four prestigious awards since 2007.
The public sector community has benefited by share investments and reduced financial risk. The initial budget for CommunesPlone included participation from 15 towns in 2 countries) was low compared to traditional IT projects. Today estimated costs for a small non open source web site is approximately 20000 euros, compared to a Plone site at 1000 euros. No additional personnel were added to support the project while focusing investment on a limited number of developments. Moving to an open source platform also enable a shared services strategy in the case of UWCM in Wallonia, Belgium where central support is offered to the 262 Communes (towns).
In general, most of the small localities in the community would not have been able to finance the projects on their own.
Key aspects to success
A key factor of success was to model the project best practices of an open source community. In the context of the public sector this translated to:
The pooling of human and financial resources.
The use of open source software (free license, transparency, adaptability of products).
Use the mode of open source software communities:
Tools for managing requests for intervention techniques to solve the bugs, Make adjustments, corrections (Trac).
The use of case studies and other non-technical papers has been less practiced by the open source community but has been a critical tool for CommunesPlone in sharing with and growing the community within the public sector and in particular useful for helping non technical personnel understand the value of the project.
Significant and generous contributions from the open source community with interest in seeing the CommunesPlone project succeed should not be understated, nor should the level of effort required to create and sustain the community.
Initiated the project as a small effort and scaled upon early successes.
Meet often and in person most feasible for a community in a small geographic area.
Address Intellectual Property issues early on (IPR protection was designed by Eben Moglen, Free Software Foundation (FSF))
Educated the team in the open source collaborative model and proactively reached out to other potential members. This included team building, coaching, sharing of best practices and other engaging, community building activities. This included an emphasis on sharing the value, benefits, case stories with others to build a spirit of cooperation and evangelism. (Achieved with the assistance and guidance of a SME.)
Built trusted relationships between community members from diverse working environments by focusing on the shared values of collaboration and working in the public interest.
Focused on results not process- CommunesPlone members meet regularly and work on concrete issues. Activities are focused on programming, resolving practical issues, sharing knowledge and expertise.
Frequent code releases are also a best practice for CommunesPlone.
Barriers encountered in the implementation of the community
Cultural change education of open source practices.
Barriers in the maintenance of the community
The centralization of certain functions has proven to be a success point in the past and a point of vulnerability for the future. Promotion, events and workshops, training seminars are aspects to a well-maintained and growing community and over the past several years have been achieved through the efforts of a number of funded and unfunded resources outside of the government organizations. PloneGov shloud try to find alternative funds from the administraction.
Also a barrier is the ability to adequately communicate the value of collaboration to decision makers with influence on budget. The principal problem is that the budget is not adjusted with the real needs of the community, thus limiting R&D activities or promotion of the community.
The CommunesPlone experience and best practice represent a strong set of recommendations for projects with similar goals.
The role which Zea Partners and the PloneGov initiative they played a significant part in creating was a key enabler for the project. Today there appears to be sufficient critical mass for the current community to continue to support and maintain the CommunesPlone project, but a question as to funding some of the coordinating activities, which have developed the community thus far.
CommunesPlone, now in its fifth year of operation, has strong adoption within the Belgium local governments and also includes several French local governments. The software, well-supported by an open source- educated IT work force and an supportive open source community and subject matter experts, started small and grew through a dedicated IT ecosystem which included individuals with expertise in open source collaborative models. Early investments in education and coaching enabled the public sector IT departments to engage directly in the development of the software and the community itself.
Plone, the basis for the applications within the project, included foreign language support earlier than its equivalent solutions, making internationalization of the project a natural progression.
Distinguishing characteristics of this project include:
A cohesive local public sector effort supported through open source coaching at project inception.
Has developed strong and direct relationship with the open source community.
A broader collaborative initiative designed (and based on the Plone platform) to support activities not core to government IT operations such as writing case studies, creating conferences and workshops, developing community partners.
CommunesPlone is exemplary in the degree of collaboration within the public sector and amongst the open source community.
There are many lessons to learn from the project including best practices closely modeled after open source development, and also from the manner in which resources are dedicated to outreach, education, and promotion.
Project aspects to watch with interest: Funding of centralized or coordinated efforts, and scalability as more agencies outside of the current community adopt the software and require deployment support.