Municipal Website Solutions: CivicPlus Versus Drupal

Municipalities need functional, attractive websites as much as any private business or nonprofit organization does! But, municipal websites have their own set of needs that differ from other business sectors. Not only do they need to beautifully reflect their cities and towns in the most positive light, but they need to support many functions like time-sensitive news announcements, emergency alerts, downloadable documents, scheduling portals, comment threads, job postings, online payment services, and much more.

There's a lot to keep in mind when developing a new or redesigned website for your city or town. This is why many people gravitate toward all-in-one municipal website solutions like CivicPlus, TownWeb, or GovOffice. These platforms provide a ton of options and can make relatively decent municipal websites that are easy enough for government staffs to use.TownWeb, or GovOffice. These platforms provide a ton of options and can make relatively decent municipal websites that are easy enough for government staffs to use.

But, these all-in-one solutions aren't perfect. Their most notable pitfall is that they can't evolve -- they are what they are. On the other hand, open source content management systems like Drupal, Wordpress, and Joomla can work extremely well as municipal website solutions, but they require more customization. They aren't ready-made solutions like those all-in-one website platforms are. But they can do everything the former can plus a lot more, and they offer some serious positive outcomes that companies like CivicPlus don't. 

Today, we'll discuss CivicPlus, a very popular all-in-one platform geared toward municipalities, versus Drupal, our preferred open-source content management system. We'll describe the pros and cons of each as your municipal website solution.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCE

CivicPlus and Drupal both provide content management systems (CMS's) -- user-friendly software purposed for non-technical users to maintain their website's content creation and modification. Municipalities, as well as businesses and nonprofits, have been gravitating to the CMS website solution for quite a while so that their own teams can edit and maintain their own content like news updates, service descriptions, images, and more. They don't need to contact the original website developer and wait for them to carry out every little change to their content; rather, they maintain a large portion of control over their website's success.

To imagine what it's like to use a typical CMS, think of creating a profile on Facebook or some other social media platform. You can add images, write descriptions, post updates, and add reviews extremely easily; it's nearly always a click-and-type process. CMS's are meant to be that easy to deal with for managing your website's content.

The main difference between CivicPlus's and Drupal's CMS solutions is that CivicPlus's software, which includes CivicEngage for municipalities and CivicRec for parks, are closed source while Drupal's software is open source. The difference here affects everything about each solution and creates the pros and cons for each.

CIVICPLUS

CivicPlus is a private company like all other closed-source software companies are. They market their software directly toward municipalities as an all-in-one, easy-to-use website solution. They develop your website for you and have a ton of cool stuff for your ongoing benefit, like a drag-and-drop interface, a ton of citizen engagement tools, ongoing support, and optional hosting and security. It's basically a one-stop-shop, and their company takes care of everything needed for a municipal website while you're free to update the content and use all the cool available tools as you see fit. 

And, the list of CivicPlus's tools can be pretty impressive for potential buyers. You can create and share public meeting agendas, automatically notify citizens about their preferred meetings and events, publish key dates, news, and emergency alerts for the community, provide downloadable documents like RFPs, and more, more, more. CivicPlus does indeed offer a lot that their clients can do, and they market it by encouraging how much happier their citizens will be with this new, awesome, high-functioning, super-convenient community website.

If you stick to reading CivicPlus's own website, then chances are that you'll be impressed and sold on their promises. But, the main drawback is that you, as a CivicPlus client, won't have any actual ownership over your website, and your control of it will, in fact, be very limited.

You see, CivicPlus owns their client's website code. This means that if the client decides to leave CivicPlus and work with a different development company sometime in the future, they'll be left empty-handed; they won't be able to take their current website away from CivicPlus to be modified by a different company. Without a contract with CivicPlus, they won't be able to access or operate their website at all. Instead, they'll have to start their website over again from scratch, which can be very expensive as well as time-consuming.

This exact situation happened a few years ago to the city of Santa Fe when they decided to leave CivicPlus and take their website development elsewhere. 

Santa Fe's Experience in Leaving CivicPlus

The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico had their website with CivicPlus for about seven years before they decided to change to a different developer and hosting environment. The change was spurred by city officials wanting different website options than CivicPlus offered.

The city spokesperson, Jodi McGinnis Porter, explained that city officials wanted to improve the "look and feel" of the website, ease its navigation, and make it easier for city employees to add information to the website. In addition, Porter explained that CivicPlus failed to get them some information in a timely manner, and their operating system had a number of limitations. Examples given were a limited number of characters allowed for typing job descriptions and restricted options for CivicPlus's website templates.  

"'The city was restricted," Porter said. 'We were in the constraints of that company's proprietary software.'"

Besides wanting improved functionality, options, and communication, Santa Fe was paying over $33,000 a year in hosting fees alone through CivicPlus. (They'd additionally paid $74,900 for the development of their CivicPlus website.) 

But, when Santa Fe decided to call it quits with CivicPlus, it was not a smooth transition. Because CivicPlus owned their website's code, they were left empty-handed. They had to start all over. 

Santa Fe moved to an independent website company that built their new website using an open-source solution, and Santa Fe got to own their website's code. '"The city owns this website, and we're not dealing with proprietary software. We customize as we grow,' Porter said. 'We're not limited to another company, depending on the other company.'"

The original source for this information describing Santa Fe's experience is located in the Albuquerque Journal.

DRUPAL

So, CivicPlus is first and foremost a private company who calls all the shots for their clients' websites. Open-source solutions like Drupal couldn't be more different in that regard. 

First off, Drupal isn't a company -- it's the name of the CMS software. Anyone can use Drupal anywhere in the world, regardless of whether they're working for a commercial profit or not. The main difference is, Drupal is NOT a proprietary software. So, if someone is selling development of a website made with Drupal, they can't sell the website's code along with it. What happened in regards to Santa Fe being locked-in with CivicPlus legally can't happen with a Drupal website. This means that if your city or town has a municipal website made with Drupal, the code is yours to take with you forever. So, if you want to move to a different developer, you can make the transition much more easily and affordably than you could with a CivicPlus website (Santa Fe paid upwards of 230,000 dollars for their new website's development.).

Drupal is also community-driven, with 40,000+ Drupal developers worldwide. These developers contribute to the Drupal software in various ways, like creating new modules for new and higher functionalities, fixing bugs that come up in the software, and notifying Drupal's dedicated security team of any new malware that hackers have come out with, so they can quickly come up with security patches to protect their users.

Drupal has more customization options than any all-in-one software like CivicPlus does. Do you need a citizen portal, payment gateway, scheduling system, or event calendar? Drupal can do ALL of these things -- it can do everything that CivicPlus offers plus MUCH, MUCH MORE. And, as its main purpose is usability for the people who maintain its websites (in this case, usability for the city government staff), it's easy to use once you learn how. Most Drupal developers offer their clients training along with their website development.

With CivicPlus, you're stuck with their pricing, and they nickel-and-dime for a lot of their services. With Drupal, you pay your developer for their work, and you can shop around. Remember, 40,000+ website developers use Drupal for their website development. You can compare pricing and services offered by any of these developers, and you can change developers if you think you'll be happier with someone else later down the line.

The main con with using Drupal is that it's not as expressly geared toward municipalities as CivicPlus is. It has all the power of CivicPlus and other all-in-one solutions, plus more, but it's not marketed specifically towards municipalities. If you want a Drupal website for your municipality, you'll need to work closely with your developer and be specific about what functionality and design you want to have. They'll be able to do it, but they may not have a specific package geared toward municipalities like CivicPlus does. 

IN SUMMARY...

My favorite quote comparing closed and open-source solutions for municipalities comes from a Google Group forum topic:

"Switching from a custom site by a local developer to a closed-source site by a large company still leaves your city with a single supplier and a single source of failure. Switching to a large open-source solution means that even if the contracted developer falls under a bus or the relationship breaks down there is still a world of already-skilled developers who can take over."