Opening local government with Drupal

Developers, designers, and city clerks testing the new site.

A few months ago, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance needed to rapidly prototype and deploy a web application to help municipal governments publicize vacant board and commission seats. We excitedly jumped on the project and launched onboardmi.org in early February.

The Michigan Suburbs Alliance works to foster and support cooperative approaches to the challenges facing Michigan’s metropolitan areas. The organization is similar to us in that it values good design and wants to build useful tools for its constituents, so we got along very well during the project.

The On Board concept was designed by leaders in 23 metro Detroit municipalities that participate in the Millennial Mayors Congress. Millennials hold only a small portion of public board and commission seats, so the Congress has been developing ways to increase participation among young people. It created best practices for local governments along with the On Board idea, which aims to be a central hub for information about public bodies.

After a year of thoughtful planning, the Suburbs Alliance sought designers and developers for the project. We offered passion for the project and a commitment to get it done on deadline. The process began in December by creating a shared vision for how the new database would work. We collaboratively created user stores, goals, a sitemap, and a data structure. This process included Suburbs Alliance staff, city and county clerks, and our designers and developers.

After completing the basic specifications, we began building a work-in-progress site and developing a visual brand identity. The following goals fueled our creation of three different visual palette concepts:

  • Create a visual link to the Michigan Suburbs Alliance brand
  • Cultivate a bright, happy, “government-is-friendly” attitude
  • Establish a simple and contemporary design foundation
  • Engage an audience of 18-35 year olds who are civically engaged while remaining accessible to everyone
  • Build a flexible, baseline visual palette

Phase one brand foundation.

Phase one brand process.

After a few revisions, the Suburbs Alliance chose what would become the new On Board logo, fonts, and color scheme. We began building the Drupal theme using Bootstrap as our base framework.

We also began testing our work-in-progress site with city clerks and site managers, who would bear the responsibility of keeping all of the site’s data updated and accurate. Our first testing meeting resulted in feedback that drove the next development sprint. While we continued development, the city clerks and managers began adding details about the boards and commissions in their cities on a content staging site.

After refining the data management workflow and theming the new Drupal 7 website, we offered another opportunity for clerks and managers to weigh in. At this testing session, we added more board and commission data together while identifying a few remaining bugs and tweaks.

On Board website screenshot.

After launching in February, the site was well received and spurred more community conversation. One of our users, Marne McGrath (deputy city clerk of Ferndale) had this to say:

“The City of Ferndale is very excited to be selected to participate in the onboardmi.org pilot program. We have found the program very intuitive and easy to use. We hope the project will be expanded as this is a great tool to increase transparency and promote more participation in our city boards and commissions.”

Our other partners were pleased as well. Michigan Suburbs Alliance Communications Director Hayley Roberts shared this piece of feedback about our work:

“Compared to one of the most well-known and renowned design firms in the region, The Work Department experience was far superior. The team was invested in our organization's goals, helped us keep the project on track, and communicated regularly and well with our team. The product is as expected and the sense of teamwork was outstanding.”

The current pilot website is just the beginning of the On Board project. With further funding, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance plans to expand the program to more local governments while adding new website features. Here’s a glimpse into some of the additions that are likely to come:

  • An On Board Brand Usage Guide that specifies how the logo, colors, typefaces, and language should be used across different communication tools.
  • A notification system that emails subscribed users when any board or commission has a new opening in their locality. Allow any user to subscribe to receive notifications on a government page.
  • A universal application process and form for all boards and commissions.
  • An API that allows other developers and websites to read public data from On Board website and write public documentation for API usage.
  • An embeddable widget (iframe) to display Board data on any website.

The On Board site content is licensed under a Creative Commons license. The source code for the site is on GitHub, and is licensed as free software. Thanks to the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund for supporting this work. The following folks participated in making this project a success:

  • Emily Thompson, Michigan Suburbs Alliance
  • Hayley Roberts, Michigan Suburbs Alliance
  • Libby Cole, The Work Department
  • Geoff Hing, The Work Department
  • Ben Chodoroff, The Work Department
  • Nina Bianchi, The Work Department
  • Michael Gregor, The Work Department
  • Marne McGrath, City of Ferndale
  • Joseph Gacioch, City of Ferndale
  • Frances McMullan, City of Ypsilanti
  • Peter Simms, Washtenaw County