This week the Minneapolis Business Portal went live. And if you’re familiar with Long Beach’s Business Portal you may even give it a second glance. Why?

The City of Minneapolis re-uses Long Beach’s tried and tested design and code base, bringing to market a great product much faster than starting from scratch.

Open source and government portals: nothing new

The re-use of design and code base by governments is not new. Back in 2013 the New Zealand Government partnered with the United Kingdom to re-use the open source code for www.gov.uk and apply it to www.govt.nz.

The Kiwis (as New Zealanders are affectionately known) took “3 parts UK influence to 5 parts NZ-based evidence” in developing their initial beta site. As time has gone by the Kiwi elements have grown, but it is still a great example of re-using assets and open intellectual property across governments.  

And while the UK’s Government Digital Service has made a total mess of strategy and delivery for business customers, their approach to open source is actually really good.

They have provided some excellent resources that help governments better address the very real concern about security risks. In particular their advice on when code should be open or closed and security considerations when coding in the open are essential reads for any government organization thinking about the open source path.

On top of this the UK also developed two thoughtful resources that outline how open source can actually reduce your security risks and save time by plugging into their Coding in the Open manual.

The manual - and practically all the UK’s implementation components - are understandably written for those with a technical background. But a non-technical senior executive can easily make sense of the other resources I’ve linked to in this article.

GitHub: a great resource for Government to Business websites

GitHub is the main global repository of open source code.

And while you can grab the .GOV.UK open source from there, there are plenty more resources available to government. And better yet unlike .GOV.UK they are developed for government organizations delivering to business.

The Obama administration through the Small Business Administration built on the open source story with its “Start up in a Day” initiative in 2015. The City of Los Angeles was successful in receiving $250,000 to deliver its concept, provided it was built as open source to be shared by all.

And that is exactly what Los Angeles did. You can view their start up guide in action on the LA Business Portal and download its open source code from GitHub.

The City of Los Angeles explain their intent addressing the:

“Complex, opaque process that today can take weeks to accomplish, and streamlines it to as little as 20 minutes, in which time a user can obtain a complete roadmap for starting a new business. The resource is meant to serve as a starting point for any government wanting to create an online tool for their own business community.”

There must be something in the water of Los Angeles. In addition to the City’s business portal the adjacent City of Long Beach - still inside Los Angeles’ county boundaries - take things up another level with their business portal Bizport.

I’ve previously written about Long Beach and what a great resource Bizport is. But one aspect I failed to mention in that article is the ingenious decision by the City of Long Beach to make Bizport’s code open source, readily available on GitHub.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

That turn of phrase describes what Minneapolis’ Business Portal has achieved. Isaac Newton popularised it in describing how he’d achieved so much by building on earlier discoveries.

And that’s another great thing about open source. The code base can be iteratively expanded and improved further. And provided others are using the same code foundations, they can often re-use newly developed functionality. It truly is a great win-win environment.

Take Minneapolis for example. They have re-used the tried and tested Long Beach approach of organising content around the key themes of Plan, Launch and Grow.

But the next level of the information architecture slightly various. Take the “Plan” section. While there are common topics again eg:

  • Why their city is the best place to start a business
  • Support available
  • Business planning
  • Financing and
  • Determining the property type you’re operating from

Minneapolis then diverges with other content areas, presumably determined from their own customer testing and their own service offerings to business. These topics include Before you start and Expand your network. The same occurs throughout the Launch and Grow sections too.

But even where topic areas in the information architecture are similar, the content on the page is very different. Take this comparison between Long Beach and Minneapolis’ pages on Business Planning:

Long Beach - Business PlanningMinneapolis - Business Planning

This achieves two things: it tailors service offerings to what each city has determined to be of greatest importance when business planning and it helps both stand out in Google.

If Minneapolis literally lifted the content from Long Beach, Google would likely penalise Minneapolis as Long Beach was the canonical - or original - source. By using different copy and keywords they are both more likely to be discoverable when local business intenders and operators are looking online.

On top of this, front and center on the homepage for the Minneapolis Business Portal is a big Resources button. This gives easy access to 55 resources that business start-ups and owners can access and filter using a checklist based around areas like sales and marketing, employee recruitment and contracting. It’s a handy way of finding more about a range of government and non-government support services.

Downsides to open source for Government to Business sites

There are very few negatives to embracing open source as a means of developing and delivering your government website to business.

And most of them are common sense best practice that you’d want to adhere to regardless of whether you went open source or not:

  • As discussed about the UK’s resources, its essential that you approach security professionally. You don’t need to lock everything up, but you do have to be careful about what code is open, and what is closed.
  • When replicating site navigation, tools and content itself, pay close attention to Minneapolis’ example of creating and publishing original content. This aligns to what services you have for business customers, research around what local businesses want and expect from your jurisdiction and ensures you deliver on Google’s expectations when it comes to search engine optimization.
  • Understandably whenever considering open source always review and comply with licensing conditions. That said, in most cases they are not too onerous and you’d need to comply regardless with commercial off the shelf (COTS) or tailored software licensing.
  • Probably the only “downside” is open source solutions are built off certain software eg Long Beach uses Ruby on Rails so when Minneapolis wanted to re-use the code, they needed to go down the same path.  Los Angeles’ Start up in a Day meanwhile uses Drupal. This again this consideration isn’t really a downside. If you wanted to migrate from whatever your current commercial content management system is to another, you’d still have to go through a fair bit of pain migrating content, information architecture and other assets. Sure we’re dealing also with programming language changes but its not insurmountable. Of course if you have a “greenfields” implementation where you are delivering from scratch, consider open source first. It should save you a lot of effort, time and money.