A Multi-Site Drupal Installation for the PSAC

The Public Service Alliance of Canada is one of Canada's largest unions and represents workers in the Federal Government across the country. The union itself is broken down by regions across the country, and like many large organizations, suffered from a total lack of consistency in terms of the tools and infrastructure they were using for their online communications from one region to the next. In 2010 we were contacted by the PSAC National office to put together a plan for creating one core code base — we proposed Drupal — that would then run individual website for each region. The regional websites would share the benefits of:

  • A common CMS framework used across the organization which staff could then be provided with training on at the regional level, but allowing the National office to provide user and technical support for one common system.
  • A common basic User Experience design and information architecture, that while allowing for regionally specific content needs, would create consistency from one region to another while also allowing for one initial investment to be made into information design that could then be leveraged for each region without requiring each region to re-invest in their own process.
  • A common look and feel, that like the information structure, could be "regionalized" for each site, but again created consistency between the regions while also saving on costs for individual regions.

For us the project was a step outside of our usual, strategy, design and develop cycle for websites as we were being asked to deliver a piece of infrastructure that would allow the PSAC national office to deploy sites for each region rather than an individual website. We've done this before for a tool that allowed a political party to deploy candidate websites during an election period, but this project also had some challenging additional functionality that kept our team of awesome Drupal nerds busy for quite some time. That functionality included:

  • Multi-lingual capabilities for the sites being created, something which Drupal does, but which doesn't always play nicely/easily with some of the other more advanced features the sites required;
  • A Solr search install on the server that allowed for detailed and intelligent searching of each region's websites, but would not search the entire server when running a query;
  • A custom action tool that ties a Federal Postal Code Look-up API to a custom Drupal module to enable on-the-fly creation of email campaigns to local MPs;
  • A similar custom action tool that allows for on-the-fly creation of online petitions tied to certain issues;
  • Integration of each site with a robust third-party email list management tool;
  • Custom documentation, using our very robust online help manual.

The project resulted in many a head scratching moment for all involved and I'll admit some frustration here and there, but overall it was actually a really rewarding and satisfying set of challenges to map out and resolve for our team. Earlier this month the first site launched for the BC Region — once we turned over the metaphorical keys to the tool the PSAC National office still had to work with a region to migrate content, do training and then launch a site.

While I'm particularly proud of our developers and the work they did on the project, I can also say that the project and my sanity managing it greatly benefited from the smarts and wit of Chris Lawson, Communications Officer at the National Office, who is an absolute delight of a client.