Time to let go of the CMS?

The platform our website used to be built on started to crumble because it wasn’t supported and increasingly it required a lot of bespoke coding to make it do what we wanted. The decision was taken to go out to tender for a new generation CMS and all of the ones we looked at promised the earth and looked to be so simple that even an information officer like me with no coding skills except a smattering of html would be able to build and maintain a complex multi-layered website with hardly any effort.

CMS bought, we set to work building our new, shiny site. We also had three new developers join the team and between them and our design team we ended up with a great looking site. We’ve worked hard to make it task-centric and we do regular user testing but about 18 months ago I made a comment to my manager that I thought the new CMS had made us all a bit lazy. It looked after itself so there was no real thought from service managers and the front line about how we could make it even better.

I felt a bit for our developers who had ideas they couldn’t develop because the product wouldn’t let them and it was perceived that anything special they wanted to do was taking us back to the bespoke days, pre-CMS. As time went on this made no sense to me – coding is what they do so why shouldn’t they?

And then in February Gerry McGovern’s Decentralized publishing equals amateur web management blog hit my inbox. I love Gerry – I’ve read his books, done his webinars and heard him speak and I agree with most of what he says – and here he was confirming everything I’d been thinking about content management systems for a while.

There seems to be a feeling that if we let developers create websites from scratch we’re setting ourselves up for disaster if they walk. But think about it – actually if we have in-house developers who only use a CMS and they walk, finding another developer with those exact CMS skills will be a long and laborious task. Developers all speak from a set of coding languages, they use industry standards and, as long as a web build is properly documented, any number of developers worth their salt should be able to pick up previous work and run with it.

Pic from US Library of Congress under Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia

Pic from US Library of Congress under Creative Commons Licence via Wikimedia

Content management systems are fine if there are no coding skills at all within your organisation and you’re relying on a marketing or comms team to do your website, with oodles of budget to spend on support from the CMS company. However, if you’re lucky enough to even have one developer – like Paul in Falkirk Council who I met last week and is starting out on this very journey – open source is the way to go. There’s a whole community out there offering free and instant support – no job tickets, no hidden fees and no waiting.

It’s time to adopt a developer, cut yourself free of the CMS reins and get building something exciting with the customer firmly in the middle.

Oh, and read Gerry’s blog because I’m with him on the centralised team which has access to customers, with continuous improvement based on user testing and evidence. Oh, and they have to be able to write killer content but most importantly be able to kill content. That’s not to much to ask is it?

Today I have learned

  • content management systems are like baby walkers – we outgrow them at some point
  • my hairdresser is a Jedi master
  • I’ll probably only ever read fiction on holiday

Today’s track

I really struggled to pick a favourite Nouvelle Vague track cos I love them all but this one I want to put on repeat.

Today’s recipe


You can use any veg you like for this but I’d always include either spring greens or pak choi.


Sesame oil for frying

1 onion, roughly chopped

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 tsp Lazy Red Chillies

a couple of handfuls of mushrooms, sliced

6 babycorn, chopped

a handful of sugar snap peas

2 heads of pak choi, leaves separated

2 tsp Lazy Ginger

2 tbsp fish sauce

1 tsp sugar

a good splash of soy sauce

a good splash of Chinese cooking wine

Method: Prep all your veg before you start. Heat the oil till smoking and add the onion, garlic, chillies and ginger. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms, corn and peas and cook briefly before adding the pak choi. After 2-3 minutes add the fish sauce, sugar, wine and soy sauce and stir. Serve with noodles or rice.


  1. Susan Collini · May 1, 2013

    Open source CMS is the choice for many these days, especially WordPress. However, many don’t realise there are two versions of the platform. I receive calls from a growing number of ‘distressed’ websitesite/blog owners who have run into trouble with using the WordPress.org platform through naivety that ‘one-click- installs are easy, so ‘driving’ the CMS will be too! Then there’s the security aspects of running a WordPress.org site, which many don’t ignore, just lack awareness of. Working with WordPress.com is a better option, in my opinion, with perhaps a migration to WordPress.org further down the line, with help from a web developer who understands what’s required to secure the installation from the outset.
    If you can find a good web developer who can also write “killer content” I’d suggest providing a ‘room’ in your house and feeding regularly with cake to keep them sweet!

    • carolynemitchell · May 1, 2013

      Agreed, wholeheartedly – comms people are always willing to share the cakey goodness 🙂

  2. Rowan · May 2, 2013

    I used to run a website using nothing but Dreamweaver and Internet Information Server so it was quite a shock to me when I moved to the government and had to work with CMS all the time! As someone who’s alright at coding I find it very frustrating to have to go back and forth to support companies whenever I want meta tags changed or code added…then again, I can see the advantages from a stability point of view. The source code generated by CMS can be pretty messy too…if we were allowed to do the techy side ourselves and move everything in-house, I’d be happy to.

    (it’ll never happen)

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