Capitol Content: Architect's offices benefit from common site management system

James Graham, Web developer for the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, built a Web content management system that lets employees add text without altering the look and feel of pages.

Botanic Garden employees make their Web site bloom with fresh photos of seasonal flowers.

U.S. Botanic Garden

When James Graham started work for the Architect of the Capitol in the spring of 2001, there was no system for updating materials on the office's Web and intranet sites.

Graham, the Web developer for the architect's Office of Information Resources Management, installed a content management system that puts designated staff members in charge of updating their own content. The system, built from off-the-shelf software, went live in January of last year.

The architect's office manages 35 buildings on Capitol Hill including the Capitol itself, House and Senate offices, the Supreme Court building and the U.S. Botanic Garden a short walk from the Capitol.

Graham maintains the Botanic Garden site,; AOC Link, an intranet for workers in buildings served by the architect's office; and the Senate restaurants' Web site,, which is open only to Hill workers.

Using AOC Link, legislative employees can request heating and air conditioning maintenance, furniture moving, painting and other repairs. The intranet also supplies human resources forms and information about the Thrift Savings Plan and other policies. There is a searchable employee directory for the architect's office, which has people stationed in all 35 buildings.

'The intranet has become the method of disseminating information across the campus,' Graham said. When he arrived on the Hill after two decades as a corporate graphic designer and Web developer, he found that posting procedures lagged behind the standards he had followed in the private sector. The architect's office had Web and intranet sites, but each department maintained its own pages, and there was little coherence in graphics or posting and updating policies.

'Creating Web pages from scratch is a lot to ask of your employees,' Graham said. So he introduced a unified content management system.

Building on the architecture

The most efficient means is a database-driven Web site that serves up pages dynamically, Graham said.

Some people in the architect's office were using the ColdFusion page-building tool from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco, but Graham said he wanted software with an open architecture that would let him add functions.

Capitol officials had already approved his new page designs and templates by the time Graham selected CommonSpot 3.1, from PaperThin Inc. of Quincy, Mass.

'So I was ready to hit the ground running,' Graham said.

It took a day and a half to convert the HTML pages into new templates based on ColdFusion and CommonSpot. Graham then loaded them into an Oracle8 database on a Unix server. Plans call for conversion to Oracle9i soon.

The system has two levels of access. There are content approvers, such as department heads, and content contributors who are authorized to add and delete text.

'Based on your log-in, you'll have access to whatever you are allowed to edit,' Graham said.

The CommonSpot interface has buttons and drop-down lists for making pages and viewing, authoring and approving content. Version history goes back 30 days.

But the content management system does not let contributors or approvers change colors and graphics. 'The look and feel is locked down,' Graham said.

Also, it's up to individual contributors and approvers to get the text right before it goes live. 'I can't stop you from making typos,' Graham said.

'If you know how to use a word-processing program, you can use this system,' Graham said.

Hill restaurant managers have been updating their own Web site for the past year, and they rarely need his help to post their ever-changing breakfast and lunch menus, Graham said.

CommonSpot has a built-in tool for gauging compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, Graham said. A click on a button labeled 'Warnings/Errors' will tell whether Alt tags for screen-reader software are missing from images or table descriptions.

Nothing goes live to the Web site until a content approver gives it the OK, Graham said. Several people can contribute to the same page, although two people cannot edit the same content simultaneously.

About 15 employees now contribute and approve content for the various sites. Over the next two years, Graham said, he hopes to have about 100 content contributors.

He said he couldn't think of any downside to CommonSpot, which he has customized with tools that didn't come in the box, such as an event calendar and customer survey.


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