An open source content management system (CMS), funded by a government initiative, has become a surprise hit with local governments, with more than 30 adopting it as a means of getting their services online.

The Accessible and Personalised Local Authority Websites (APLAWS) project, pronounced "applause", evolved out of the government's plan to get all local authorities online by 2005. Several London boroughs, with project management from the Borough of Camden, worked with Red Hat on developing the system, which is based on Red Hat's Enterprise CMS and Portal Server.

The result has been adopted by a quickly growing number of local authorities, including huge organisations such as Camden, Coventry City Council and West Sussex County Council, said Giles Palmer, managing director of Runtime Collective, a web engineering firm on the APLAWS steering committee.

"It's very unusual for such an important piece of software to be open source," he said. "It's definitely the fastest-growing (CMS) in local government."

Last week's APLAWS user-group meeting had more than 100 attendees, Palmer said, and a new version of the system is due out next week.

Keys to success include positive word-of-mouth, low cost and the fact that Camden became the first to adopt the system as soon as it was ready, Palmer said. Another important factor is that the system was developed with local authorities specifically in mind, so that it includes large numbers of ready-made services, such as a system for reporting broken street lamps. "All that is built into the CMS. That's an immediate win," he said.

Perhaps most important was the immediate credibility lent by the fact that the project was government-supported. "This is slightly different from other open-source projects in that it was started by the UK government," Palmer said. "That gave it a kick start."

He said many local authorities have enough in-house staff to support and extend APLAWS themselves, but support can also be purchased from third parties such as Red Hat and Runtime. Camden is also currently offering support through this year.

The system is written entirely in Java and complies with Web application standards such as e-GIF and metadata interoperability standards. It was developed with extensive input from its future users: London boroughs Newham, Lewisham, Bromley and Harrow, for example, organised how the system would be organised, defined content types and even worked on accessibility standards for the disabled.

The UK public sector has been criticised for its lack of organised support for open source, but Palmer said open source software has made significant headway. "Linux is used all over the place, for instance. There's not one local council I've talked to in the last year that doesn't have Linux somewhere," he said.