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Adventures in Wagtail

25 Sep 2023

A multisite success story: Embracing Wagtail CMS at Cambridge University Hospitals

Meet Michael Frost from CUH and see how they used Wagtail multisite to streamline their whole content operation

Michael Frost smiling and standing in front of a waterfall.

Michael Frost

Digital Editor

This is a picture of a patient receiving a treatment at Cambridge University Hospitals

Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH)is a leading healthcare provider producing world-class research that both improves patients' lives and makes the UK National Health Service (NHS) more sustainable.

A few years ago we migrated to Wagtail’s multisite environment, and this decision was a game changer. We are now running 10 different websites on our Wagtail multisite infrastructure: our flagship site, careers website, Cambridge Cancer Hospital and Cambridge Children's Hospital, and the different sites that serve specific purpose and audience groups. We have a membership-based general practitioner (GP) portal for GPs in our region, which is easily accessed through a Wagtail login by different organizations who need to access it, such as local and national partners or local community services.

Recently, we’ve launched a website for the Cambridge Surgical Training Centre, which also deals with robotics and AI. We've got more websites in the pipeline, both large and small.

Beyond that, we continue to look at ways to enhance Wagtail as a content management system (CMS) in general and improve our offering. The multisite functionality means that the benefits for each enhancement stretch across all sites.

Unpicking the web landscape

When I landed at the CUH in 2019, my challenge was to establish the direction for the Trust’s website.

It quickly became apparent that the website was a real mishmash of satellite sites and the 13-year-old flagship website had over 22,000 pages, images, and documents. We had separate installations of different versions and setups of Drupal, WordPress - even an odd Wix site! Different third-party hosting providers and support packages as well as external developers were also thrown in the mix.

Keeping on top of all this was a struggle and a big onus for our small team. We knew that we had to be efficient. What I needed to do was to build a case to bring together our service teams and their separate sites.

Choosing Wagtail CMS

We didn’t know that we needed a multisite instance and we didn’t know we needed Wagtail. What we did know is that we needed a single, open-source CMS that was:

  • Intuitive to manage
  • Easy to pick up and play with to get our content editors and publishers on board
  • Flexible for different service teams
  • Scalable to bring multiples sites together

As a public sector body, it was important that we scrutinized and evaluated our options.

We put together the requirements, which were open to any platform, and went to market. Wagtail really stood out as a platform that matched our criteria because of the NHS migration to Wagtail, which handled over 1 billion views during COVID-19.

Changing the game with multisite

Multisite was exactly what we needed. With multisite, we could manage all sites from a single interface and it was easy enough for our service teams to run with it. Using multisite also meant we could have the NHS identity at the heart of every website as well as the flexibility to adapt the design to support our services. For example, Cambridge Cancer and Cambridge Children's Hospitals, who need to deliver to specific audiences, were able to apply entirely new branding and their own unique designs. We reduced maintenance and support costs as well through using a single instance of Wagtail.

Wagtail is helping us to be more efficient

One of the most significant advantages of migrating to Wagtail has been the time it save us to manage and maintain our websites. By having one instance of Wagtail running multiple sites, we are able to address issues quickly and efficiently. Our efforts can be redirected towards other critical projects and improvements. That advantage alone was worth migrating to Wagtail, but we’ve found there are many other advantages of Wagtail multisite that help us do our work better.

Accessibility at the forefront

We wanted our websites to serve all people that come to us. We wanted to use the NHS design system principles because they have been tested with lots of users and have the right standards built in with a level of quality, accessibility and usability that reflects the powerful brand of the NHS and its core values. All our sites are based on the NHS pattern library with frontend patterns and UI components that comply with WCAG2.1AA(A) but are also unique enough to meet individual sites’ needs.

Accessibility is a big drive for us. We want content to not only be useful, but also accessible to make sure our site works well for people across the board. As a public body that needs to comply with accessibility regulations, we’re going through an accessibility audit. I know that 90% of the audit report will be relevant to all our sites, and the fixes will make a massive difference to our whole digital estate. Multisite for us means that a one-time enhancement on one site usually benefits all the other sites too.

Spinning up new sites is easy like a Sunday morning

It takes about 2.5 hours to get a Wagtail site set up and the domain connected - and then you have a living, breathing site in one morning! We have 13+ templates to choose from that ensure adherence to brand guidelines and can be used to copy large chunks of text straight into the right format. We’re able to maintain quality with multisite.

There are things that really make our lives easier, like redirects. We were able to switch off small legacy sites, such as the 5-page information site for our peanut allergy clinic with a separate domain that has been out there for some time and one that is well known amongst its patient group. With Wagtail multisite, we not only scale up websites, but also build redirects within the CMS that use an existing domain and point it to a subsection of a site within the multisite environment.

COPE - a job done once

Wagtail empowered our content editors to create and manage content more efficiently, which reduces the time required for publishing updates because they can do it once across multiple sites. With our multisite instance of Wagtail, we use a Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE) approach where content is managed centrally and shared across multiple sites, including news, blogs, assets, and templates that can be shared across the entire digital estate.

We also have shared content across multiple sites with elements that can be tweaked using a one-button copy function. With that feature, we can share content items across multiple sites but also adjust them for specific sites. For example, we can share single news items but adapt the angle or the message, or we can add in a new partner quote, and publish these updated items on specific sites. News about our ground-breaking cancer research can be refocused around fundraising for the new cancer hospital. And let’s not forget the scheduling function, which really comes into play when we have embargoes. Something that needs to go out at midnight the next day can now be scheduled once across multiple sites.

Bullet-proof governance

Another important requirement for us was streamlined governance and permissions. We have super users who see all the sites and set up permissions on a site-by-site basis so that when editors log in, they only see what they need to see.

We have governance systems to ensure that information is clinically correct and we have reader panels to ensure it works for our patient groups. This was traditionally done in a separate document and then converted to PDF, but now all that work is managed directly in a digital format, which makes the process much more accessible.

Getting up to speed in no time

The multisite capability has also significantly reduced administrative overhead and the need for onboarding and training. The sites might look different but everything in the backend, except for a few custom elements, is the same for our publishers and editors. The biggest feedback from our teams is just how easy Wagtail is to use for people who have used other CMSs as well as for people who have never touched a CMS before. Our Wagtail training sessions are 45 minutes and they can be done remotely. Our previous website training sessions were done in person and often took two hours, and there were always a lot of questions afterwards.

Multisite made a difference for us

Wagtail has helped us to meet the needs of our patients and service users, while enabling us to support other critical communication priorities across the Trust. We’re looking forward to what we can achieve with Wagtail next.

The main image for this story was provided by the Cambridge University Hospitals image library.