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Website Governance Best Practices: Ensuring Excellence and Compliance

Answers to the questions our clients ask most often.

1. What is a website governance plan?

A website governance plan is a set of rules that guide the administration and maintenance of a website. At its heart, a website governance plan documents ownership of and responsibility for the content of a website.

For example, in a college or university website, there are likely discrete sections of the site for Admissions and Academics. A governance plan should identify who “owns” the Admissions section and its contents (likely the Dean of Admissions, or similar), as well as who “owns” the Academics section and its contents (likely the Provost, or similar). Going a step further, within the Academics section, there are probably sub-sections for various schools or academic departments or majors, such as English or Mathematics or Political Science. A school or department for Political Science likely has an owner for its content (to whom that responsibility is essentially delegated by the Provost). The owner of the Political Science section is likely the Chair of the Political Science department or similar. This system of ownership and delegation of responsibility can be followed all the way down to individual pages of the site, at which point you are likely defining the people who are responsible for editing the content on those pages.

A governance plan also defines the roles and permissions of the website’s administrators and maintainers, along with the standards and protocols those users will follow in their work on the website.

For example, some editors of the site should be given limited access to editing certain sections, or perhaps they can only add and edit content, but they are not allowed to publish it until another user with greater permissions can review and publish their work. The plan may also dictate things such as naming conventions and URL path structures to follow, so the site maintains consistency throughout despite having numerous editors working on it.

A governance plan may also define rules for the overall structure, organization and hierarchy of a website, along with the processes and procedures to follow in creating new parts of the websites, or even creating an entirely new website.

For example, what is the process for adding a new section to the site with a link in the website’s main menu? What about editing what’s in the main menu – who should be allowed to do that and should there be a review process of those additions and changes? And who should review those changes? These are all important questions to answer in a governance plan.

2. How does a governance plan work?

A governance plan is a communication tool for helping your web community understand how to participate in the maintenance of the website. As such, the clearer and more easily accessible it is, the better it will work.

In short, a governance plan works by answering the questions that will inevitably arise as multiple site editors and administrators begin working on a website collaboratively. The degree to which you can successfully answer these questions in advance, and make that information available to the editors and administrators of the site, the better governed the site will be. For a good starter list of questions to answer when writing a governance plan, see our Guide to Governance.

The best way to capture the answers to these questions is in a well-organized document that is easy for site editors and administrators to reference when a questions arises. Wikis, published pages or documents on an Intranet, or a document easily available on a shared drive are all good options for a governance plan. Your public website is probably not the best choice, unless you want that information visible to the world.

Critical to the success of a governance plan is the continuous maintenance of, promotion of, and education about the plan over time:

  • Maintenance: The plan is reviewed and edited from time to time. The most frequent maintenance will come in the form of addressing new issues that come up, which had not been previously addressed. A governance plan is a living document, which is to say, it is never complete – it always lives in various states of being up-to-date.
  • Promotion: Editors and administrators of the plan are regularly reminded of its existence and their responsibility to follow it, as well as notification of changes to it.
  • Education: New editors and administrators are made aware of and trained in accordance with the guidelines articulated by the plan. This can be challenging in an environment where editorial responsibility is decentralized, and new editors may be trained by other editors within a department. Guidelines for this process can also be part of the governance plan, in order to establish some standards around training.

3. Who should determine the governance plan?

A strong governance plan, like any set of rules or guidelines, needs to have authority in order to be taken seriously and followed. Therefore it needs to be endorsed and approved by people in the organization who are in positions of authority and leadership. That is not to say that those who lend their authority and leadership to empowering the governance plan must participate in its creation, but the governance plan will be most effective if it has their support and backing.

It is also important that the governance plan is shaped by a diversity of voices and perspectives that appropriately represent the interests of the entire organization. Having representative participation does two things: one, it gives the leadership mentioned previously confidence in their support of the plan; two, it gives those who must follow the plan faith in its appropriateness and fairness.

Finally, a governance plan needs to be logical and make sense to everyone involved (as much as possible). People follow rules that make sense to them and come from figures of authority. Additionally, most people don’t spend time regularly reviewing the rules. Most will read them once, gain a general sense of how they should operate, and then work from that general understanding. That being the case, it is important that the guidelines appeal to common sense and reason so that they are easy to remember and follow.

Given these requirements (authority, diversity of perspectives, and common sense), governance plans at most organizations are shaped by some form of working committee, lead by a committee chair. This is especially true in higher ed, but equally so in non-profits, government, healthcare, and even in for-profit corporations.

When selecting a committee to oversee the creation and maintenance of a website governance plan, especially one that must be able to produce guidelines that embody the requisite authority, diversity of perspectives, and common sense, here are some recommendations to follow:

  • Keep the size of the committee as small as you can while maintaining a diverse point of view—big committees are hard to schedule and hard to reach consensus
  • Ask people to join, don’t force them—you want people who care about this and want to be involved
  • Choose members with at least some general knowledge of the web and how it works, along with your website—you want people with somewhat informed perspectives
  • Choose some members with web expertise—they can add a lot of insight to a group of non-experts
  • Choose members with open minds who can negotiate and compromise—avoid people who are too rigid in their thinking to work well with the group
  • Choose some members with stature and standing in the organization—this will give the committee some of the respect and authority it needs
  • Don’t choose only senior and high-level staff—a diversity of perspectives also means selecting younger, more junior participants as well who may be closer to new technology
  • Choose people who actually edit and administrate the website—they know the pain points better than anyone
  • Have a process for a deciding vote—whether that is having an odd number of members or giving the chair the authority to cast a deciding vote when opinion is split

The overall size of the governance committee will ultimately depend on the needs of your organization, but a good target to consider is in the 5-10 members range, 7 being the ideal. More than 10 people have a hard time finding common meeting times and reaching consensus. Fewer than 5 may not be representative enough or contain as diverse a set of perspectives, or as broad a base of knowledge, as you may need. Ultimately, you want to find the number and group that are functional and politically empowered to be decisive and effective.

4. How does governance relate to content strategy?

The aims of content strategy are to define the purpose, goals, and structure of content in a website. It is concerned with what the content of the site should be, the audiences for whom it is intended, the manner in which it should be positioned, placed, and prioritized. A governance plan does not typically address these issues; however a well-articulated governance plan works in support of your content strategy by providing a set guidelines for content creators, editors and publishers to follow.

For example, your content strategy may identify a need for your website to have news about your organization. Further, that strategy may determine that news posts need to be able to have the ability to add video and categorize posts with taxonomy terms. In short, the content strategy determines what elements should be included in all news posts. Your governance plan would determine such things as who has permission to publish news posts to the site, can they publish them directly or do they need to go through a review process first, and what types of video links are permitted to be attached to news posts.

In other words, content strategy determines what the content is and why it is necessary, while governance helps protect the integrity of the content that is created so that it achieves the purpose intended for it.

5. How does governance differ from training or a content style guide?

Governance is not training, but when paired with training, it has a greater chance of being adopted. Training for your website should focus on things like how to use the tools encompassed in the site and best practices for editing maintaining website content. There will likely be opportunities throughout training to emphasize and reinforce aspects of governance, and trainees will undoubtedly ask questions about their permissions within the site which will be explained by the terms of your governance plan.

For example, a trainee may ask why they can’t add their own taxonomy terms to the vocabulary available to categorize news posts on the site. The answer may very likely be that the governance committee, based on the recommendations of the Communications Department, determined that the news post taxonomy should be a controlled vocabulary, managed by the Communications Department, so that there weren’t lots of editors making up too many terms, confusing terms, terms that can’t be differentiated from one another etc. Additionally, if the trainee has recommendations for new terms, they can address those to the Communications Department for consideration.

A content style guide could be part of a governance plan, but chances are that content styles (i.e. writing, illustration and image styles) are already the domain of one or several parts of the organization – likely the Communications or Marketing departments. Alternatively, editors possibly may need to follow academic guidelines if they are working in higher ed, or some healthcare-related guidelines if they are in that industry.

In cases where content styles are the domain of other groups, it is likely that they will draft the guidelines, which would then be approved or adopted into the governance plan, if they are meant to be a part of the governance plan.

6. How detailed does the governance plan need to be in order to work?

A governance plan doesn’t have to be highly detailed in order to be effective. In fact, an argument could be made that too much detail can actually be counterproductive because it’s too much information for people remember, and potentially distracts from the most important points.

The amount of detail that is right for you will depend on your organization, but it’s probably wise to start simple and add more detail over time as needs arise. Start with the big, important topics, like defining who owns and is responsible for the various sections of the site. It’s okay to begin with broad strokes and refine it over time. A functional governance plan is a living document that evolves over time to continually meet the needs of the community interacting with your website, so plan to keep working on it over time.

7. Your Guide to Governance is extensive – does our governance plan need to encompass everything before it can go into operation?

No. The Guide to Governance is intended to provide a set a of questions to consider for a broad range of topics that may apply to your governance planning. By no means does a governance plan need to be very broad or extensive in order to work. Again, beginning simple and adding depth where needed, over time, is probably the wisest approach.

For example, if a college or university were writing a governance plan, they may start simply by defining who owns the main sections of the site. Looking at the main menu, they may start to draft the following rules:

  • About section is owned and maintained by the Communications Department
  • Academics section is owned and maintained by the Provost’s Office
  • Admissions section is owned and maintained by the Admissions Office
  • Student Life section is owned by the Dean of Students Office
  • Giving section is owned by the Alumni Relations Office

It can start that simply, followed by the next level of the menu, especially if sub-sections of the site are maintained by groups under the primary owner, such as the academic departments owning department or degree pages underneath Academics.

The most important thing is to start somewhere and avoid failing to begin because the entirety of the task seems daunting.

8. What are the most important parts of a governance plan to draft first?

One of, if not the most important parts of a governance plan is defining ownership and responsibility of the site and its various sections, pages, etc. It would be hard to imagine an effective governance plan at any level without determinations around ownership being settled. Without ownership defined, people fight over common or shared territory and entire swaths of the site can go unattended and grow stale as no one maintains those pages.

Next most important, and perhaps paired with ownership, is determining intended use, which establishes the fundamental purpose for the site, and potentially its sub-sections. This is important because having a shared understanding of what the site is there for can help resolve many disputes and conflicts over what “belongs” on a website or in a section of a website.

A good example of this is an Academic Department section of a college or university’s public website. Let’s assume the primary purpose of a college’s public website is to present information about the school and its offerings to those who are unfamiliar with it (i.e. prospective students, faculty, employees, etc.). Let’s further assume the intention of each Academic Department section is to introduce the majors and degrees available, show the faculty in the department, and perhaps highlight some work coming from the department in the form of student and faculty accomplishments. When a member of the faculty wants to publish all of his syllabi for a particular class going back to the 1980s on the department website, having guidelines about what content belongs on a department website, versus say the content that belongs on an intranet designed for internal audiences at the college, can help in the explanation to that faculty member that the department section is the intended for that sort of content.

The third, but by no means the least, most important part of a governance plan to tackle at the beginning of your planning is to determine the roles and permissions that users of the website should have. This is effectively answering the questions of who is allowed to do what in the administration of the website and its contents.

For public websites, the vast majority of visitors will be unauthenticated users – meaning they don’t log into the site, and for the most part they are limited to reading and interacting with the content on the website. A smaller group of users will be able to log into the website and perform tasks related to maintenance of the site. Generally speaking, these are web editors and administrators. They are the people with permissions to add, edit, publish and delete content (editors) and/or deeper permissions add, edit and delete more sensitive aspects of the site, like the roles and permissions themselves, as well as who has access to those permissions (administrators).

In a more granular sense, determining the roles and permissions are where you will set which editors are allowed to edit which sections of the website, or who is allowed to publish certain types of content, or whether someone is able to create content (contributor) but needs someone else to review and publish it (publisher).

Unless there are only a very few people with the ability to log-in and edit the site, chances are you don’t want everyone to be able to do everything. That’s where roles and permissions come in.

9. How will I know if our governance plan is working (or not working)?

Signs that the governance plan will be easy to see, though only if you are paying attention to them. This is largely the case because it’s easy not to notice when things are working well. Here are the easiest markers of an effective governance plan:

  • Questions, conflicts, and issues related to the web begin to dissipate. They won’t ever go away completely, but as they become more rare, you’ll know the plan is working.
  • Random spot-checks of various sections and pages of the site confirm that the broad range of editors and administrators understand and are following the guidelines.
  • Generally there is little stress and frustration bubbling up from editors, administrators, and users of the website.

Signs that the governance plan is not working yet will be much easier to spot, largely because you will hear complaints and frustrations from various places. Here are the most common markers of an ineffective governance plan:

  • Users complain about the site being difficult to use, navigate, understand, etc.
  • Owners, administrators, and editors of sections complain about the work of their peers in other sections.
  • Random spot-checks of various sections and pages of the site show that content editors and administrators are not following a consistent set of rules.
    • URL path names vary in structure from section to section or page to page.
    • Labels and other naming conventions vary significantly throughout the site.
    • The appearance of certain sections of the site have been modified such that they stray from the visual identity of the organization.
    • Best practices are not being followed consistently across the site.
  • Generally there is stress and frustration from many people who interact with the site.

Individual people will always have frustrations with the website and its maintenance. That is unavoidable because you can’t make everyone happy about everything. But there is a noticeable difference when poor governance is at play because the dissatisfaction will stretch more broadly and run more deeply.

The good news is that the complaints and frustrations will give your governance committee the specific pain points it needs to address, so listen to the people who interact with the website, whether they are administrators, editors, or users. And always remember that good governance (its documents, people, and processes) is a living thing that needs to be maintained and refreshed over time to remain in good working order.

10. What questions do you have about digital governance?

Granted, that’s a trick question, but if you do have questions about creating a digital governance plan for your organization, we are happy to help. Contact us with your question or concern, and we’ll set up a time to chat.

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