Web Governance Defined

dataWeb governance has become a popular term with many web managers. Unfortunately some think of it as the Holy Grail or mega-problem solver that magically fixes broken web teams.  Imagine a world where you had an early alert system to give you warning about when it was time to tinker with the site’s interface, make adjustments in staffing, allocate resources or shift program management focus.

While this vision is a worthy “future state” to aspire to, where web governance earns its spurs is as a term to describe the current state of your web team operations.


Coming to a clear understanding of your web governance maturity is the first step of any enterprise Web manager who wants to lift the site’s performance. Only with everyone on the same page can you all move in the same direction.

So how do you define web governance? And if your aim is to set your web governance in a high-performing direction, what are the first principles you need your team to embrace?

When you get everyone to agree on the “web governance” definition you are ready to look at your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. With a common understanding of these issues you gain control of the chaos and are ready to lead, shining a light on what’s working and fixing what’s broken.

If you skip creating a common understanding of what you mean by “web governance” you choose defeat. You risk bouncing around like a ball in a pinball machine. What an apt analogy! As a pinball you responding to the players who are tapping you and shift unpredictably against the obstacles thrown in your path, all the while obeying the laws of gravity seeking the lowest spot available. You attempt to score the high points but too often just drop into random holes. Ugh.

Instead, you could choose victory. Imagine leading a crew team all rowing in the same direction on a placid river with marked hazards and a clear finish line.

My favorite definition of web governance is “the appropriate rules, roles and relationships necessary to achieve your strategic objectives via your website”. This definition, credited to former federal web manager Candi Harrison and since adopted by the Web Content best practices team at USA Services, a branch of the General Services Administration, is a clear and sensible start to the conversation.


If you get agreement on this definition, your quest for web governance victory will hinge on another factor: group assumptions and first principles. To choose victory means you will forge agreements with your executive leadership and key stakeholders on the first principles behind rules, roles and relationships. These agreements will be vital to your team’s success.

For the rules – Standards must govern decisions. Eliminate the guess-work and the endless negotiation by setting and publishing standards for the core activities like policy, editorial and controlled vocabularies to guide your team, and then use and enforce these rules in “living” documents that are subject to evaluation from time to time.

For the roles – A division of labor must accent accountability. Just as the fox shouldn’t guard the hen-house, those building the site shouldn’t lead requirements gathering. Similarly, if you build the site, others should create the requirements. When you create the to-do or fix-it list, it should draw on evidence about what users what that you get from usability testing and Web analytics. Because of these accountability issues, a program office is often the best spot for the Web team, trumping the old-school debate of public affairs vs. IT as the proper home for Web site management.

For relationships – You must strive for an organization that is networked, not insular. Your job at the enterprise level is not to do the work, but to manage, motivate and inspire others to excel at their jobs. You are likely to have dotted-line relationships to many other business units – not direct report status. You need their cooperation and work effort to succeed, but you don’t hire or fire them. At the same time, it is imperative that you develop a strong sensing mechanism to receive information from all parts of the organization and promote rigor in your requirements gathering rules.


The  web governance definition says the rules-roles and relationships must advance the strategic goals of your website. The assumption by many is that every site has unique goals. If this is true, you can knock on the door of the owner of a strategic plan. With that document in hand, you could develop measures to review performance against its stated business goals with specific attention to rules roles and relationships in support of each goal, right?

The stumbling block, however, as anyone in a large organization will noisily and readily attest to: strategic plans are notorious for being out of date and overtaken by events. In fact, it is not unusual to see a half-inch of dust on the documents (figuratively or literally) and have an insider explained that three of the six elements of the plan aren’t part of the current program because “Sally took a new job” or “We didn’t get the money we needed to do that initiative”.

So, instead of the starting point being the proposition that every site has unique objectives, why not start from the point of view that at their core every website has the same objectives? That’s where I propose you begin in your quest to evaluate the maturity of your organization’s web governance.

To be successful every website needs to do three things – three core processes – at a threshold level. Think of it as a pass/fail grade on the ladder to being great. The three processes are:

  • Does your Web site provide valuable content?
  • Does it help people find stuff? and
  • Does it leverage the feedback loop?

WebGovernanceChart_smallIf these core processes are not working, the website is in trouble. Bear in mind, that the core processes are part of a system and do not work in isolation from the rest of the organization. If these core processes are in sync you are on the road to a solid system.

On top of the core processes, are governing processes. This includes tasks such as program management, the ability to plan and execute initiatives and the system you have in place to improve services. Even if your core processes are in tune, without solid governing processes you will have disarray and struggle.

And at the foundation of the core processes are enabling processes. This includes your people, IT support and infrastructure as well as resource and asset management.

Everything else about your site could be phenomenal, but if these elements are missing the system falls apart.

When these three processes – governing, core and enabling — and each of their associated elements all work together systematically you can have faith that your web governance is strong. When any single item is not performing, the entire system suffers. As a whole, your website governance is only as strong as its weakest link.