Website Governance: Protecting Your Investment

Establishing a website governance plan is critical to ensure the long-term success of your website redesign.

Launching a new site is a huge undertaking, but it’s really only the beginning. To stay as fresh and relevant as it is on the day of launch, your website needs lots of love and attention — that’s where governance comes in. 

If smart organizations use their websites to support their business goals, consider digital governance an investment in successfully achieving those goals, defining the necessary accountability, process, support, and standards to keep your site fresh and focused.

What is Website Governance?

Lisa Welchman, one of the leading authorities on digital governance, defines website governance as “a framework which effectively distributes decision-making authority for strategy, policy, and standards through your digital team.”

Not only will a governance plan help you map out sustainable day-to-day management for your website post-launch, but the process of defining the plan will force you to ask important questions about your organizational resources and priorities, and consider how to make sure your new website is not just a technical but also a cultural success.

Outcomes of Website Governance

While you may intend your website to be a mirror of the amazing culture thriving in your classrooms and campus quads, when neglected, it becomes a mirror of your internal culture instead — which may be rife with competing priorities, long to-do lists, knowledge gaps, and political factors.

Governance helps build alignment between websites and the organizations that manage them. Well-defined, well-supported governance can yield tremendous positive outcomes:  

  • More consistent, higher-quality experience for end users, yielding more goal-driven outcomes for stakeholders  
  • Greater awareness, buy-in, and knowledge among internal users for the processes of maintaining web content  
  • Less internal chaos resulting from undefined roles, knowledge gaps, inconsistent and/or low quality work, or insufficient outcomes as they relate to goals  

You’ve got a great story to tell about your institution. Governance helps you tell that story without getting in your own way.

Website Governance Begins Before Launch Day

While a governance plan primarily serves the effectiveness of the website post-launch, the earlier in your website redesign project you begin thinking about governance, the better. That means:

  • Designing a website, editorial strategy and publishing approach that can be sustained by your team.
  • Using activities like a content audit to evaluate content, and draw meaningful insights into areas of governance need or opportunity
  • Identifying who will be responsible for managing the site post-launch and who will provide oversight 
  • Thinking seriously about your marketing team — their skill sets, internal relationships, allocated resources (read: time and money), and overall digital savvy — and what changes (if any) are necessary to best support your website

As you consider these directives throughout your project, you can devise corresponding governance approaches that are appropriate and sustainable for the tasks at hand.

Requirements for Effective Website Governance

There are a few fundamental principles essential to effective governance:

  • Relevance - No two governance plans are alike. Every organization has unique needs, culture, and objectives that the plan should take into account. 
  • Sustainability — The most important thing you can do to guarantee the ongoing success of your website is to make sure you can support it post-launch — so as you consider various ideas for your new site, be sure not to bite off more than you can chew.
  • Consistency - Quality cannot be a moving target — editorial guidelines, publishing workflows, and other relevant processes must be clearly defined, communicated, and accepted. 
  • Ownership — Good governance means sometimes saying “no,” and guiding people in a direction that may not reflect exactly what they requested. For ownership to be effective, it must be reinforced up and down the organization. 
  • Accountability - All sections of the website should be accounted for and actively maintained. Individuals charged with doing so must have defined roles and responsibilities, and they must be empowered to fulfill them with appropriate training and support. 

What Does Website Governance Include?

A comprehensive governance plan addresses a range of topics, including:

  • Governance Model: Is content publishing centralized with the digital team? Is it distributed across the organization? Or does it meet somewhere in the middle in a hybrid arrangement? Do you outsource any content management and, if so, do they need access, training, or other support?
  • Roles and Permissions: Defining both CMS access and offline responsibilities for anyone having a role in content publishing, and ensuring people have the time and training to fulfill those roles
  • Publishing Workflow: Confirming how content review and approval works (both offline and within the CMS workflow), as well as how CMS usage and access is determined
  • Content Quality Assurance: Ongoing content auditing practices, including protocols for removing stale or irrelevant content, content archival, ensuring against site bloat, and enforcement of brand and website standards
  • Content Operations: Guidance for content planning processes, including editorial meetings, content calendar, and managing website requests
  • Training and Documentation: Setting up a training protocol — including frequency, modalities, and areas of focus — is one of the most important things you can do to activate a culture of governance at your institution. This should be reinforced with any supporting documentation, such as content criteria, style guides, voice and tone guidance, visual content guidelines, CMS training manuals, web content best practices, and more. In a hybrid governance model, this may also include guidance on building internal community among content editors — both for peer support and to alleviate some burden on the central team.

Identifying Your Website Governance Needs

No two website governance plans are the same. As you consider your governance needs, questions to ask include:

  • What is your current governance model? How many editors do you have? Is this sustainable? Do you want to retain this model? If not, how might you evolve it?
  • How are website responsibilities accounted for in job descriptions?
  • What does your web content and CMS training process look like?
  • What documentation do you have? How current and accessible is it?
  • How do people gain access to the CMS? What does the process look like?
  • What is the process to request website changes? How are those requests evaluated?
  • What does your publishing workflow look like? Are there any pain points? 
  • What is your ongoing content quality assurance process?
  • Do you have any content defined as authoritative (mission-critical)? If so, how is that content managed?

Getting Started With Governance

Here are a few key considerations for getting your governance planning off on the right foot:

  • No one person can go into a cave and come out with your governance plan — governance is a cultural function, and you will need input and buy-in from multiple people at your institution. We recommend having one person who is the leader, driving the overall effort, and consulting with a small team of relevant individuals (e.g. marketing, IT, training, HR) to build the recommendations, then seeking broader input and buy-in from stakeholders, editors, and others.
  • It can be overwhelming to look at your entire digital publishing process and begin to make sense of it. One helpful exercise to lead with your core governance team is “Start/Stop/More/Less/Continue” — simply write various aspects of your process (or your wishlist), like “Our current CMS” or “200+ editors” or “monthly in-person trainings,” on index cards and deal them out one by one. Give the team 20-30 seconds max for each card to decide if it is something to start doing, stop doing, do more or less of, or continue as-is. This will give you a good, gut sense of where to start.
  • Talk to your web editors. They’re the ones on the front-lines of your publishing process. Whether it’s a survey, a focus group, or a series of one-on-one conversations, figure out what’s working or not working for them. Their answers will likely align closely to the areas of focus for your governance plan.

Originally published July 22, 2021.