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Governance Blues? Build the Blocks

Government websites have been prevalent since 1995. Fifteen years. Yet agencies still have internal struggles over who should “own” the website and web team, and there is no commonly-accepted model for a web governance structure across government. Even agencies with seemingly strong “web governance” have seen it all fall apart when administrations changed. Governance seems to be a common frustration among web managers. I hear it all the time.

Well, you can sit around and wring your hands, feeling powerless and frustrated. Or you can step up, assess the situation, and start putting the blocks in place.

A few years ago, I taught my first course on web governance. I centered it around 5 building blocks that form the foundation. Since then, I’ve done more thinking and observing and talking to government web managers; and now, I see 7 building blocks – 7 “R’s” – of web governance:

1. Reason: What is the purpose of your website(s)? I left this important “R” out of my first try, and I’ve come to realize this has to start the whole thing. You (and that means the whole agency) have to know why you have a website. Who are your customers? What are you trying to accomplish? And here’s a biggie – what are your overarching priorities, in order? Is it to deliver services? Is it to distribute message (news)? Which comes first? You need that statement of purpose – that “reason” – to guide your decisions and operations. And it needs to be in writing.

2. Roles: Who needs to be in your governance structure? I suggest:

  • An agency executive – someone who can “trump” all others;
  • Program heads – those responsible for the content;
  • The Public Affairs or Communications Director – the person responsible for representing the agency with the public;
  • The CIO – the person in charge of technology;
  • The Director of Contracting/Procurement – the person who makes sure that contractors who provide web content or technology support abide by all federal laws and requirements and agency web policies;
  • The Director of Field Operations – the person who ensures that agency field offices support web operations;
  • Web Managers – both at the agency level and the sub-agency level;
  • New Media Directors – people who are promoting the website(s) and creating other channels for service delivery;
  • Web coordinators or reporters – the staff people who create/manage web content within their branches or offices;
  • GTRs (Government Technical Representatives) – those who are responsible for managing technical support contracts for the website(s)

You may wonder…do web coordinators and GTRs really have any part in decision-making? Well, yes – I think they do. I think it’s far better to have an inclusive governance structure that encourages people at all levels to offer ideas, raise issues, and solve problems together, than to make it a top-down operation. After all, even in government, websites grew through a bottoms-up grassroots movement. So yes – I think all these people should be at the table.

3. Responsibilities: What does each person in the governance structure do?

4. Relationships: How and when should each person in the governance structure interact?

5. Rules: Policies and procedures (both publication procedures and operating procedures)

6. Road Map: A strategy, a plan. This is another one of my late “adds.” But the truth is that – like the “Reason” – a governance team absolutely has to start at the same point and go in the same direction. Otherwise, it falls apart. And we’ve seen many examples of that.

7. Review: Evaluation mechanisms. Ways to make hold people accountable for following the rules. Ways to measure the performance of the website and make improvements. Management controls to protect the agency (and the public) from fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

All of this needs to be in writing. Governance building blocks aren’t real until everyone can see them.

What should these blocks look like? How should you put them together? There are many models. Shape each one to the needs of your agency. Realize that those needs may change over time, and you’ll have to rebuild. Just make sure you have 7 blocks.

OK – you’re looking at this list and you’re thinking, “Gee, we’re missing some of these blocks.” Well, you probably do have most of them. They may not be pretty, but it’s a place to start.

Document what you have now. You do have some rules, even if they’re just in your head – write them down and publish them. You’re already functioning somehow – write down your current “roles,” “responsibilities,” and “relationships.” Don’t worry that it’s not perfect – just recognize what you have. And tell everyone in your agency. It may flush out disagreements – but that’s good. Then you can solve the problems and move forward.

Next, compare what you have to what you should have. I created a little governance self-assessment that I use in my courses (it’s posted on webcontent.gov). Pinpoint what you’re missing and what needs to be improved. Set priorities. If you can make the fix yourself, do it. If you can’t, raise it to the person who can fix it. And don’t just say to your boss, “hey – we need the contracting officer in our governance structure.” Brief him/her on why that’s important. Then produce the memo for your boss to sign or take to his/her boss. Make it easy to make the fix.

You will run into obstacles. You will see blocks start to crumble. Don’t panic! Rebuild your blocks. Find new ways to make your points. Find new allies to help you spotlight the issues. Find new solutions. Use the web manager community for ideas and support. Critical mass can be convincing.

Here’s the thing. Government web governance is more art than science. Government web managers operate in a political and Political environment; and “the web” – by nature – is constantly evolving and morphing. People change, priorities change, public expectations change, technologies change, and – boom! – what you thought was a perfect governance structure starts to tilt. Don’t let that throw you. Take a look at your blocks. Start rebuilding.

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