Is Your Website Governance Functional?

10 minute read
Robert Jacoby avatar

Your website governance is happening whether or not you know it -- perhaps not always with organizational focus and intent. Here’s a not-so-scary, not-so-dull framework to help you think about (then manage) your website and all its many parts. Hint: it happens on the frontlines where the work is happening, not in the back rooms.

I created the Wikipedia article for website governance in February 2010 to provide a definition for a concept I’d been working on for many years. By that time I had worked for several years as a Web manager for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs. And at the time I created the Wikipedia article I was beginning my second year in the MIM Program at the iSchool, University of Maryland (College Park), focusing my research in website governance and content management issues.

My work in website management over the years and my research into website governance issues led me to three conclusions:

  1. There are many definitions for website governance.
  2. There are many different types of models for website governance based on the many different definitions in #1.
  3. The models proffered in #2 (based on #1) seemed to me to be inadequate because of piece-of-the-puzzle thinking.

What was missing from the discussion surrounding website governance was a ground-up approach that considered all of a website’s functional areas (how work gets done) and how those different functional areas should align with enterprise strategy within a 21st century information environment. My hunch was that there could be an all-inclusive approach to website governance that considered all the pieces of the puzzle, set them out on the table, and put them together to form an integrated whole, supported by basic principles of organization, information and knowledge management.

With this in mind I did further research into how website professionals manage their enterprise Web presence. My goal was to develop a new model for website governance that Web professionals could easily use for any size or type of enterprise, for any size or type of website.

Let’s first take a look at how we got here.

Well, How Did We Get Here?

From the Web’s early days, people have been struggling with how best to manage an organization’s website. During the early days of the Web, anything went. “[I]nformation was considered meaningful simply because it was posted on the Internet.” Many organizations, developing their websites with the philosophy of “let a thousand flowers bloom,” saw their websites grow into hundreds or even thousands of pages, with several or perhaps dozens of content contributors.

In 2001, Guenther noted that Web development strategies could be based on “who yells the loudest.” This would be funny except that things were getting out of control. During site redesigns, many organizations might discover that they did not even know all of the information assets on their websites. Or, “everyone” was involved in its maintenance, but no one had responsibility -- the dreaded all-but-nothing scenario.

In May 2005, the Web Governance Task Group of the Federal Web Managers Council posted one of the first definitions of “web governance”: “Web Governance is the structure of people, positions, authorities, roles, responsibilities, relationships, and rules involved in managing an agency’s website(s).”

Over the next 5 years various authors proposed website governance definitions, trying to bring order to environments that I’m sure at times could feel quite chaotic. Some focused on content governance through the entire lifecycle; major areas, such as people, process, and standards, or roles, responsibilities, relationships, rules, and review; governance structures or steering committees; and type of governance structure (centralized, decentralized, or federated). Along with these definitions, some authors proposed models for website governance.

We’ll explore these in detail later, but for now we can say this order-into-chaos is done for good reason: The website reflects the organization. Welchman has recently even said that the “website is the digital representation of the organization.” The downside of this truism, of course, is that a bad website reflects poorly on the organization that developed it. Diffly notes that websites with poor governance display “wide disparities in design,” “lack of focus in content,” and use of bleeding-edge technologies. “In the absence of governance,” writes Harrison, “you risk misunderstandings, inefficiency, and even chaos.”

Why Have Governance At All?

Well, you don’t have a choice, really. Governance is there, always; the question is: How do you want to it to be?

Start with Purpose.

Purposes of websites vary widely -- education, research, commerce, entertainment, news and information -- but website governance issues are persistent, and some are consistent, across any type and any size of websites. This is because websites are composed of functional areas, and functions are purpose-neutral. For example, graphic design, as a pure functional area, will be used on a website, regardless of that website’s purpose. The same can be said for the functions of content, information architecture, systems administration, strategy and so on. Some areas of website governance are like breathing: You’re doing it whether you realize it or not. In other words, for good or for bad, your website governance is showing.

The purpose of website governance is another matter. Most think of governance in terms of control. In 2006, Diffily said the “purpose of Website Governance is to ensure appropriate structures are in place for managing a site in a controlled and orderly way.” Mahler and Regan wrote of governance arrangements to resolve conflicts over control. And Roth noted that the “purpose of governance is to resolve disputes before they occur.”

The unfortunate result of focusing on control and conflict resolution is that it misses the point entirely of the real question at hand: What is the purpose of website governance? Which is to enable the different functions of the website to be successful.

Form is Trying to Follow Function But Can’t Quite Make It

How one defines “website governance” affects how one models its structure, and then (tries to) govern it. (Think of one of the blind men at the elephant’s trunk touching a leg, “seeing” a tree, and then describing [offering governance solutions for] that tree.)

In 2001, Guenther proposed a governance structure or steering committee that, through five principles of effective web governance (following a plan, selecting a group, defining a governance charter, defining a governance process, and defining deliverables) would act as “the invisible hand of leadership and guidance.” More recently, in 2011, Welchman advised establishing an organizational Web Council to “help cut across organizational silos and support a more strategic and comprehensive approach to Web development.”

In 2005, Roth noted that governance exists on a spectrum from fully centralized to fully decentralized. “The sweet spot -- a federated governance model -- is about two thirds decentralized and one third centralized.”

Learning Opportunities

Diffily’s website governance model lists four activity areas: Leadership, Development, Maintenance and Technical.

In 2007, Walsh quoted researchers Mahler and Regan, who wrote that they saw federal agencies tending toward one of two approaches to website governance: A strategic view, which would “keep tight control over a Web site and designating one office, usually public affairs, to formulate and evaluate materials submitted by other agency program offices.” The other type of governance would be a “looser, self-organizing approach, which is decentralized, team-based and self-directed.”

In 2009, Buchholz published a comparison chart of website governance models for large organizations. His framework considered three models of governance -- Centralized, Decentralized and Federated -- across 13 areas: governance, strategy, gatekeeping, domain, hosting, content management, content approvals, IT support, design, standards and practices, branding, customer service experience, training, and tools. Clearly, Buchholz combines work functional areas (e.g., strategy, hosting, branding) with work process areas (e.g., content approvals, standards and practices).

Also in 2009, Harrison proposed the “5 R’s” for website governance: Roles, Responsibilities, Relationships, Rules and Review. Roles include who must be in the governance structure; Responsibilities delineate who does what; Relationships determine when roles interact; Rules are the policies and procedures for web management; and Review is evaluating performance. Here again we see the mix of functional areas with work process areas.

Listen to the People Doing the Work (the Function)

I considered these various definitions of website governance, and models for governance that follow from those definitions, as I was writing the Wikipedia article for “Website governance” (moved from my user page to its current Wikipedia page on February 15, 2010). It has since been modified through the Wikipedia review process:

Website governance may be defined as an organization's structure of staff (each with well-defined roles, responsibilities, and authorities); technical systems; and the policies, procedures, and relationships such staff have in place to maintain and manage a website.

Some will notice similarities to the six components from Davenport’s information ecology model. This is intentional, as his model revolutionized how we think of managing information in an organizational environment, because it looked at the totality of that environment.

After I created the Wikipedia article for website governance, I began to develop a new model, and I chose to focus on functional areas for website governance because functional areas reflect the reality of producing a product, much as a business would have to do. Functional areas within the domain of website governance were determined by combining findings from the federal classification and job grading system, Damarin’s findings for website production work, and my own pilot study.

The online survey was administered through Zoomerang. Survey questions were created to elicit responses about how an organization manages its presence on the Web through various areas of responsibility, based on broad categories I researched through job description searches, the federal job classification system and the work of Damarin, who divided website work roles into six categories: design, information architecture, content production, site building, programming and coordination. The survey was announced through several Web management groups on LinkedIn. There were 171 visits to the survey, 16 partially completed surveys, and 50 completed surveys.
Based on my research findings, I determined 16 functional areas for the Web:

  1. Business (budgeting, customer service, business development, outsourcing)
  2. Strategy (governance, integrating and aligning online and offline strategies)
  3. Systems Administration (hosting, security)
  4. Software Administration
  5. Marketing & Communications
  6. Public Affairs / Relations
  7. E-commerce
  8. Community
  9. Social Media (business focused)
  10. Social Staff (staff focused; i.e., governance of staff in online world)
  11. Content (workflows, style, text/multimedia, translation, archiving)
  12. Graphic Design
  13. User Experience (analysis/design)
  14. Metrics/Analytics
  15. Information/Data Architecture
  16. Legal (privacy, copyright, accessibility, digital rights management [DRM])

These are the fundamental functional areas that might be needed to make a website work, whatever the size or type of organization or website.

This list also provides a springboard for other questions, such as: Can there be a universal definition and model for website governance? Or will any definition be dependent on enterprise circumstances, such as staff, resources and mission? Ultimately, a Web manager will need to answer the question: “What is the appropriate website governance model for me and my organization?”

In my next article, I will present my new website governance model and introduce six concepts for the future of website governance.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading:


About the author

Robert Jacoby

Robert Jacoby has 25 years’ experience in publishing and communications. He has thrived in various settings, including agency, commercial, university, non-profit, educational, government, and professional association, in various roles, including Editor-in-Chief, Editor (Internet Technologies), and Director of Communications.

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