The meeting point for digital marketing in higher education

Digital Governance: getting everyone singing from the same hymn sheet

Digital Governance 

Faculty X: “Can I have a separate domain please?”

Web Team: “Er, no. Faculties aren’t allowed to have separate domain names.”

Faculty X: “Why not?”

Web Team: “Er, because you can’t.”

Faculty X: “Where does it say that? I looked on the Web Team website and there was nothing about it there.”

Web Team: “Er yeah. That’s the policy, it’s just not written down anywhere.”

Faculty X: “Ah, OK then.” goes and buys external domain

Sound familiar?

I would like to be able to say that this is a conversation from the dim and distant past, when the web was still young, organisations were digitally-chaotic and Web Teams had to work hard to get their messages out to a siloed and sprawling organisation. But this was this week. Fact!

The truth of the matter is that web and digital are still seen as new within most large organisations and, as such, they’re not being treated in the same way as other activities which are more mature, controlled, owned, and institutionally understood.

From my experience, Web Teams are very good at ‘managing’ their online presence, but organisations aren’t too great at ‘governing’ it. Tasks are well thought-out; content is created, users are trained, code is developed, and yet there are few rules and regulations around how or why these tasks should be carried out.

And this is what this post is about.

This is for you if you are struggling to understand what Digital Governance is, why you should be doing it, who is doing it well, and how to make a start. I won’t be going too much into the detail of the theory and models as there are experts out there who are doing it far better than I ever could, but I will be sharing their knowledge and linking you to their resources and setting you on the path to managing your current digital chaos through developing and implementing a digital governance framework.

So, what is Digital Governance

“Digital governance is a framework for establishing accountability, roles, and decision-making authority for an organization’s digital presence.”

Lisa Welchman (Managing Chaos. Digital Governance by Design)

First things first. If you haven’t read Lisa’s book, stop everything that you are doing (which is reading this article!) and buy it immediately. Everything else you read about Digital Governance will (probably) have its roots in this book. I was late to the party on this one, so I am sending you that party invite right now.

Managing Chaos Book Cover by Lisa Welchman


Bought it?

Good, we can carry on.

All organisations have Governance within them. Your organisation may well even have a department or Directorate with that word in its name. I’ve seen Governance teams within Planning departments, Governance Hubs on institutional websites, University Corporate Governance Managers, published Governance structures with policies, strategies, statements and procedures – but little or no mention of ‘digital’ or ‘web’ within these institutional governance structures.

This doesn’t, however, mean that Web/Digital Teams don’t know what they are doing - as mentioned earlier, teams are really good at knowing what they are doing. But one of the issues that these core teams are having to deal with is that digital teams are getting bigger and often more distributed across an organisation, with the potential for everyone to ‘go their own way’ – which was advocated by Fleetwood Mac, but definitely wouldn’t be by any Web Manager worth their digital salt.

Take HR and Finance. Most departments have members of staff who deal with HR and Finance matters on a regular, if not daily, basis. They don’t make it up as they go along. They don’t ‘do it their own way.’ These activities are embedded within the organisation’s day to day business. There are clear policies, regulations, permissions, systems to be used, training to undergo, metrics to be recorded, responsibilities are assigned (only certain people are able to undertake such tasks), as well as a clear owner of this activity – usually the Director of HR/Finance. All of these regulations and controls are in place to manage and mitigate risk, speed things up (apparently!) and professionalise that activity.

Now let’s compare this to digital activities across your average HEI.

Do you have a digital strategy? Do you know exactly who is contributing to your institution’s digital footprint? Do you know what systems they are using, whether they are trained and, if so, in what, and to what level of expertise? Do you know how many web pages you have, or even sites? Does everyone create content in the same way with the same tone of voice and within predetermined workflows? Is it obvious what can and can’t go on the home page. Do Faculties know why they can’t have their own domain? Who owns Digital?

You get where I am coming from.

Web/digital is still operating in a somewhat chaotic state and this is despite organisations restructuring (at an alarming rate) and creating more centralised digital teams where there were once devolved activities.

Image of Lisa Welchman's Digital Maturity Curve indicating an upward arrow going through stages i.e. launch, organic growth, chaos, basic management and responsive

But – and this is my take on it – these structures are coming before, or without, any governance model, which makes the restructures potentially as ineffective as having a distributed digital team.

What does Digital Governance involve?

At its simplest level, any digital governance model or framework will include the roles, responsibilities, and ownership for the organisation’s digital footprint (web, social, mobile…) backed up with policies, procedures, regulations, and standards, underpinned by clear metrics and measurements. If standards can’t be measured they are simply guidelines.

If accountability, roles, and decision-making authority need to be defined, they need to be defined within three distinct areas. Again, going back to Lisa’s book:

  • Digital strategy: Who determines the direction for digital?
  • Digital policy: Who specifies what your organisation must and must not do online?
  • Digital Standards: Who decides the nature of your digital portfolio?

For years, I have engaged in the ‘do you need a web strategy’ debate. My response has always been ‘no’ as web is only one piece of the online jigsaw. But digital is different. Digital isn’t a channel. Digital is a culture, a way of thinking, an approach, an opportunity. As such it needs to be harnessed, owned, governed, and measured to stop it running away with itself, and for it to be utilised to its full potential.

I understand why large institutions are struggling with ‘digital’ and the very concept of defining, owning and strategising something that is, well, a concept, but it needs to be done.

First thing first: Digital Strategy

And that is where Digital Strategy comes in. If an organisation doesn’t have a Digital Strategy to underpin its activities, with a clear lead and owner, any Governance model will fail, as there will be no foundation to the Governance Framework that everyone is working to.

Lisa Welchman sums it up nicely in her book:

“If your digital strategy is off target, then supporting policy, standards, and the process-related tactical machinations of your digital team will likely be off target as well.”

Lisa Welchman (Managing Chaos. Digital Governance by Design)

I was honoured to get a correspondence from Lisa during my research for this article. Lisa kindly put me in touch with her colleague, Kristina Podnar, who is a Digital Governance Advisor based in Washington D.C. Lisa’s governance expertise and experience has taken her all over the globe, working with companies across many sectors who are either leading or lagging when it comes to digital governance and performance.

Kristina agrees with Lisa when it comes to digital strategy:

“What I regularly see in my consulting engagements is that all sectors – banking, chemicals, health and insurance, public service and non-profits, and higher education – struggle with the same issues when it comes to digital communications and online operations. These include a lack of clearly delegated authority for defining a digital strategy in alignment with the organization’s mission and objectives, a missing digital steward who understands and can interpret laws and regulation for the organization’s market segment, and a dedicated digital standards steward who will create and prioritize a list of standards for definition and then drive them through a complete lifecycle.”

I could write another article on Digital Strategy or Digital Transformation (I may well do!) but there is already plenty out there on that, not least the excellent resources from Paul Boag.

So, let’s move on to defining what the Digital Team is.

What is your Digital Team?

Years ago, Web Teams started to spring up in HEIs, managed by people like me – Web Managers whose first task was to recruit two or three people to a central team to look after all things web. We worked with Faculty teams (who had sprung up first) to bring a very devolved web presence into something akin to an institutional website, and, somehow, it seemed to work! Then we stretched our digital legs and started doing social media, setting up social media accounts for the institution, at a time when no one knew their Facebook from their Twitter. We set up blogs, we blogged ourselves. We took photos. We hired in students to make us some videos for the website. We were a mini agency for the institution – we could do anything, and we did. We loved learning, and creating and trying out new things. But now that has changed. Look at any marketing/communications department and there are now specialist roles covering all of the channels that the Web Team once did between themselves, which means that there are more and more people who could potentially mess it up! Or to look at it another way, there are more and more people who think that someone else is responsible for setting the strategy, creating the policies and deciding what should be done and how, all the while they are happily getting on with doing what they fancy, how they fancy doing it.

So, do you know who your Digital Team is?

Again, to call on the wisdom of Lisa Welchman, there may be more people than you think:

Image of a layered team: core digital team, distributed digital team, working group and committees and the extended digital team

Components of your Digital Team

Without going into the detail (you can read the book for that) it can be summed up as thus:

“Your Digital Team is the full set of resources required to keep the digital process functioning for your organization.”

Lisa Welchman

The important thing is that it is the Core Team who are responsible for the institution’s digital footprint, and they should be the architects, the overseers, the owners. This leaves no room for interpretation when colleagues are unsure about who to go to and who has the final say. The core team make the rules and measure and manage how well everyone else in the wider team is doing.

Growing Teams need Governance, not Management

As mentioned earlier, there have always been Web Managers of some shape or form, who led both the web people and the web presence and kept the web-ship sailing on a day to day basis. It was, kind of, clear what needed to be done to develop the University’s online presence, and, as the team was small, developments were ongoing, iterative and happened almost by osmosis. The team had developed ways of working, and everyone knew who would be doing what. Tasks were managed, often as part of small projects, and developments were contained, with Faculty or department specialists added to project teams as required. Very few things were documented, as few people needed to know how things were done - everyone just knew how things were done.

But those days are gone.

Distributed and Extended Digital Teams need a framework within which to work, else chaos will reign supreme. A Governance framework will cut down on disagreements as to what should be done and how; it will free up thinking time to be creative; it will mitigate risk in terms of messaging and brand; it will provide clear metrics as to what is working and what isn’t; it will maintain standards of work; it will cut down on the time needed to be spent on training up new members of the team or external agencies.

I spoke to Shane Diffily who has 15+ years’ experience in digital operations and is the author of the original Website Managers Handbook. Shane commented that the topic of Digital Governance is still immature in most organisations, and that good governance has not yet become part of the ‘furniture’ of online in the same way as things like usability, accessibility, web standards, and so on.

“My overall observation is that web governance remains (generally) off-the-agenda in most organisations. It is way easier, cooler and more fun for senior decision makers to initiate a website 'redesign' than to put systems in place to make an existing website work well. The answer is easy: hire enough people with the right skills and give them the resource and authority to achieve the things you say you want. You will then have skilled people, in well-defined roles, with clear responsibilities using the right tools, to deliver measurable outputs based on repeatable/auditable processes. Plus, far, far less time will be spent on inter-personal issues and administrative conflicts - as everyone knows the rules/authority and no-one is ‘stepping on toes’.”

Shane Diffily, author of The Website Manager's Handbook, the first practical guide to Web Governance.

And HEIs are starting to get it.

We have already had to deal with external legislation for which policies have needed to be created. I worked across HE a few years ago to help HEIs with a response to the EU Legislation on Cookies (I presented at the IWMW web conference with John Kelly from JISC) and we have all had to respond to accessibility requirements and the emerging Consumer Law Compliance Review from the Competition and Markets Authority. So, looking at Lisa’s three distinct areas of Governance, policies are something that we are used to, even if we might not be completely sure who owns, or is leading on them, at any given time.

Kristina gives some great guidance in her recent Smashing Magazine article: Keeping Your Business And Clients Safe With Digital Policies

I have spoken to many colleagues across Universities throughout the UK and every single one of them has been part of, or is currently going through, a restructure. I am always interested as to why restructures are occurring and what is shaping the ‘new look’ teams. Moving web/digital experts from Faculties to central may be beneficial as the core team grows, with less of an extended team distributed across the University. But without clear Governance, the ex-Faculty people could end up working the same ways as they always did, with the benefits of change never being realised. A Governance Framework needs to be developed that then influences the shape and size of the teams, rather than the other way round.

As Jonathan Khan so eloquently put it in his Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change post:

“Here’s the problem: organizations are the context for our work, and when it comes to the web, organizations are broken.”

Some are making strides in this area, usually prompted by a website redesign or restructure. One UK University is developing a governance framework for the corporate website and social media, with roles, responsibilities and ownership clearly defined. Another is developing a web strategy from which a governance framework will be developed to aid the day to day running of their online presence. And many teams use automated tools to help the humans in their daily work already. SiteImprove is a well-known ‘Web Governance Suite of Tools’ that Web Teams can use across their websites to assist with spotting errors, improving accessibility and managing SEO. A good step towards consistency and measurement as well as the ability to report and show improvements.

Barriers to Digital Governance in large institutions

Developing a Governance Framework seems sensible and almost obvious. Going back to the HR/Finance example, those professions wouldn’t dream of not having clear policies and guidelines that are signed off at the highest of level, before implementation. So why is web/digital different?

One reason could be that it is still seen as new, and so is settling down in terms of ownership, leadership, understanding, and professionalism. Digital isn’t embedded into the culture and ways of working of most institutions – it is still seen as an add-on. Without a Digital First approach, it will always be tricky for web/digital to break out of its siloed approach and be truly fundamental to an organisation’s strategy and day to day business. However, it is difficult to adopt a Digital First approach as this would be a shift in culture and how the organisation runs, and this requires strong leadership, ideally at the highest level. Most organisations can’t decide who owns digital and so it might sit with IT, if at all, which gives a very one-sided view, often from an internal perspective rather than a user. Short-term, tactical activities (such as website redesigns) are seen as easier and more comfortable – but are ultimately less effective and costly.

Teams and activities are often based on what internal budget is available rather than looking at the needs of the user and developing a framework from an external, rather than internal, point of view. Moving from a management (the what) to a Governance model (the why and how) would take into consideration user-needs and then make sure that the teams run as they should to fulfil these needs within defined structures, policies, procedures, and permissions. Teams would be based around user ‘top tasks’ rather than siloed into functional teams.

Digital standards (Lisa’s third component of Governance) have always been around but they have been largely technical and based around accessibility; it is now time to broaden those standards to cover everything else - strategy, automated tools/technical systems, rules and regulations, policies and procedures, permissions, training, leadership, ownership, use of external agencies and contractors, best practice, web style guides, structures and teams, content creation, publishing and removal, metrics and measurements, skills and expertise required, responsibilities (e.g. RACI matrix)…the list goes on.

Overcoming those barriers to success

The easiest way to make a start, is to make a start!

Ask anyone who has worked in web/digital for a number of years and they will all tell you how their role has changed. Jonathan Khan sums it up rather nicely:

“Today, the critical skills of a web professional aren’t technical. They’re skills like advocacy, facilitation, diplomacy, pragmatism, and patience. Technical skills still matter, but they don’t differentiate us in the market anymore, and we can’t use them effectively without tackling organizational change.”


Web/digital experts have always had to, and have been good at, joining things up across institutions, be it processes or people. We see things differently to others within the organisation; we see how things can be made better, and easier, and be more effective if functional siloes are broken down and a different perspective is taken. And that is what is needed to create and implement Digital Governance. It is about creating a culture and fostering a mindset that people want to adopt. Jonathan Khan again:

“Web governance isn’t about getting our own ideas implemented—it’s about building support and awareness among other people in the organization.”


Start the conversations. Get like-minded people together and start small. Encourage people to talk openly in a non-confrontational way – share ideas and issues. And take the lead. Somebody must have ultimate authority over Governance and the user experience and this is exactly what gov.uk did, and to huge success. Be the Evangelist within your organisation – spread the good word that Governance is about enabling not restricting. It is about giving teams the tools, permissions, and standards to which they can work and therefore just get on with it. It enables quicker, more iterative changes to be made which are focussed on the user and their successes.

But once the talking has started, make sure you write stuff down, otherwise we will be back at the beginning all over again! Gov.uk are leading the way with their Government Service Design Manual.

Paul Boag summed it up nicely in his blog post:

“…a service manual helps to inform and educate. It helps reduce the number of daft ideas and gives the digital team something to refer to when they say no.”

The Digital Service Manual. Beyond Strategy

Be the Conductor with the hymn sheet

So there really is no other way to go about developing Digital Governance other than to do it. There is no point waiting for someone else to take the lead, as they won’t. If roles, rules and protocols are not clearly defined in large groups, you end up with chaos.

Your digital team is growing, and to keep on track they need a framework within which to operate. I love the musical analogy that Lisa Welchman presents. The bigger the musical group, the more structure and guidance they need.

Image of an orchestra and conductor on stage

See the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFR3qqBhAq8

We need to stop trying to run large digital teams like they’re a jazz trio! Be the Conductor, develop the score, get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and make some beautiful music together.

Useful resources

There is a ton of useful information already out there – this article drew upon lots of different articles, presentations, books – so here is a list for you to take a look at:

Lisa Welchman/Kristina Podmar


A List Apart

Paul Boag

Shane Diffily


Flickr images from Lisa’s book, Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosenfeldmedia/albums/72157650408729568  
https://pixabay.com/en/ensemble-music-played-saxophone-619260/ no credit required


Author: Claire Gibbons, Digital, Marketing, Higher Education and Content Consultant.




Tagged: Goverance, Higher Education

Leave a comment

Previous Post | Next Post


Back to top Back to main listing

Follow Us

Back to top Back to blog home