Is digital governance the key to sustainability?

How to utilise governance to serve your organisation and avoid entrenched digital law.


Mention digital or web governance and very quickly you’re discussing how to police a digital space. Conversation revolves around the need to develop strict user permissions, policy and processes to prevent people doing what they shouldn’t. Governance is a workflow that’s often ignored or achieved last and one which no one volunteers for.

Yet here’s the thing; complex information systems need governance. By governance I mean the means by which they are managed, the framework for establishing not just the rules but how those complex information systems will work together. It’s hard to find any large organisation that doesn’t operate a matrix of systems that need to work effectively together. Users may see an integrated whole but organisations often operate a fragmented structure of systems, departments, content creators and editors. Development happens in silos benefitting a single project or department, or creating a whole new system to add to the ever growing matrix. External contractors are hired, creating a plethora of approaches and ultimately distinctly different user experiences.

It’s fair to say that good user experience in this scenario is rare. Not only is there inconsistency across the digital landscape but maintenance is often overwhelming with resources spread thinly. The organisation is working hard but it’s simply too much.

There is much written on digital governance, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design by Lisa Welchman is a great start for those wanting to delve further, but what is perhaps most interesting is the role of governance when considering a model for sustainability.

For many organisations, particularly governments and NGOs, resources are limited and operating a complex matrix of systems is extremely costly. Maintenance can be unmanageable and unsustainable with development increasingly requiring further support costs as the capabilities required far exceed what the organisation can manage.

But what if a central framework governed the whole eco-system? What if the organisation set its parameters to manage an integrated whole?

One of the simplest things any organisation can do is to establish ownership. This may seem like the beginnings of a digital police state, but ultimately it clarifies a crucial question: who is responsible? When ownership is defined it provides a structure for decision making and identifies responsibility for management and maintenance. To be effective, ownership needs to be established at every level. Governance requires the investment of all levels of authority to provide a commitment throughout the organisation to manage digital well. Often we find digital or IT teams devoid of authority to implement effective governance. Organisations without governance, and particularly digital strategy, end up with systems serving differing masters and competing objectives or at the very worst, products and services lacking in usability.

Once ownership is established a digital strategy can help to provide a context for everyone. What are the parameters? What do we all collectively want from this? What are the objectives we can all commit to? Inconsistency in the user experience of digital products and services can often be staggering but it can also be traced back to different teams achieving different objectives with no sense of responsibility for the collective whole. Users can visit one section of a website and discover a different UI when visiting another, or use one digital service only to find the taxonomy of another is wholly different. In each scenario users are forced to relearn how to navigate a digital product or service that is connected to another.

Governance is necessary for a consistent and high quality user experience and is not simply rules for digital. It should establish collective responsibility and a digital context for the organisation, minimising silos and encouraging shared resources. Ultimately it should save money and develop a sustainable model for managing digital. Sustainability isn’t just what an organisation can afford to develop, it’s what an organisation has the capability of managing and managing well. It’s an opportunity to strategically set a digital framework for the organisation that will ask smart questions about implementation, maintenance and impact before a project is even signed off.

For many organisations it’s difficult to know where to start. Working with a range of clients we’ve come up with our top 5 steps to starting work on governance.

1. Start small and build principles

Develop principles that all senior leaders can agree on and can manage. These are strategic principles and don’t need to be overly detailed. They can be vital to establish early in order to steer projects or developments whilst a governance workstream is being worked on.

2. Expand to digital strategy

Once the core principles are set you can begin to expand and work out what your digital strategy is, involving more stakeholders and giving time to identifying how you would like to move forward.

3. Begin to create a management structure

Even if you start with the bare bones, begin to create a structure of people and groups that can manage and maintain. The goal is to create sustainability so ensure responsibility is spread and that implementation is possible. You may even be able to use a particular digital project to build on teams already created, identifying groups that worked well together.

4. Develop a small policy team

Policies take time so start with a small team to draft new policies or edit existing ones. Rope in the legal team as well as digital stakeholders, they are invaluable for areas such as privacy or terms and conditions.

5. Be smarter with standards and processes

The standards and processes are often the details, the rules, the do’s, don’ts and how to’s. You could devote entire teams to this work for months and still be working on them. They are iterative and need to be so. Digital evolves and so too should your standards and processes therefore work out how you can be efficient with reviewing and implementing changes. Our advice is to use digital tools; online videos for processes, notifications for changes to standards. If they are extensive develop a digital hub space where they are accessible and browsable. If you want teams to adhere to standards and processes make them accessible, don’t require them to flick through a 300 page digital standards publication or begin a 3 week long process of submission. Be smart with your standards and processes as often they are the very opposite of digital.

It’s important to remember that governance is a valuable tool that serves the organisation and should not be allowed to become entrenched digital law. It should be subject to review and change reflecting the iterative nature of digital itself. Encourage feedback; let governance reflect changing business needs, user behaviour and digital trends.

Governance isn’t the enemy of innovation or digital transformation, if anything it should be the framework that supports and sustains it.


by Juls Hollidge

5 minute read