Web site governance hotly contested in many agencies

Who should be responsible for the content on a federal agency's Web site'the agency's public affairs office, CIO office or some other oversight body? Or should the program managers actually control the material?

This is the issue that many federal agencies are now grappling with, according to two researchers at George Mason University.

'As agency [W]eb sites become the most public agency presence for most citizens, the approval process for content [within these agencies] appears to be increasingly contested,' argued Julianne Mahler and Priscilla Regan of GMU's Department of Public and International Affairs. Professor Regan is currently on leave from GMU, serving as a program director at the National Science Foundation.

The two researchers studied how agencies manage their sites. They presented their findings at the International Conference on Digital Government Research, held recently in San Diego.

Interviewing agency personnel and studying Web sites, they examined which of two different models best accounts for how agencies create and post content.

One model, the strategic view, involves keeping tight control over a Web site, designating one office'a public affairs office, legal office or a designated working group'to format and even evaluate material submitted by other agency program offices.

Another looser approach allows individual program offices and intraprogram groups of interest within the agency to post the material they deem fit for consumption. In some cases, agencies may establish style guidelines and rules for coordinating material across multiple offices, so that pages from individual office sites can share a similar look and feel.

In the early years of Web development, agencies leaned towards the looser 'self-organizing' approach, Regan said, if only because few managers saw the need to coordinate material. Increasingly though, agencies are seeing benefits in centralization. A central review body can assure that no material is posted that runs counter, or is irrelevant, to an agency's mission.

Yet this strategic approach also has its downsides, the researchers cautioned. A review process can slow information flow. They noted that in some cases, proposed changes to a page had to get approval from multiple parties. Sometimes content would be rejected altogether because of different views of the role of Web content in the mission of the agency or because of a failure to understand its significance. Such material might still be valuable for constituents though.

'We suspect the great success of federal government Web sites is in no small part due to the freedom that program officers have had to experiment and learn to what clients can use,' Mahler said.

The researchers published a summary of their findings in the conference's Proceedings, which is not online. An earlier edition of the study, published by the International Journal of Electronic Government Research, is available online for $18.

Evidently, Web governance has been an issue for some time now. Speaking last June at the EGov Institute's Web-Enabled Government conference, Sheila Campbell, former co-chair of the Interagency Committee on Government Information's Web Content Management Working Group, noted that many agencies were still in the process of defining their Web governance. 'They are trying to figure out what the appropriate management structure is, what skills are needed [and] what policies they should have,' she said at the time.

To help agencies in this regard, the federal Web Managers Advisory Council, an interagency group of about 40 senior Web managers from the federal government, posted information that defined Web governance, offered sample models and tips on defining policies and job descriptions.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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