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What would you say is the most important contributor to the success of digital governance?
- Good people?
- Robust structures?
- Adequate financing?
- The right tools?
They're all important. And yet, even the most well resourced system is doomed in the absence of one additional attribute.
I have seen it over and over. Organisations that claim to want better online operations but when it comes right down to it, they're just going through the motions.
For all the time and effort invested in producing a snazzy new Digital Service Manual or convening a Web Steering Group, no-one really believes in it all.
And belief matters.
Universal Digital Governance Field?
I was reminded of this when listening to a series of online lectures from Professor John Searle of University of California, Berkeley.
As a leading thinker in the philosophy of society, Searle investigates how humanity can create institutional facts around concepts that have no physical reality, but exist solely in our minds.
Consider the institution of marriage, for example.
As we know, marriage does not come into being as the result of some Universal Marriage Field which (like a magnetic field) irresistibly draws two people together.
No. Marriage is simply the consequence of a collective belief that by signing an official document and reciting some words, it can be brought into existence.
Digital Governance also relies on collective belief.
The problem is that atheism is rampant.
For a long time co-ordinating online operations has been a bit of a joke.
Of course lip-service is paid to following the web team's standards, but in truth senior management is often uninterested and lacks the motivation to impose penalties for non-compliance.
In the absence of collective belief, the result is a free-for-all.
Feel like launching another marketing microsite on a new top-level domain using an unapproved host provider and black hat SEO techniques to drive traffic?
Don't bother checking our domain-name protocols, minimum security standards or guidelines for SEO. Rules are made to be broken.
And yet, even when they are ignored, web teams keep trying to clean up the mess.
Web people want to do a great job, but just like everyone else they have a legitimate expectation that agreed standards will be adhered to.
The problem is that the basic belief that "Yes. Our digital procedures should command respect and our web team should have the authority to act" has simply not existed at the most senior levels.
And when those at the top don't believe in the need for a unified approach ... surprise, suprise ... neither will anyone else.
Time to end solo-runs
The good news is that a new generation of leaders is now being appointed to positions of authority. They don't need to be persuaded to take online seriously. They get it.
It's clear to them that digital atheism has not worked and that the era of individualism must end. They're building a fresh belief in online as a collective endeavour, with defined roles and institutional authority to get the job done.
Some great instances of this can be seen in higher education and government, in particular GOV.uk.
Of course transitioning from individual to collective intentionality is not easy. There will always be plenty of people who prefer the old order. Indeed, there is evidence that some organisations are working through a period of heightened tension at the moment as the legacy of historic mismanagement is finally put right.
So, if you find yourself in a web team-cum-warzone, don't be too down hearted. If failure can be designed-in, it can also be designed-out.
One of the first steps is to gauge your current "state of play" by benchmarking your digital capability against known standards. Happily, the huge growth in web automation of recent years provides a clear way ahead.
For example, the next generation of digital audit & management tools from vendors like Sitemorse allow you to build meaningful KPIs that can attract senior management attention and create a business case based on measureable benefits, e.g. as seen in Sitemorse's online INDEX benchmark.
All you need from your senior management then is 3 things:
1. Embrace the collective
If your SMT is serious about change - solo runs and departmental diversity need to become a thing of the past. The SMT must believe (& be seen to believe) that success will either be a collective endeavour, or nothing at all.
#2 . Confirm the imprimatur
It must also approve whatever changes in online leadership and authority are needed to make things happen. In particular, this means that the team responsible for managing web must be given the mandate to direct the online experience.
#3. Provide the back-up
And finally, change sometimes only happens when it is made absolutely clear there is no alternative. And that is something an SMT can provide, perhaps via a well-timed email to all staff "... and in conclusion, we look forward to your cooperation in making this digital transformation happen and will be directly involved in pushing through change where needed."
When it is clear that the top brass believes in digital coherence, it is amazing how quickly everyone else will start to believe too.
Benign digital dictatorship
Which is not to say it should be all stick and no carrot.
Online management may not be a democracy, but even a benign digital dictatorship must be built on some form of social contract.
Principally, you must be able to follow through on the "better world" scenario that your vision of digital governance promises for staff.
In particular, you must be able to provide the support needed to maintain quality, for example, by ensuring access to tools, training and time, including:
- Giving internal publishers access to systems that allow them to track the success of their web content, including analytics, QA checkers and more.
- Keeping key people up-to-date with new skills by providing lessons in "Writing for the web" or "Using social media" etc.
- And most crucially, setting time aside to help people out and keep them onboard through regular communication.
This type of quid-pro-quo in return for adherence to new standards will endow your team with enhanced credibility and help reinforce your role as the new institutional authority for web.
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About Shane Diffily
I am an experienced commentator on web operations. In 2015, I released the web's first online training course in website management and governance. Back in 2006 I published the Website Manager's Handbook, the original guide to online operations.