How Government Can Boost Its Most Powerful Communications Tool (Contributed)

Whether it’s a large state agency or a small town, all should practice good content governance on their websites.

by / May 24, 2018
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Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • It takes a long time to put new content on your site because of the many stakeholders and approvals it must go through.

  • Your homepage is cluttered because there isn’t a process for saying, “No, that content doesn’t belong there.”

  • You have a huge website and struggle to understand how the various parts are connected.

  • The website is a “side job” for a lot of people.

  • There are inconsistencies in tone and voice across the site.

  • When a need arises for the website, it isn’t clear how to move forward.

  • You have to use bland, stock images because you aren’t sure who might be upset by your choices.

  • There isn’t a concrete, defined process for generating, approving, and archiving content. 

Your agency’s website can be your most powerful communication tool. But for far too many government programs, the website is a complex, confusing endeavor. And it all comes back to a single problem: a lack of a content governance process.

What is Content Governance?

Content governance is a framework for creating and publishing content on your website, though it often carries over to all communications as well. It helps the organization understand how to establish the quality of content and make decisions about its strategic value.

Your agency needs a unique content governance plan. Once you have a plan in place, you’ll be able to quickly and effectively boost your agency’s mission. You’ll know how and when to create content, who needs to approve it (and when), and how your website will be kept up-to-date and useful for years to come. You’ll reduce risk and improve readability. 

Creating a Content Governance Plan

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web outlines four steps governments should follow when planning content governance: Substance, Structure, Workflow and Governance. At each step, decisions are documented and at the end there is a repeatable process. 

1. Substance

First, you need a crystal-clear understanding of what your organization does and how you want to communicate it to the world. This means answering questions such as: 

  • How do you define your communication style? How friendly are you? How much expertise do you need to demonstrate?
  • Are you more James Cordon or more Morgan Freeman? The PBS NewsHour or Sesame Street? More Jennifer Lawrence or Judi Dench? 
  • Once you have an idea of how you would like to communicate, create a content guideline statement that summarizes it. 
  • Create a “Do Say/Don’t Say” list that defines which words and terms to use and which to vigilantly avoid.

A content guideline statement might be something like: 

“We want [our government agency] to be known for its plain language that is focused on the success of our audiences. We don’t want to be perceived as legalistic or catering to any particular audience but to the whole city/county/state.”

A “Do Say/Don’t Say” list will help you focus on the users of your site, avoid recurring issues, and reinforce the general principles you want staff to remember. For example, an agency focused on human and social services or education may have a list such as this:

DO SAY... BECAUSE...

“Mother and Father

(when specifically describing the biological parents)

It shows the parents as two people with a common interest and making an equal contribution.
“Child and the adults who care about them”
 
(when describing the child’s home situation)
We want to be sure to include the full range of adults who care for the child, not just the biological “Mother” and “Father.” It can also include Grandparents, Guardians, Counselors, etc.
You Writing in the second person conveys a focus on service orientation. 
A child with autism It is an example of “People First” language. The child is primary and their condition is secondary. 

 

DON'T SAY... BECAUSE...

“Mom and Dad” or “Kid”

Too informal. It moves away from the agency’s authoritative position. Use “Mother and Father” instead. 

 

“You must” unless discussing a strictly legal matter We are not providing legal advice. Say “can” or “should” instead. This indicates options or a potential direction. 
“A disabled and autistic child” This places the condition over the child in importance. Instead, use “People First” language like “a child with autism.” 
Underemployed This sounds judgmental. Instead use phrases like “When your income doesn’t meet the needs of your family.” 
“Fraud” as a synonym for “Scam” “Fraud” and “Scam” are two separate concepts. Our agency deals with scams. 

On the “Don’t Say” list, it is helpful to give guidance on what you should say instead. Now it’s time to move on to the next step.

2. Structure

What types of content do you have online? This can be a difficult question to answer, but the best way to figure this out is to create a Content Audit:

A Content Audit is a simple spreadsheet with (at least) these column headings:

  • Page title
  • Section of the website
  • The purpose of the page
  • What action do you want the user to take from here?
  • Audience: Who is the page written for? You want to be sure that you are writing the page from the perspective of the reader. Giving priority to your readers’ needs is the kind of human-centered design thinking that engages audiences and furthers understanding between governments and their citizens. 
  • Evaluation: Is the purpose clear? Is the next step clear? Does it meet the substance standards from No. 1? 
  • URL (of existing page/content)
  • Owner

Next, walk through the main pages of your site and complete a row for each.

An audit is useful in countless ways. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a strong understanding of a large portion of your website, which pages are performing well, and which need to be edited or removed.

As a transition, review the audit and pull from it the “types” of content you have, including:

  • News
  • Events
  • Promotional content
  • Program descriptions
  • Processes

Make a note if there are types that need unique approval processes. This will prepare you to move to building a workflow.

3. Workflow

This is all about how your agency’s content gets created, approved and published. In this step, you’ll identify your roles (content creator, content approver, content publisher, etc.). 

Looking over the content audit and any “types” you’ve identified, you’ll determine:

  • Who can write the original draft of new content or put a review in motion?
  • Who needs to review or make edits? 
  • Who gives final approval? 
  • Do legals, SMEs (subject matter experts), or executives need to review?
  • What is the expected turnaround time for each step?
  • Who is responsible for making sure the content is correct and in compliance with agency guidelines? (This is the content owner.)
  • When the content is ready, who puts it into the CMS (content management system) and clicks “publish”?

At this point, you’re able to return to your Content Audit and add the content “owner” to the list. You could also add items like “This is legally required” or “Edits to this page need executive review.” 

4. Governance<

By the time you arrive at this final step, you’ll know a lot more about your organization. And now you’re ready to make final decisions about how content decisions are made. 

For this step you’ll:

  • Establish a Governance Council. We suggest this team comprise marketing and communication staff, IT experts, an executive or two, and representative stakeholders from across the agency. 
  • Create policies and procedures for the organization. Review the workflow from the previous step. What adjustments need to be made by division or by content type? (No two parts of your organization are exactly the same.) 
  • Train your staff on the process. 
  • Establish “working groups” for special research projects (e.g., How do we handle social media? Multiple languages? CMS issues? etc.).

At this point, your agency will understand:

  • How you’ll communicate your key messages
  • What types of content you’ll need to write and maintain
  • Who is involved in each step along the way
  • How to make agencywide decisions about website use 

While Content Governance is never “done,” once you’ve walked through these initial steps, you’ll focus on maintaining the work you’ve done so far and adjusting to any new circumstances. And now you’ll have a strong foundation underlying your content.

Content Governance is a lot of work, but the payoffs are enormous. For your agency, it will mean a faster turnaround time for publishing new content, a more consistent agency message, and a lower risk of costly content issues. But the real payoff is for your users who will be able to better understand who you are, to learn something new, and to complete the tasks they want to complete when they visit your site. 

Mike Steckel

Mike Steckel is director of user experience at Mighty Citizen a branding and digital transformation agency for governments.