Digital content needs accountability, governance and multidisciplinarity

ksenia cheinman
Dec 26, 2018 · 16 min read
Mantell, Gideon Algernon. “[The Wonders of Geology; or, a familiar exposition of geological phenomena: being the substance of a course of lectures … by G. M. … from notes taken by G. F. Richardson.]”, 02/392, London, 1839.

#2 of 4 of the series on Digital content crisis in the public sector

Sources of the crisis| On accountability, governance and multidisciplinarity |


In reflecting on the earlier definition of what content is, think about how many areas in your organization are creating and controlling content.

Here is one possible example:

  • Subject matter experts for each line of business (10s, 100s, 1000s of people, depending on the size of your organization)
  • Communications and marketing area
  • Training and learning area
  • IT area
  • Digital teams that are working on improving user experience on a project-by-project basis
  • Service improvement program or a newly launched “Innovation office” or initiative

Yes, content is everywhere, so in a way, the above illustration is no surprise, but that does not mean we are not facing a crisis or accountability, stewardship and consistency.

To create responsible (not just responsive), well-managed and maintained as well as coherent content, we need a:

  • Chief Digital Officer in each government organization
  • Governance processes
  • Multidisciplinary teams and approaches

Oversight needs accountability

As Lisa Welchman has eloquently pointed out in her book Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, when everyone is responsible for something, no one is responsible!

When we have multiple areas of content ‘creation and control’ across a single organization, we are hostage to a struggle of power between different business lines, mandates and competing priorities.

The only way to break this cycle of disagreement is to have an overarching oversight for digital content in each organization; a single voice that evaluates and says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any new idea or initiative. In the best case scenario, this person would not be attached to any line of business, to avoid bias, and they would report directly to the most senior leader of that organization.

The role this person would fulfill is commonly known as the Chief Digital Officer and that would be their one and only function, not a side-project or a Champion role, while fulfilling other full-time duties.

A Chief Digital Officer enables an organization to have:

  • One person responsible for establishing a common vision for all the digital landscape (aka content ecosystem) of the organization
  • Oversight and integration of all digital initiatives taking place across the organization (assessing the impact of individual ‘band-aid solutions’ or innovation initiatives on the whole digital content ecosystem)

It would also be great if the Chief Digital Officer’s performance measurement criteria included “things they said ‘no’ to” (as brilliantly suggested by Lauren Hunter, leading the Government of Canada Talent Cloud).

It is important to also point out that a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) is not the same as the Chief Information Officer (CIO); a good distinction of the two is made by the Harvey Nash/ KPMG CIO survey 2018. The same survey highlights that:

Organizations with a CDO, either in a dedicated or acting role, are over twice as likely to have a clear and pervasive digital strategy than those without one (44 percent versus 21 percent).

There have been some great beginnings in this regard with the appointment of Hillary Hartley as the Ontario Chief Digital Officer in March 2017 and the recent appointment of Julie Leese as the Chief Digital Office of Transport Canada.

Oversight and accountability that become possible when one looks across the whole digital landscape of the organization is summarized well in Hillary Hartley’s one-year reflections on her role as the CDO:

[…] what we’re trying to do is bigger than simply creating useful websites. We’re trying to get program and policy owners across ministries to think differently about how they approach their services, using the tools and practices of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

Stewardship needs governance

Let’s start with a little fictional story…


Helen, a Senior Policy Advisor, spends a good half-hour trying to figure out how to sign-up for a collaborative tool licence at work. She searches the organizational intranet. Finds a number of pages talking about the tool, but none of them answer her question; there also seems to be conflicting information on the different pages. She calls the IT help desk; they direct her to another page that she did not find when searching for the tool, as the title of the page made no sense. She succeeds in starting the licence request process only to get stuck half-way through because she does not understand what she needs to enter in a number of mandatory fields; it is very frustrating. She has to call the IT help desk again. The whole process takes well over an hour.

Later that week… At the IT ‘Collaboration and Innovation’ team meeting, a Director raises concerns about the high volume of calls the IT help desk receives regarding their ‘simple and intuitive’ tools. He also expresses his frustration at how ‘you can never find anything on the current intranet’; there is just too much stuff. He proposes that the best approach to lower the call volume and help answer employees’ questions is to create an IT HUB which will be a knowledgebase for frequently asked questions about everything IT-related. The HUB will not replace all the IT content currently on the intranet and elsewhere in the organization, it will just be another, newer, ‘better’ way to access the same information, in a different place. No one in the room questions or challenges this proposal and is eager to get it implemented.


Sounds familiar? See any issues with this approach (there are so many such content problem stories)?

Here are a few frustration that come to mind.

Helen is a resourceful, capable and digitally savvy employee, yet she could not find the answers to her questions because:

  • The original content was not properly planned with its users in mind, was incomplete, unclear and written in a technical language.
  • There were multiple versions of competing sources of information on the same topic.
  • Same topic was not consistently referred to in the same meaningful way for Helen or any other employee to discover all the information there was on a given topic.

IT area needed to fall in love with the problem, and not the solution, but they did the opposite. They decided that the best solution was to create a new, standalone system without any integration or cleanup. They created a new, shiny object under the ‘innovation banner’, but they did not:

  • Explore or try to understand why someone was having a hard time doing what they perceived to be a simple task
  • Look back and review what content they already had on a given topic to better understand the source of the problem
  • Consider the implication of introducing yet another place for information about the same things that already existed elsewhere
  • Remove outdated and now abandoned content from the intranet.
  • Consider industry best practices relating to user experience, usability, accessibility and fallibility of the FAQs
  • Test their solution as part of the organizational content ecosystem
  • Need to be accountable to anyone other than the leader of their business line (so no impact on other business lines was considered)

Needless to say, the IT solution did not solve Helen’s problem, it simply amplified it, as she now had to navigate 2 incomplete, incompetent and unusable systems (with different user interfaces) full of useless information before having to call the IT help desk.

End of story…sort of…


Can you try and quantify the amount of money wasted (in terms of time and effort) from IT’s input in this project and from the many Helens that had to take the treacherous route to find answers to their many IT questions? Then multiply it by 10s, 100’s, likely 1000’s of instances across your organization at many levels and pay grades, because that is the stark and bleak reality of government’s digital content.

And to be clear, I am not picking on the IT groups here, not at all. I could have used an example from any other area such as procurement, training and learning, HR onboarding, management groups, or some initiative called a Hub, Portal or other ‘one-stop-shop’ solution (all of these could be major ‘red flags’) within government organizations. The point is to illustrate the state of absurdity and disrepair that we find ourselves in.

“How to draw an owl” — a satirical meme that is an excellent illustration of many government content problems.

Here are a few calculations that I’ve done in my own organization, back in 2016, using an imaginary number of a 1,000 employees to demonstrate the impact. I used a salary of $40/hour and only 30 mins/week of wasted time looking for information, in addition to placing 3 help desk calls a year, each 4 minutes in duration.

Time spent by employees on finding work-related information and its cost for the organization (very conservative estimate)

These are extremely conservative numbers used to help even the greatest skeptic see the value of better content. To give you a sense of how conservative they are, based on a 2005 The Hidden Costs of Information Work Report published by the International Data Corporation (IDC), it looks like employees spend 25–30% of their working day (averaging over 8h/week) on information finding activities. It is safe to say that these numbers are much higher over a decade later.

Plus, keep in mind that there are also huge costs associated with other unproductive information activities such as reworking and recreating content, arguably taking another 25% of a working day, as well as ineffective searches that do not result in finding needed information.

The above calculations also did not take into account the very real and important:


Innovation in the government can often seem like a symptom of wanting to prove that we are not years behind the private sector, an internal competition or a way to strategically launch one’s career. It is a means to the wrong ends. It operates under the guise of genuine service improvement, but if you look closely and more importantly broadly, in a sweeping gesture, across the whole organization ecosystem, more often than not every individual innovation breaks something else along the way. In fact, sometimes it creates irreparable large-scale damage and it spreads and propagates the same mentality across the organization, creating more of the same.

Gerry McGovern describes this production-first mindset very accurately:

Everyone wants to produce. Nobody wants to service and maintain. If you’re a new manager you must do something new. You must initiate new projects. You must produce. You must produce. […]

In 99 out of 100 conversations I have about digital, management only cares about volume. More. More. More. New. New. New. Innovative. Innovative. Innovative. It is so incredibly rare to find a manager who will invest time and money in helping people find stuff more easily. And, once a customer has found something, helping them understand it more easily.

In their defense, the innovation leaders will tell you that what their new tool came to replace is broken, ineffective and unproductive. Instead of trying to fix, improve, revive and repair, they leave the old ‘junk’ behind to rot around their towers of speculative delight.

As a result, we have ecosystems full of content debt.

So how do we prevent such disasters from happening over and over again?


I truly believe that the answer is in embracing the stewardship and maintenance mindset.

In a poignant article Hail the maintainers (thank you for sharing it John Kenney), academics Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel sum it up beautifully:

Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more. […]

Ultimately, emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.

Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

If you need the maintenance perspective translated to the digital realm, Gerry McGovern is our point of reference once again:

When you visit a city, how much of your experience is based on driving on a brand new motorway, riding a brand new subway, visiting a brand new restaurant or museum. Probably very little. You drive on motorways, ride subways, visit restaurants and museums that were built years ago.

We must encourage a digital team culture that takes pride and fulfillment in maintaining and evolving what already exists because the Web is growing up. A lot has been built, and unfortunately very little of what has been built is being well maintained.

To change the culture, we must change the reward system. We must start rewarding more those who maintain, who care for, who evolve, who review, who take away, who prune, who simplify serve. The metrics need to shift from production to consumption.

If you really want to deliver excellent customer experience, then measure use and usefulness. Measure how easy it is for customers to find and use the things they want to find and use.

While this may seem like a targeted attack on ‘innovation, no, I am not saying innovation is ‘bad’ or that all government innovation follows this self-destructive path. What I wanted to achieve with my critique is to point out that innovation is not ‘good’ by default and that we see many cases of the exact opposite.

Within government as a system, and within each organization, we need to be able to recognize ‘binnovation’ (innovation destined to be a ‘throw-away’ solution, contributing to further dumpification and destruction of the overall content ecosystem); we need to say ‘no’ to it, sending the initiators back to the blackboard to use design thinking and fully explore the problem space, before offering any future solutions. When I say ‘binnovation’, I am referring to products and initiatives that are rushed, poorly thought out, worked on in a silo without consideration of how they might impact other areas, unidisciplinary, uni-budgetary, personal and uncollaborative.

In the book Designing Connected Content, Mike Atherton and Carrie Hane site Eliel Saarinen’s statement as a great illustration of the danger of short-term, shortsighted, self-contained solutions:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context. A chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan. (15)

Back in 2016, when I championed the need for a Content strategy in my organization, I used a metaphor of the “couch frenzy” to describe our current state where the larger context was not considered, negotiation and collaborative decision-making was not a priority, so each ‘roommate’ felt entitled and was able to add their own ‘couch’ to the ‘apartment’.

Lack of organizational content strategy is a perfect recipe for couch frenzy.

Innovation that is poorly planned often results in a giant drop in organizational value and a demoralized workforce.

Think of the Change Curve that illustrates stages of transition during personal and organizational change. When a change (innovation) happens, there is a period of time that is chaotic, frustrating and unproductive — it is represented by the curve’s dip. As time passes, people get accustomed to change and there is a possibility of an improved state that is better than at the inception of change (the ‘problem space’). However, the downfall of many change initiatives is that humans are impatient. We often do not wait for things to get better and for the curve to continue on its upward trajectory. We decide that the first innovation failed and move on to the next one, at the lowest point of the curve. This, unsurprisingly results in a much less effective ‘solution space’ than the one that could have been achieved if more time was spent properly defining the ‘problem space’, deciding on the appropriate change solution and seeing it through all the way up its logical curve trajectory and then maintaining and incrementally improving it, instead of constantly initiating something new.

Binnovation illustrated as a low-quality solution space within the organizational ecosystem.

Having critiqued the ‘innovation agenda’, I want to also acknowledge that there are many people and groups in the government leading a responsible and thoughtful innovation journey.

I had a very insightful exchange with one of the many people who are thinking of innovation in all the right ways — thank you John Kenney. John shared some highlights from his recent attendance at the 2018 Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) conference. What stood out for me was the model of public sector innovation facets which included the “Enhancement-oriented” perspective as one of the innovation facets. It focused on asking how we can do something better, by analyzing what we already have, why something is broken, and what are the many possible ways to improve it with the resources and structures that we have in place, rather than creating something completely new. John and I then proceeded to talk about the value of maintenance and continuous improvements in the government. He pointed me to a number of resources including:

Tim Kastelle describes the 3 horizon model of innovation which follows the 70–20–10 rule, where 70% of innovation should focus on maintenance and incremental improvements and only 10% would include the truly radical innovation methods using new technologies and delivering new services. John inquired about the value of this model for approaching innovation in the government with Jerry Koh, who surmised that in most government contexts the ratio might likely be 80–18–2, with 80% focusing on maintenance and enhancement-oriented innovation.

While there is certainly space for and value in radical innovation, if most value we can create within government organizations is based on ‘continuous improvement, we need a different reward system and a different way of measuring success without confusing outputs with outcomes; we need Chief Digital Officers and we also need standards, policies, procedures and assigned accountability for content across the entire organizational network. This can only be done through well-defined digital governance.

If we want organizations to be good steward of their content (with a maintenance-first mandate), we need to communicate content’s value from vision all the way down to the very practical, daily application.

The governance in question includes:

  • alignment of the overall government direction
  • creation of an organizational content strategy
  • identifying and defining the purpose/use of all communication channels (including training and learning, onboarding, etc) within the organization
  • defining content workflows
  • identifying needed support to enable new ways of managing content
  • establishment of necessary standards, policies and procedures
  • inclusion of criteria such as ‘maintenance’, ‘building on’ and ‘building with” instead of ‘breaking” in the performance management at all levels
  • success criteria that measure the right thing

Consistency needs multidisciplinarity

Now, back to content and to the little vignette about Helen and the collaborative tool licence. This whole story would not exist if the content was written properly to begin with. Why wasn’t it? How could it be? What were the missing elements?

We all know that creating digital content in government is mostly a byproduct of a process, an initiative or an issue. It is often just something that ‘has to be done’ to communicate something from a subject matter expert to an employee. This subject matter expert is generally not a writer, and most certainly not a writer for the web (employing effective headings, white space, short sentences, bullet points, parallel structure, meaningful titles that can serve as trustworthy links for navigation of multiple pieces of content, etc).

On the other hand, writers are not subject matter experts in every business line of the organization.When a writer encounters an expert from a different domain, the main challenge is how to integrate the different and sometimes competing disciplinary world-views and objectives.

A great example could be (ironically) an incompatible discussion between a communication specialist (A) and a web content designer (B) where the communication specialist could want a catchy and engaging tile for a document or a learning product that includes a metaphor or a play on words, while a usability focused content specialist would be evangelizing the need for comprehensive, descriptive, plain-language and clear titles which would help users with sense-making, navigation and findability of content:

(A). Robots on the phone: service friend or foe?

(B). Ethical implications of introducing artificial intelligence into regional call centres

The discrepancy between the marketing and usability objectives would create tension and the need to work through the differences. The same thing could happen with any other discipline.

The conclusions we can draw from these scenarios is that if we want to create consistent, usable, good quality content, it cannot be created in a vacuum:


Content systems are complex entities of people, cultures, political agendas, disciplinary boundaries and barriers. We need to enable our organizations to see the big picture, recognize its many elements and bring everyone together into the same problem space to build content solutions that are meaningful, lasting and reliable.


ksenia cheinman

Written by

:: digital content specialist + learning designer; passionate about enabling others to do their best + collaboration ::

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