Who’s your website manager?

Equity and accountability in federal website management
Mar 24, 2023

Who manages this website?

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? But the answer is not always obvious.

At GSA, we have over 150 public-facing websites. Some of those began as passion projects, launched years ago by someone who has since retired or moved on to another role, leaving behind an unattended site that operates on autopilot. Many of our websites are supported by teams of people, each responsible for some portion of operations and maintenance, with no one person designated as “in charge.” This lack of clarity around internal roles, responsibilities, and authority over content resulted in websites that confused customers, rather than helping them along their journey. 

Why someone must be in charge

There are three main reasons why one person needs to be in charge of each website. Someone must:

  1. Determine how well the website serves customers and meets agency mission, and oversee improvements when needed.
  2. Monitor compliance with the more than 100 federal and agency laws, policies, and regulations governing federal websites.
  3. Receive credit for tackling this challenging job.

Federal website management is not easy, and there is currently no standardized position description describing the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for people in this role. The work is varied and complex, requiring not only programmatic expertise, but a broad range of skills in design, accessibility, content management, user experience, and more. Even within our own agency, people holding this title were often tackling the work in very different ways. 

See Who’s on your digital dream team? to learn more about the skills and expertise needed to manage a federal website.

In 2021, GSA created an Enterprise Digital Experience (EDX) team in our Office of Customer Experience, to tackle big problems like this. The EDX team works with other teams across GSA to improve digital service delivery at an enterprise level. EDX team members bring a range of skills, including service design, engineering, project management, communications, and human resources (HR) management. As we worked to improve our digital services, we realized that many of the problems we saw were actually not technology problems at all. They were underlying HR problems. Every office was managing its web properties in slightly different ways, and there was often no one person in charge. This resulted in a very inconsistent experience for customers of GSA websites.

So our first step was to define exactly what it means to be a website manager at GSA.

Our definition of “website manager”

Every GSA website/digital property must have a designated Website Manager. This person:

  • Must be a federal employee; cannot be a contractor, but may direct and oversee contractors.
  • Is programmatically responsible and accountable for the management of a GSA public-facing website or digital property (including websites, web-based applications, or web-based application log-in pages), including:
    • Determining content, design, and development priorities
    • Identifying resources needed for ongoing site management and maintenance
    • Ensuring the digital property fits into the overall GSA digital ecosystem by collaborating with other teams around common content and functionality in terms of customer journey, business function, topic area, technical capabilities, and compliance with federal web policy
  • Must have a clear understanding of the website’s customers and their needs, including (but not limited to):
    • The mechanisms (interviews, surveys, usability studies, etc,) used to gather customer feedback about the site
    • The actions needed to improve overall customer experience
  • Must have a clear understanding of how well the website meets GSA and federal policies and laws related to digital service delivery, including (but not limited to) such things as:

It’s about technology AND people

Once we had a definition of the role, the next step was to determine who was actually doing that work, for every website. 

We discovered a vast array of approaches to website management across the enterprise. We found employees who were working under the heavy burden of managing a dozen sites, and others for whom website management was “other duties as assigned.” There was no prescribed position description, no common job series, no specific educational requirement or training curriculum, no clear career path, and consequently, no enterprise-wide consistency in customer experience. We approached this as an equity issue, and it required both HR and technical expertise to work through the problem.

Through a long series of interviews and negotiations with organizational leadership, supervisors, and assumed website managers, we identified one website manager for every public-facing digital property. However, unless federal employees have specific language in their position description about website management, they are not able to include this work in their performance plans, which meant they were not getting proper credit for the work. Technical experts worked with HR to develop boilerplate language which was dropped into every website manager’s position description, avoiding any changes that would initiate a series or grade change. 

We developed a 3-part custom training course to introduce website managers to GSA’s digital governance structure. The course explains how they fit in, their responsibilities for managing a GSA website in accordance with federal web policy, and how to use our internal Digital Lifecycle Program (DLP), which provides comprehensive guidance on how to manage a GSA website and comply with laws and policies. Read more about the DLP in Sunrise to sunset: Building a customer-centric digital ecosystem.

Leadership and accountability

Documenting this work has helped managers understand the scope and complexity of managing a federal website. We also included language in the performance plans of all senior leaders who oversee a GSA website, and they are now accountable for ensuring that:

  • Their web teams have training and resources to properly manage their websites, and
  • Programs are accountable for taking positive action to improve the customer experience of their websites.

Websites are one of the primary ways federal agencies conduct business, so we must manage them as strategic business investments. Just as a brick-and-mortar building needs cleaning crews, security checkpoints, and heating system maintenance, agency websites need content writers and editors, web developers, accessibility experts, and usability testers. All those specializations need to be defined and documented, and employees doing this complex work need to be trained, and to receive recognition for their expertise and accomplishments.

If you work at a U.S. federal government agency, and would like to learn more about our work to improve classification of website managers, you can reach GSA’s Enterprise Digital Experience team at customerexperience@gsa.gov.