Restricted Site Access

I had no idea what a vexed question site access can be. By site access I mean who has access to the site for purposes of maintenance and adding new material. Site access ties in with site ownership and control.

At one extreme is the view only the designer should add pages or change the site design. The site owners may be permitted to make minor changes, eg keeping information on the site up to date. They may have access to a blog if there is one.

Some third sector organisations negotiate sites at low fees from professional companies. They find they have a site they cannot develop further because the old designers control it. Sometimes it lacks basic functionality.  This is not only about financial constraints.  If you don’t know what to look out for, it is difficult to know what to agree with the designer.

Some Examples

I know of a site built on a proprietary content management system (cms). This means the designer’s company effectively controls the site. The contract with the designer ended several years ago. Any changes to the site still have to be done by the designer. For some reason it is not possible to create pages on the site. There is no blog. Whilst the owners can change the existing pages’ content, they cannot redesign the site.  In effect this ties the client to the old designer.  Why?  It’s a bit of a mystery.  The client has few resources, they’re hardly going to be a significant source of income for the old designer.

The site itself is nothing special. It is a very simple design and so adding pages is not a major issue. The designer is willing to add, what I would see as basic functionality, to the site for a substantial fee. This was a significant fee for my client’s budget, to gain what they should have had in the first place.

It is hard to escape the view this is a cynical attempt to retain a client and take fees from them in the future.

A WordPress Site

Another example is a WordPress site with a custom theme. A professional design firm designed the theme for the site owners. They retained the administration status and permitted their client access to the site only to work on blog posts. You do this by adjusting the user type.

Ethically this is a better approach. The site has full functionality and the access arrangements can be changed at no cost.

The same designer argued they didn’t want the owners to have the freedom to change the site design. One thing they sometimes do is allow the owner to have administrator status and a lower status. They retain administrator status for rare occasions when they need significant changes and they use the lower status for day-to-day maintenance.

This last point is helpful.  There are legitimate site security issues and restricting access to the most powerful user-types is one way of protecting the site from owners who don’t always know the implications of their actions.

The Ethics

Restricting access to site owners is an out-of-date premise: site design is more important than function. If the design is dependent on people not interfering with it, is it really helpful to an organisation that wants to use its site for campaigning or marketing its products and services? The assumption behind these restrictions is the client will never learn enough to be in control of their own site.

I’ve seen restrictions based upon the skills, abilities or intentions of a single person and not on the needs of the organisation. Just because the current person in charge has no interest in looking after their site, it does not follow the organisation will always be in this place.

After they have spent what to them is a lot of money, it is frustrating if not disastrous to find, often a few years down the road, that the site is almost unusable; sometimes because the designer is unwilling to co-operate with the client who wants the freedom to do more with their site.  After all, the designer may have done a favour for a third sector organisation some years ago and really is not interested in helping them develop their site further.  Staff move on, the nature of relationships change and so it makes sense to future proof sites so the client is free to develop the site as their circumstances develop.


Bringing the owners onto the site with low-level access but possibly higher level access in the future is a compromise, protecting the site but allowing for organisational development. For low-budget organisations, off-the-peg themes are best because these have fewer constraints. If you have the budget for a special design be clear that whatever your current skill level you want the capacity to do more on your site in the future.

Remember the technical skills a designer or developer brings to your site are not necessarily what you need if you want to use your site as a campaigns tool or to sell online. Be sure that when the time comes to move on you have control over your own site.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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