Millions require access to public sector online services every day. Yet, many of these people cannot access the necessary services because the websites and apps in question have poor digital accessibility.
Research released this month shows that about 99% of public second websites contain accessibility issues. The data, which covers the last two years, highlights poor accessibility presenting potential problems for users with physical and/or cognitive impairments. Not least is this hugely frustrating for so many people, but it is also a blatant breach of regulatory requirements.
Government regulations dictate that any public sector website published on or after 23 September 2018 should have been compliant by 23 September 2019. While any websites published after this date must be compliant before going live. In addition, websites Public sector published before 23 September 2018 were given until 23 September 2020 to meet regulatory standards.
So how come the issue of poor digital accessibility is still so prevalent in early 2022? Let’s look a little closer at the government regulations and just how far these public sector bodies are from meeting the necessary accessibility standards.
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What are the government’s digital accessibility standards for public sector websites?
I’ve already mentioned that the UK government has put together a list of guidelines for digital accessibility that it expects public sector websites and apps to adhere to going forward, but what are they?
Firstly, the government states that it’s crucial to make a website or mobile app accessible so as many people can use it as possible, including – but not limited to – people with:
- impaired vision
- motor difficulties
- cognitive impairments or learning disabilities
- deafness or impaired hearing
The accessibility guidelines came into effect in 2018 and set a new standard for public sector websites. It’s worth noting that these guidelines cover both intranet and extranet websites – meaning internal portals used by public sector employees, for example, must also meet the same accessibility requirements as the local council website, for example.
The requirements are simple – a website or mobile app must meet:
- The international WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standard – although there may be valid legal reasons for not meeting accessibility standards
- And/or publish an accessibility statement that explains how accessible your website or mobile app is
To make it even easier for these organisations to adhere to the standards, the government has also published a guide to making your website accessible and how to write and publish an accessibility statement, you can read this here.
Why are so many websites failing to meet the standards?
We can only really speculate about why public sector organisations are failing to meet the standards – and why it seems like it is still low on their priority list in 2022. The recent research that I quoted at the start sheds some light on why this might be causing problems for the public sector.
Out of the 593 websites included in the study, only eight did not have any accessibility issues at all. According to the report: “the main issues found [were] a lack of visible focus, which affects keyboard users, low colour contrast, which affects visually impaired users, and parsing issues, that affects users of assistive technology.”
One of the biggest issues was the number of websites using PDF documents in places where information could easily be displayed in HTML format. Honestly, it’s surprising that the PDF still maintains such a stronghold on so many organisations – it’s inaccessible, doesn’t function well alongside mobile devices and is generally a poor way to display information.
Perhaps most shockingly, the Central Digital and Data Office, the body which carried out the research, contacted the owners of all 593 websites to highlight the issues found. Over time, 59% of the sites fixed the issues, while the remaining either did not reply or have shown no evidence of implementing the changes.
In large part, I think the lack of consequences is one of the core reasons why these organisations fail to invest in accessibility. In the US, there is a significant rise in the number of lawsuits on the subject of web accessibility, making a lack of accessibility a considerable threat for American businesses. While this is a very American way of dealing with things, I can’t help but wonder what our own version of consequences could look like for public sector organisations that fail to meet accessibility standards.
Why do accessibility standards matter?
You might be sitting there thinking: “Dean, why does it matter anyway?”
Well, web accessibility best practice could be the difference between a person being able to access a public service – like booking a hospital appointment, paying their council tax or reporting a crime – and not.
Public sector services can impact every aspect of our lives, this includes healthcare, education, policing, fire services and public transport. We all have to access these services at some point in our lives, either for ourselves or on behalf of a dependant. Imagine if you were unable to access the local council website? From housing benefits to bin collection dates, term times and leisure facilities… Most councils have transitioned to managing these services online. So, being able to access the services is crucial for all of us.
If the website lacks the proper colour contrast or fails to be responsive for mobiles and tablets, then people are unable to access the vital information and services they need to live their lives.
The most frustrating part of this whole issue is that the most common problems are not difficult ones to solve – it’s a matter of carrying out an audit in line with the WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility guidelines and fixing each problem one at a time. Your web developer can help with this, or you can hire an accessibility specialist like myself to work with you to improve your web accessibility.
Want to know more about digital accessibility? Get in touch or check out my Digital Accessibility page.