UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Government Web Sites MUST Be WCAG AA Compliant!

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 25 June 2008

I commented previously on the Public consultation on Delivering Inclusive Websites (TG102) which proposed that “all government websites must meet Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines by December 2009“. It seems that this proposal has now been implemented. Some may feel that this is to be welcomed, but as I have argued previously, mandating use of a dated set of Web accessibility guidelines which have been shown to be flawed will, I believe, be counter-productive. And judging by an article by Julie Howell (formerly of the RNIB and currently Director of Accessibility at Fortune Cookie and chair of the British Standards Institution’s committee on web accessibility) entitled Web Accessibility. Life In the Post-Guideline Age I don’t think I’m alone in my views.

The Delivering inclusive websites document (issued on 12 June 2008) states that:

    1. The minimum level of accessibility for all Government websites is Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines. All new websites must conform to these guidelines from the point of publication.
    2. <em”>Websites owned by central government departments must be Double-A conformant by December 2009. This includes websites due to converge on Directgov or BusinessLink, unless convergence is scheduled before this date.

That’s right – if Government Web sites don’t achieve WCAG AA compliance by December 2009, their domain name may be withdrawn. That’s bound to enhance the accessibility of the service, isn’t it?

I wondered about the accessibility of the 10 Downing Street Web site. Putting this through a HTML validator I find mutiple validation errors. And as HTML compliance is mandatory (in WCAG 1.0), this means that the Web site fails to pass the Government minimum standards for accessibility. And if this is still the case in December, the No 10 Downing Street Web site will be forced to shut down – with processes for shutting down Government Web sites have already been documented (in MS Word and PDF formats).

SiteMorse Ranking of top 11 UK Government Web Sites, June 2008Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the accessibility auditing company SiteMorse have just published a Website Survey June 2008 – UK Central Government report. This survey (based on SiteMorse’s automated accessibility checking tool) reports that only 11.3% of the government Web sites surveyed pass the WCAG AA tests which their automated software can detect! A table showing the rankings of Government Web sites for a range of criteria including accessibility is available on the SiteMorse Web site and the Top 11 Web sites, which comply with WCAG AA according to the automated test are shown (there is one other Web site, labelled as ‘London Councils’ which passes the automated accessibility compliance test).

Will we see a drastic pruning of the Central Government Web sites which aren’t included in the table at the start of the 2009? Or will we see vast amounts of tax-payer’s money being spend on ensuring that the Web sites manage to pass the automated tests? Or perhaps we’ll simply see a withdrawal of the services.

What we can’t say is that the Web sites which fail the automated tests are necessarily inaccessible to people with disabilities. And we also can’t say that the Web sites which pass the automated tests are necessarily accessible to people with disabilities. This approach is all about passing artificial benchmarks, not addressing the needs of citizens with disabilities.

An unfortunate aspect of this new policy is that when the JISC TechDis Service together with UKOLN organised the Accessibility Summit II event on A User-Focussed Approach to Web Accessibility we ensured that as well as inviting accessibility researchers and representatives form the disability community (including Kevin Carey founder of HumanITy and Robin Christoperson, head of Accessibility Services, AbilityNet) we also invited a representative form the central Government. The participants at the meeting agreed on the need “to call on the public sector to rethink policy and guidelines on accessibility of the web to people with a disability“. As David Sloan, Research Assistant at the School of Computing at the University of Dundee and co-founder of the summit reported in a article published in the E-Government Bulletin “the meeting unanimously agreed the WCAG were inadequate“.

What is to be done? The cynic, disillusioned by the current Government, might relish the embarrassment Gordon Brown and his Cabinet colleagues may face when the implications of this decision become more widely known. And we can expect opposition Shadow Cabinet Ministers and papers such as the Daily Mail using this as an opportunity to undermine the Government, with initial questions of “Will the minister explain why almost 90% of Government Web sites can’t be accessed by people with disabilities?” to be followed by “Will the minister give the costs of changing Government Web sites to comply with WCAG accessibility standards which are now obsolete?” or “Will the minister explain why the Government has caved in to European demands to implement a set of politically-correct guidelines which researchers have shown to be flawed?”“. And if the Government does carry out its promise to shut down non-compliance Web sites: “Why has the Government shut down its Web sites? This is political correctness gone mad“.

But to take satisfaction in such embarrassment is to miss the point. Implementation of this policy is likely to result in a deterioration of the quality of Government services to all:-)

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9 Responses to “Government Web Sites MUST Be WCAG AA Compliant!”

  1. Yikes!

  2. Brian,

    I see that there does appear to be a fully updated version of the document including an HTML version.

    Your quote appears to come from the older version of the document which gives end 2008 as the deadline. The new version has the correct dates. I got a bit confused by your reference to 2009 following a quote referring to 2008! That said, thanks for bringing this to my attention; I responded to the consultation, but no one in government has passed this news on to me (yet).

    Simon Bains, Digital Library Manager, National Library of Scotland

  3. Hi Simon – thanks for your comments. It seems I had confused the initial proposal with the agreed action – and the date by which compliance is needed is now December 2009 and not 2008. I have updated my post – and also added the link to the HTML version of the guidelines which I must have missed when I wrote the post.

    I should also add that a post on Accessibility Deadlines Set For UK Government Websites published on 19thJune 2008 on the E-Access Blog describes how the warning that non-compliant Web sites will be shut down has been toned down from the initial proposal – it now seems that such Web sites ‘may be at risk of being shut down.

  4. Code Gorilla said

    Thank goodness they say “government” rather than “public sector“!

  5. @Code Gorilla – don’t be too complacent, the document states that “Websites owned by central government departments must be Double-A conformant by December 2009. This includes websites due to converge on Directgov or BusinessLink, unless convergence is scheduled before this date.” but then goes on to say that “Websites owned by central government executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies must conform by March 2011.” Do you work for a non-departmental public body (NDPB)? Wikipedia provides a definition of NDPBs and states that “In March 2006 there were 882 public bodies classified by the UK government“. Further information is given on a page on the Civilservice.gov.uk Web site – and Frankie Roberto may be concerned to hear that the list includes the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, Museum of London, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, National Gallery National Heritage Memorial Fund, National Lottery Commission, National Maritime Museum, National Museum of Science and Industry, National Museums Liverpool, the National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History Museum.

  6. Hello Brian, I work for the Central Office of Information (COI) and was involved in the development of the guidelines. I was also the government representative at the Accessibility Summit 2 in November 2006.

    It’s important not to confuse the version of the guidelines for public consultation (1.0, October 2007) with the approved version (1.1, June 2008). I realise that this has already been pointed out but the link to the PDF version and the quote of paragraphs one and two still refer to the older version. When linking to the guidance, please use the URL http://www.coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=129 This is the landing page which describes the guidance and provides links to the Word, PDF and HTML versions.

    Thanks for the link to Julie Howell’s article, it’s an interesting piece. However, I read it slightly differently to you. Julie begins by saying that WCAG is ‘absolutely appropriate and remains the crucial foundation of every website’. No-one is suggesting that AA-conformance is sufficient for high quality websites. Since the 2004 research by the Disability Rights Commission, the prevailing opinion has been that WCAG conformance is necessary but not sufficient for high levels of accessibility.

    The COI guidance is more closely linked to PAS 78. PAS 78 works alongside WCAG conformance and is an approach based on accessibility as a process. This process places greater emphasis on user involvement and developing an accessibility policy. That’s why, in addition to the requirements for AA-conformance, the COI guidance also requires the development of an accessibility policy and the use of methods for technical and usable accessibility testing. Therefore, AA-conformance is not sufficient to comply with the government guidelines. Neither is passing sets of automated tests as in the league table you have linked to.

    I want to stress that these guidelines will develop over time. We have said that we will consider WCAG 2.0 when it’s finalised. Also, I’m involved in BS 8878. To keep up with these developments and to ensure the guidance remains relevant, we have set up an accessibility community on Digital People. I encourage those interested in delivering inclusive public sector websites to join this community. There are some interesting discussions taking place and your input would be more than welcome.

  7. Hi Adam
    Many thanks for your comments. My apologies for citing the wrong document – I have updated the blog post. I hope this is now correct.
    I welcome the government’s effort to enhance the accessibility of its Web sites. However I am concerned that this will be interpretted as a need to ensure that automated checking tools don’t give negative results, and any effort an manual cheking will be marginalised.
    I would also question the extent to which we can rely on WCAG 1.0 as a definitie set of guidelines. nHaving said that I would agree with Julie Howell when she says “WCAG .. remains the crucial foundation of every website”. However the way I interpete that is that organisations should seek to implement WCAG, unless it gets in the way of providing accessible Web sites i.e. WXCAG conformance ius useful in many cases, but is not a necessary condition (we nboth agree that it is no sufficient).
    However I welcome your encouragement that intertsted parties should continue this debate.
    Having said that, I find it unfortunate that the forum you provide is closed – and I signed up on Friday but have still not been authorised to access the forum.

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