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The local government sector can no longer ignore the importance of web accessibility, says Hilary Stephenson, managing director of digital user experience agency Sigma
As more of our public services move online, and the average age of our population rises, digital inclusion has become more necessary than ever before. Just as all physical government buildings must, by law, be accessible to all who wish to access them, so too must their digital gateways. Digital inclusion is a right, not a privilege, and an inadequate web accessibility offering should no longer be an option.
This issue is set to become even more pressing for local government bodies over the next nine months, due to EU legislation which means that, by legal mandate, all public sector websites and apps must meet EU accessibility guidelines by September 2018.
Sadly, we don’t appear to be adequately prepared for this as it stands. Some central government services have fantastic accessibility policies in place, led by Gov.co.uk, which has been designed from the ground up to be as inclusive as possible, offering options for almost every user regardless of ability or access need. However, others simply aren’t making the grade and local government sites are struggling to keep up, as it stands.
At the start of the year, the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) tested the accessibility of 416 local council websites – a third of which failed the process, suggesting that we still have a long way to go before the deadline later this year. However, it is our opinion that the local authorities sector should view this incoming legislation not as a barrier to be overcome, but rather as a fantastic opportunity to improve their digital offering, creating public services that are inclusive and working to the benefit of everyone.
What is this EU accessibility legislation?
The legislation in question, known as the ‘Directive on Web Accessibility for Public Sector Websites, was formally approved on 26 October 2016 after the European Commission noted that 80 million people within the EU are currently living with a disability, with this figure expected to rise to 120 million by 2020.
Described by the European Disability Forum (EDF) as ‘a crucial milestone to achieve an inclusive digital society’, the directive stipulates that, moving forwards, all new websites and mobile apps from public sector organisations will have to be accessible, and all existing sites will have to be updated within 24 months of the directive being formally approved.
This will go a long way towards solving a very real problem. After all, this is not just a case of being unable to access our favourite websites - we will all need to make use of the services our local council offer at some point, which are critical to our day-to-day lives.
Web accessibility and the local government sector
Web accessibility, also known as inclusive design, is the assurance from a business (or public body in this context) to its stakeholders that people living with impairments, regardless of whether these impairments are physical, cognitive, visual, auditory, or even merely situational, are able to interact with and effectively use their digital services.
More broadly, a focus on digital inclusion encourages us to consider IT skills gaps, financial exclusion and confidence levels, for the 12.6 million adults in Britain who don’t have the basic digital skills they need to benefit from the online world - with nearly six million people having never used the internet.
Essentially, this all stipulates that all public sector websites and mobile applications must, by law, be accessible to everybody, regardless of any relative disability. This has become particularly important in recent years as more and more of our public services have become digitised. Whilst, in the past, most communication with your local council would be conducted over the phone, it is now completely possible to pay your council tax, apply for various benefits, and even pay your parking tickets, completely online.
As the government adopts this ‘digital by default’ approach - moving more and more public services to the web - digital inclusion becomes more important than ever before to ensure that all can access and effectively use these services moving forwards. With this in mind, the fact that one in five of us (the number of people in the UK currently living with disabilities) may currently struggle to use these services simply cannot be ignored in a modern, functioning society.
Local authority websites and accessibility
An important reason why many local government websites are perhaps slower to embrace digital inclusion is the perceived cost. Local councils tend to be strapped for funding, and are likely to therefore be more reluctant to commit funds towards what they view as non-critical areas, which support only a minority of their service users.
This is why it’s vital for local authorities to realise that the cost of making a website accessible is actually a fairly modest outlay in comparison to the return on investment. Inclusively designed websites are far easier to use and maintain, and also cater to a much wider audience.
Of course, awareness of the issue is entirely different from knowing exactly what needs to be done to make a website accessible, and therefore compliant with the incoming legislation. Because of this, we’ve included below a set of simple, easily-actionable design tips for improving the inclusiveness of your website right here and now.
Visual impairments - For users with impaired vision, always make use of strong colour contrasts to make the information stand out on the page. Larger text sizes are also important here. Ensure all important information is included on HTML web pages – never hide important information behind a separate download. When you require input from your users, never rely on a single medium (such as colour) to convey meaning. Instead, use a combination of colour, shapes and text to make it completely clear what you are asking your users to do.
Audio impairments - Users who are hard of hearing will struggle to understand audio content, and will therefore be reliant on text, which should always be written in a simple, linear format. Any audio/video content which is included on the site should be clearly transcribed or subtitled. When requiring users to get in touch, always ensure that you’re offering text-based methods of communication such as email or instant messaging, as those who are hard of hearing may prefer not to use the phone.
Cognitive impairments - When it comes to cognitive impairments such as autism, the priority is to reduce the cognitive load for those browsing the site. Employ a simple colour scheme, avoiding bright, contrasting colours which are likely to cause overstimulation. Refrain from using walls of text, instead break up the content using simple sentences and bullet points. Finally, stick to simple, consistent layouts as cluttered pages fracture the user’s attention and increase cognitive load.
We need to take action now
Overall, this accessibility directive presents a challenge to the public sector – one which must be overcome quickly if it is to be compliant with the legislation by next Autumn. We all deserve full access to local government digital services and information, particularly as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ mantra, migrating vital services online.
With the EU-imposed deadline becoming closer by the day, the fact that one in three local government websites currently don’t make the grade is a concern, and one which we need to be addressing now. However, those who take a proactive stance towards overhauling their digital offering have a unique opportunity to increase stakeholder engagement, save on costs, and help facilitate a future wherein all have equal access to public services, with none being discriminated against or left behind.