Government websites may be stripped of their ‘gov.uk’ domain names if they fail to meet tough new standards of accessibility to web users with disabilities, according to confidential draft proposals seen by E- Access Bulletin’s sister publication E-Government Bulletin.
The guidelines, entitled ‘Delivering inclusive websites: user-centred accessibility’, are being drafted by the Central Office of Information, the Whitehall agency which assists public bodies with communications campaigns.
If approved, they would mean that existing government sites would have until December 2008 to meet the ‘AA’ standard set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. All new sites would have to confirm immediately.
“Any new site approved by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Public Engagement and the Delivery of Service.must conform to these guidelines from the point of publication,” the draft guidelines state. “Continuing standalone sites must achieve this level of accessibility by December 2008. Websites which fail to meet the mandated level of conformance shall be subject to the withdrawal process for .gov.uk domain names, as set out in Naming and Registering Websites.”
Government will have a mountain to climb in order to comply with these standards, according to the best available evidence. No government websites achieved the ‘AA’ standard, according to the most comprehensive research in this area, published by the Cabinet Office in 2005 as part of the UK Presidency of the EU. Just 3 per cent of government websites in the EU reached the minimum ‘A’ standard .
The CoI document includes guidance on how to achieve the required standards when commissioning new websites, such as how to check compliance with WCAG; and how to involve people with disabilities in planning and testing the website. Many of the essential elements are set out in the Publicly Available Specification (PAS 78:2006) ‘Guide To Good Practice In Commissioning Accessible Website,‘ says CoI.
However, the CoI acknowledges that modifying existing websites to improve their accessibility will be more difficult and expensive.