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Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Readers of the eleventh annual Better Connected report on UK council websites, published last month by the local government Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), might be forgiven for feeling that time has stood still.

Last year’s report found that only 37 out of 464 council websites (8%) attained the most basic level of accessibility, Level ‘A’ of the World Wide Web consortium’s (W3C) web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 1.0) ( ).

But Better Connected 2009 shows that little, if anything, has been done to address the problem. Almost exactly the same  number of councils surveyed (36) achieved a Level A rating, and for the second year running, none have achieved Level AA or Level AAA – the highest rating possible ( ).

This paints a gloomy picture, especially considering that all public sector websites have been advised to meet a minimum accessibility standard of Level AA by December 2009 in ‘Delivering inclusive websites’, a 2008 publication from the Central Office of Information. In fact, the original consultation process for ‘Delivering inclusive websites’ in 2007 had suggested that government sites should have their rights to use the ‘’ web domain withdrawn unless they met Level AA by December 2008, a recommendation which, luckily for the public sector, was eventually watered down.

It is not all bad news this year, however. Some encouragement can be drawn from the implementation of a new additional qualitative assessment system, carried out for Socitm by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), and designed to give an overall picture of council website accessibility. The system used its own 0-3 rating, with 0 representing a frequent absence of accessibility and 3 representing a site that was functionally fully accessible. Under this system, 136 councils (33%) were rated by the RNIB as satisfactory or excellent; a far more encouraging statistic than the 8% who achieved WCAG Level A.

Speaking to E-Access Bulletin following the publication of this year’s report, Socitm Insight Programme Manager Martin Greenwood said the 2009 survey did not present a negative picture of council website accessibility but said further advances should now be made. “In terms of a strategic improvement, councils must make a commitment to accessibility. Specifically, they must ensure that any new software purchased is not inaccessible. There were some bad decisions made four or five years ago regarding software procurement.”

Greenwood also said councils can take rapid and effective action by addressing a list of five common accessibility errors identified in the report. As with Better Connected 2008, these errors accounted for a large proportion (76%) of failures to meet the Level A guideline, he said. The common errors were the presence of images without alternative text; inappropriate use of JavaScript; simple data table errors; complex data table errors; and a lack of accessible alternatives to website features.

Greenwood also said that there was “no chance at all” of all public sector websites achieving a Level AA rating by December 2009, as set out in ‘Delivering inclusive websites’, but said that in any case this target may now be superceded by the introduction of the revised WCAG 2.0 guidelines from W3C in December 2008, while work on Better Connected was ongoing.

The introduction of WCAG 2.0 represented a significant step forward, Greenwood said, allowing for clearer guidelines and an approach that is “more flexible in dealing with issues such as the impact of new technology.” However, websites that failed to achieve a Level A accessibility rating under WCAG 1.0 will be unable to use the ‘outdated’ status of the older system as a get-out clause. The Socitm report states: “Most websites that conform with WCAG 1.0 should not require significant changes in order to conform with WCAG 2.0. Just as importantly, for those that do not conform with WCAG 1.0, the task is not likely to be much easier under WCAG 2.0.”

The RNIB was also largely positive about the report’s findings, claiming that the figures do not necessarily represent a widespread lack of accessibility. “In fact, we noticed a significant improvement in the real accessibility of most of the websites we assessed. Unfortunately that doesn’t always show in a strict conformance check,” said Bim Egan, Senior Web Access Consultant at the RNIB.

Egan said there were also extraneous factors which contributed to some of the websites failing to meet the guidelines: “Third party content has a big part to play in the use of technologies that failed the previous guidelines [WCAG 1.0]. We had to fail 263 sites for using JavaScript, for instance, [but] in the majority of cases this was due to providing benefits calculators and online payment services.”

Better Connected 2009 also makes a series of accessibility recommendations for councils to improve their sites, including securing a commitment to accessible websites; building accessibility into procurement criteria; supporting a programme of user education; and carrying out user testing with groups of disabled people.

Councils can also draw encouragement from the feeling that they are not alone in the struggle to become accessible online. According to a separate Socitm study due to be published in full in April, local government outperforms various other sectors in terms of website accessibility, including FTSE 100 companies, finance companies and the travel industry.

The opportunity is now here for the public sector to take the lead as it works towards implementing WCAG 2.0.


  1. Stuart Harrison | March 19th, 2009 | 4:05 pm

    (I’ll try and post my comments in the right article this time!)

    Accessibility has to be seen as more than just a binary pass / fail scenario. Just because a few pages fail on a few minor points doesn’t mean the whole site is inaccessible. Sure, point out the problems so they can be fixed, but don’t brand websites with the label ‘inaccessible’ just because of a few issues.

    And don’t get me started on suppliers. The main problem is that web teams aren’t consulted before deals are entered into and contracts are signed. As a local authority web person, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion being forced to implement systems that I know are inaccessible, but I’ve got no way of blocking their release.

  2. James Coltham | March 19th, 2009 | 4:45 pm

    We all know that WCAG 1.0 is outdated, especially now that it has been superseded by version 2, so the 8% stat is fairly meaningless (many of the conditions for failure are arbitrary and no longer relevant, as Bim herself alludes to). The RNIB’s own rating system seems far more pertinent – based on real-life accessibility – so let’s have more discussion around that and less of the talk about déjà vu!

    I look forward to seeing what results come next year, when measured against WCAG 2.0, but it’s interesting to note that the COI’s Delivering Inclusive Websites guidance does not yet refer to these.

  3. Andrew Hart | March 24th, 2009 | 2:58 pm

    I’ve been working with Government clients for years now and the biggest hindrance to implementing accessibility is the laughably weak ‘pressure’ from central Government.

    Everyone know that “Existing central government department websites must conform to ‘AA’ by December 2009 and all other government agencies and non- departmental bodies by March 2011″ [] …but how many times has this deadline changed? I’ve lost count!

    Back in May 2002 the Office of the e-Envoy (long since disbanded as a bad joke) issued the “Guidelines for UK Government Websites” along with a mandate of “conform or lose the funding for your website which will be managed centrally by the e-Envoy dept.” This concerned many of my clients and action was urgent.

    The Government had no backbone and was soon extending deadlines and watering down penalties for non-conforming websites…and NOTHING has changed since!

    The Disability Discrimination Act is law and it’s about time the Government started enforcing it. Sadly this is not going to happen any time soon.

    There are some ways to speed up the process:

    1) pressure Government through lobbying and legal action
    2) if you own or run a website embrace accessibility and reap the rewards (better SEO, greater market reach, public response to ethical trading)
    3) if you design websites build accessibility in as STANDARD…not an optional extra

    Annual reviews of Government failures are important but are only one part of the picture. Real change comes from getting involved!

  4. paul canning | March 25th, 2009 | 1:24 pm

    Have blogged a response to this article here

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