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 ( www.socitm.gov.uk/socitm/Library/Better+Connected+2009.htm ).
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websites’ in 2007 had suggested that government sites should have their rights to use the ‘.gov.uk’ web domain withdrawn unless they met Level AA by December 2008, a recommendation which, luckily for the public sector, was eventually watered down.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 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.
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.