An Important Month for Public Sector Web Accessibility

Guest blog: Jack Niland, UX Designer at Jadu

Image of Jack Niland, waving

September 2020 is a big month for accessibility in the public sector. As of the 23rd of this month, all public bodies will be expected to conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1).

Public sector websites that were created after the 23rd of September 2018 had to comply by the 23rd of September 2019, whereas those created beforehand (the majority) had until now. All public sector apps must also be accessible by the 23rd of June 2021.

How will compliance be monitored?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) will monitor compliance but enforcement will fall to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who will be able to use their legal powers against those that fail to meet the regulation and breach the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It’s not clear how quickly penalties will start being handed out, but the feeling is that, as with GDPR, it may be a while.

In local government (the primary industry in which I help design web experiences) the deadline has helped focus minds and ensure that accessibility is pushed to the forefront. There are also a number of league tables (such as the ‘Silktide UK Council Accessibility Index’) that rank local authority websites in terms of their accessibility. No one wants to be ranking lowly, which is a powerful motivator in itself. 

A shift in access to services

But it’s the ‘Channel shift’ of council services (shifting from telephone and council drop-in centres to online council services), accelerated through the necessity of the COVID-19 crisis, which has really brought home just how vitally important accessibility truly is.

In some cases, digital has been the only way to access services as people weren’t able to make it into council offices to open doors or take calls. That services could be completely inaccessible to some, especially at such a critical time, is of course entirely unacceptable.

Kathryn Halton of Pendle Borough Council, speaking on why accessibility cannot drop as a priority, said “...service requests for March, April and May were up 137% compared to the same period last year..." and that the council had “...received 100 per cent more feedback from customers about what works and what doesn’t work on the website because they have been forced to go online.”

Person working online on two laptops

Councils that had already established digital inclusivity mindsets such as Pendle had a clear advantage when then the pandemic hit. Those that didn’t must now play catch-up quickly for both practical and regulatory reasons.

Navigation issues on council websites

Society for innovation, technology and modernisation (SOCITM) recently published a report highlighting the most common accessibility issues on council sites. Navigation accounted for three of the top five problems. One issue applied to nearly all (94.87 per cent) councils!

There is clearly work still to be done. But there are also a tremendous amount of positives out there too. Some councils are really standing out and leading the way; Clare Cryer, the web officer at Harrogate Borough Council, is one such example. She took the council from third from the bottom of the Sitemorse Accessibility Index to the top, and now Harrogate is the only local UK authority to have 100 per cent of its pages pass WCAG AA standards.

It wasn’t the drive to meet regulation that drove her effort, however. Clare attended a Better-Connected event where a blind gentleman showed her the struggle of trying to pay his council tax. She couldn’t believe it and it became her mission to instil digital inclusivity in everything the council did from that point forward.

That’s key, really. Regulation and deadlines are great for raising awareness and forcing the issue, but the leaders in this area understand that accessible design is a mindset, a fundamental approach, rather than a box-ticking exercise.

Pushing accessibility up the agenda

Jonathan Lagden of Braintree Council puts it in a nice way, saying “accessible pages have a higher take-up amongst everybody, even those that don’t need the accessibility elements, because they’re better designed. Once you understand that why wouldn’t you engrain accessibility in everything you do?”

Local government has come a long way and still has a way to go, but web accessibility is higher on the agenda than ever in the public sector. The next issue lies in tackling the accessibility of third-party technology providers that integrate with council sites; think payments solutions, for example.

Image of a council building or town hall

Then how local authorities can hold those providers, which don’t necessarily fall under the same public sector regulations, to account. It will be tricky, especially when there are long-term agreements in place and providers ask for a lot of money to make the much-needed changes.

But you'd better believe the accessibility champions within the councils aren’t going to let them off the hook and it’s becoming quite a hot topic about how they can collectively force the issue.

Do you need help with digital accessibility at your public sector institution? Speak to AbilityNet's experts.

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