Building better websites — accessibility is key
Federal government websites are failing to achieve accessibility targets. What can be done?
Government websites provide critical services and vital information for essential health, welfare, taxation and other services. Access to these services will become more important as Australia’s population grows.
It is especially worrying that a recent report commissioned by The Accessibility Centre found the majority of government websites are underperforming, with the best (treasury.gov.au) scoring just 4.6 out of 10 — a failing grade.
This would be unacceptable in the corporate world, likely resulting in a ‘crisis control’ situation. A similar response is warranted for government website administrators, especially given the essential nature of the services that are provided.
There are some basic things government agencies can do to ensure they are providing the highest level of accessibility and usability. Here are three of them.
There are 4 million Australians with disabilities — including 2 million who are colour-blind — and 3.5 million Australians over 65, whose chance of disability or other impairment increases as they age. There are numerous others who have repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis.
Government websites need to cater to the needs of all Australians, including those with a disability; those not proficient in a language or with low literacy; new and infrequent users; and even those with low-bandwidth connections or old hardware.
Government website administrators should start with an accessibility audit, ensuring the website is WCAG 2.0 compliant… a set of guidelines and recommendations that can be implemented to make website content accessible.
Gov.uk provides an excellent example of high-quality user accessibility. The site is highly awarded for being accessible, easy to navigate and rich in information.
Content management systems
Broken links, error pages, buttons that don’t work — these are tell-tale signs that a website has not been updated. For example, The Accessibility Centre’s report found “66 per cent of documents failed an accessibility check”. This could be due to simple technical errors, or it could be due to the absence of a streamlined content management system (CMS).
A CMS empowers non-technical staff to quickly update and upload content to a website, without a master’s degree in website development. Fewer problems will arise if it’s easy for staff to make such changes easily, but making simple changes without a CMS becomes an expensive and frustrating exercise.
Furthermore, without a CMS, support for mobile and tablet devices might also be limited, resulting in a slow, poorly designed experience, which would benefit from website optimisation.
One of the biggest mistakes government organisations can make is to let the website stay stagnant for 2 to 5 years, until the backend is a minefield ready to blow and the design is outdated. This is a major problem for two reasons.
Firstly, a backend that is cluttered and unorganised will invariably lead to slow load times, poor multidevice compatibility and inevitable service interruptions — a luxury no website, let alone government services, can afford.
Website administrators can avoid this ticking time bomb by scheduling regular backend audits, which should happen during off-peak times, typically between 2.00 and 4.00 am.
Secondly, an outdated design isn’t just an eyesore, but will make navigating the website difficult and time consuming. This will have serious implications for user accessibility, as users may require further assistance to complete applications, download forms and find necessary information.
Government website administrators need to take a proactive approach to website management. Ensuring the staff responsible for content have a streamlined CMS that enables them to make updates whenever necessary is the best place to start. Auditing the website for technical issues and confirming the website is WCAG 2.0 compliant will turn the website into a viable and accessible resource for all Australians.
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