A strong need for more accessible public sector websites

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Just how accessible is digital government across Europe? For public sector digital transformation to be beneficial to all, people must be able to use government and local authority websites and mobile apps, regardless of their visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive abilities. This ambition is in line with the EU’s digital targets for 2030, which include the determination to have key public services 100 percent online. For this, the services have to work for everyone.

So, what progress has been made? In January 2022, the EU Member States published their first-ever Web Accessibility Directive – Monitoring reports to assess progress against the Web Accessibility Directive. In addition, Capgemini has piloted large-scale web accessibility evaluations under the eGovernment Benchmark 2021 and 2022 (forthcoming).

It is clear from both of the above, that EU Member States still have much to do to deliver inclusive citizen-centric online experiences for all.

An eGovernment Benchmark pilot study

The eGovernment Benchmark is the European Commission’s annual study into the availability and quality of digital government. It is led by Capgemini, with support from Sogeti, IDC and Politecnico di Milano. The measurement covers the 27 EU Member States, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. To further complement this analysis, a two-year web accessibility pilot assessed more than 14,000 eGovernment websites. Using the axe browser extension, the websites were assessed on 8 of the 50 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) success criteria, which form a significant part of the European Standard supporting the Web Accessibility Directive. Selected criteria give a first impression of to what extent websites are:

  • Perceivable, measured by: Alternative text, Color contrast
  • Operable, measured by: Page/document title, Link name
  • Understandable, measured by: Language attribute, Valid language code
  • Robust, measured by: Unique IDs, Aria hidden

Web accessibility by no means the default

Disappointingly, a vast majority (84%) of public sector websites assessed are not compliant and violate one or more WCAG criteria. Only 16% of the websites pass all 8 criteria and at least comply with part of the 50 criteria. For these latter websites, follow-up manual evaluations are needed to verify full compliance.

Websites often only achieve limited compliance with the ‘perceivable’ criterion. This limitation might be because alternative texts for pictures are missing and colors lack contrast. This harms all users, especially those with visual disabilities. Government websites are slightly more operable, understandable, and robust than they are perceivable.

The following offers a snapshot of conformance with the selected criteria and what’s required.

Figure 1. Pass rates per assessed WCAG criteria

WCAG criterion    What’s required Proportion of government websites that comply
PERCEIVEABLE For people with visual disabilities, pictures should come with a text explaining what is being depicted 65.40%
Alternative text
 WCAG 1.1.1
PERCEIVEABLE For people with color-blindness, text in the foreground and any background color behind it should have sufficient color contrast 40.90%
Alternative text
WCAG 1.4.3
OPERABLE For people with visual or motoric disabilities, the document’s title should contain a short, descriptive text summarizing the page’s contents 97.40%
Page/document title
WCAG 2.4.2
OPERABLE For people with visual or motoric disabilities, the purpose of links should be clear, and it should be possible to effectively operate links with a keyboard 50.70%
Link name
WCAG 2.4.4
UNDERSTANDABLE For people with visual or cognitive disabilities, the language of a webpage should be specified, so that screen reader sound libraries adapt 84.60%
Language attribute
WCAG 3.1.1
UNDERSTANDABLE For people with visual or cognitive disabilities, a correct language code should be used too, such as <html lang=”en”> for English 82.90%
Valid language code
WCAG 3.1.2
ROBUST For people with visual disabilities, uniquely identified elements on a page should maintain the accessibility of labels for forms, table header cells, etc. 70.50%
Unique IDs
WCAG 4.1.1
ROBUST For people with visual disabilities, content should not be wrongly hidden 99.50%
Aria hidden
WCAG 4.1.2

 

Accessibility levels are relatively similar across government domains, such as Economic Affairs, Employment, Higher Education and Justice. Moreover, central, regional, and local government administrations perform similarly, with 17%, 14% and 15% of the services passing all 8 criteria. Country differences do exist. Above the European trend, about half of the websites in Denmark (53%), the Netherlands (44%) and Austria (44%) meet the 8 criteria. These countries show that a structured approach, with involvement of users, can increase accessibility levels.

Figure 2. Percentage of websites that meet all 8 evaluated criteria (EU27+ countries, in 2020-2021)

Figure 2. Bar chart, Percentage of websites that meet all 8 evaluated criteria (EU27+ countries, in 2020-2021)

From valuable insights to firm actions

Ongoing monitoring and reporting activities help us to better understand Europe’s web accessibility status. The Member States’ monitoring reports, eGovernment Benchmark, and other evaluations clearly pinpoint pressing issues. These analyses show a strong need for more accessible public sector websites. With many administrations facing the same challenges, now is the time to collaborate, integrate and embed web accessibility. Building on previous efforts, firm action is needed to avoid one-off solutions and move towards long-lasting accessible government that serves us all.

This is about more than just technical change. Making accessibility last for the long-term demands a holistic approach embracing organizational change as well as technology. Fixing something after it is broken isn’t the way forward. Accessibility must be built in at the outset of a project and play a role throughout the end-to-end life cycle of digital websites and channels. It involves ongoing and proactive testing, compliant development, and the orchestration of the entire organization so that communication, HR, legal affairs, etc. all keep accessibility at the forefront of their citizen interaction.

Of course, this also requires employees across the organization to be trained on the accessibility elements that matter to their respective roles. They need to put themselves in their users’ shoes with ongoing dialog between the organization and citizens so that websites and channels can be designed with users’ specific accessibility needs in mind from the outset.

The above aligns with a framework for digital accessibility (testing, developing, organizing, training) that Capgemini developed to support public sector bodies across Europe, including ministries in frontrunning countries like the Netherlands. What’s clear to us is that unless action is taken fast and holistically, the concept of accessible, inclusive government for all will not be translated into practical solutions.

AUTHOR

Sem Enzerink 

Manager and Digital Government Expert, Capgemini Invent

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