Government 2.0 Draft Report and Accessibility
While there are many things to praise in the Government 2.0 Taskforce Draft Report, ‘Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0‘, sadly I find it very light-on when it comes to the whole issue of social inclusion for people with disabilities.
How governments around the world balance the potential of web 2.0 with the reality of making sure these new ways of engaging with the community are available to all, will be interesting. After several months work and several million dollars, the Draft Report of the Taskforce unfortunately does not offer us any new insights into this question, and if anything steps back from the notion that universal access to web content should be a right, and not a privilege. Perhaps this is not surprising since it seems that no one with specialist knowledge in the area of accessibility was on the Taskforce.
The Draft Report contains many nice words about the importance of open government and how we need to do more to ensure that agencies share information. It also talks about the need to simplify copyright and the use of Creative Commons to allow others to remix and reuse government information in different ways. I find little to argue with in these overall aims.
The Draft Report also promotes the use of ‘Web 2.0’ social networking tools by the Public Service as a way of enhancing greater engagement with the community, quote:
“‘Government 2.0’ may be understood as the application of tools and approaches associated with collaborative web or ‘Web 2.0’ as it has been dubbed. These tools are potentially transformative of the way governments operate.”
I have no argument with the notion that the use of social networking tools can bring benefits in terms of greater engagement and collaboration by the people who use these tools. In fact, I believe some of the tools mentioned in the Draft Report can bring real accessibility gains to people who may otherwise be socially isolated as the result of specific physical, cognitive or behavioural disorders.
I am concerned however, that the Taskforce does not appear to have identified how many people in Australia actually use these web 2.0 tools. I would have thought that this would be essential if you are going to advocate tools and approaches that have the potential to transform the way governments operate.
During September 2008, I did a quick survey of 90 people to gain some insights into the Use of Web 2.0 Tools. I found significant differences in both how much the tools were used and how they were used by different sectors of the community. For example, the web 2.0 tools considered were used on average by 84% of web evangelist (surveyed at a Web Standards Group meeting), whereas 43% of media workers and only 25% of teachers surveyed used the tools. Now, I don’t pretend for a moment that the results of this survey give us anymore than a glimpse at the use of some social networking tools by 90 people in late 2008.
However, given that the Taskforce mandate was to advise and assist the Government to make government material more accessible and usable by the general community, I was expecting to see in the report some indication of the overall use of the suggested web 2.0 tools by different sections of the Australian community. In particular, when it comes to the issue of social inclusion, I would like to know if the Taskforce considered the following questions:
- How many people who come from non-English speaking backgrounds, or who are unable to read English, use the web and web 2.0 tools?
- What percentage of the people who live in regional Australia use web 2.0 tools?
- What percentage of the older section of the community use web 2.0 tools?
- Do web 2.0 tools pose any accessibility problems for people with disabilities who rely on assistive technologies? The 2009 WebAim “Screen Reader User Survey” offers some useful insights into this question. Of the people who responded to the WebAim survey, 25% found social media websites generally inaccessible.
I will now turn to the specific issue of accessibility, as defined by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative:
“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web”
The Australian Government 2.0 Draft Report is large, 159 pages, and in those pages there are numerous references to many Acts of Commonwealth and State parliaments concerning a wide range of issues including; privacy; FOI; use of data; financial management; defence and security. One Act that doesn’t get a mention is the Disability Discrimination Act (1992), probably the most important act in Australia when it comes to protecting the rights of the disabled.
Of the 159 pages in the report, only a few are concerned with the accessibility of web 2.0 tools and the overall attitude is probably best summed up by this quote from the report:
“In many instances the application of full accessibility compliance can result in major delays, abandoning of initiatives or a severe weakening in functionality. In the public sector compliance is mandated, if compliance cannot be met then the project cannot proceed. The result is that access is denied for everyone.”
What are the ‘many instances’ where full compliance can result in major delays? No examples are provided in the report. However, one of the Government 2.0 Taskforce blogs, “Accessibility for all or none?” is illuminating in this regard. The blog describes how one government department did not publish 300 submissions they had received because they did not have the resources to convert them into HTML. The post goes onto say:
“The result of meeting the mandate was that access to substantial, valuable content was eliminated. I think the intent of the rules is to provide access for everyone.
Is this acceptable? If accessibility requirements cannot be met, does that mean that content or systems cannot go on-line?”
To me the rhetorical questions at the end of the above quote come perilously close to “dog whistling” that will give succour to those who labour under the misconception that accessibility is all too difficult and/or too expensive.
Of course making accessible alternatives for 300 submissions is going to cost money. But, surely when a government department requests submissions, the pertinent question to ask is, why didn’t the department factor into the overall process and budget for the project how they were going to make the submission accessible? I have no doubt this same unnamed department would save money when designing a new office building if, for example, they tell the architects and builders not to worry about things like toilets for the disabled or wheelchair access. It really comes down to the simple question of whether or not we believe access to web content by people with disabilities should be a right, or some form of charity to be dispensed only when time and money permits (see Social Inclusion for the Web).
The Government 2.0 Draft Report contains many examples of how web 2.0 can enable connections and collaborations of all kinds. For example:
“Thus, the social networking website Facebook has facilitated and enriched communication between people within social networks. Meetup.com, where people propose meetings, anywhere and for anything, has facilitated all sorts of get togethers of people with common interests and passions. And the internet ‘ideas market’ Innocentive has brought together those with technical problems to solve and those who can solve them.”
Many of the examples provided in the report, including all three in the previous quote, fail to fully comply with either version 1 or version 2 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. In some cases they are likely to be inaccessible to many assistive technology users, not because it would have been difficult to make them accessible, but because nobody bothered to do it. For example, the “Innocentive” site uses a CAPTCHA image for registration without providing an alternative in another modality. (In the previously mentioned “Screen Reader User Survey” CAPTCHA was the item that most participants found problematic, and yet many web 2.0 tools use CAPTCHA.)
Sure coming to grips with the accessibility demands of some new technologies will be difficult, however the work of the Taskforce and the Draft Report do not appear to offer any suggestions or advice in this regard. I would have thought that with a budget, which I think was $2.4 million, spending a small a proportion on researching CAPTCHA and possible alternatives would have been a good investment with long term benefits for all government agencies and the web community as a whole.
The accessibility section of the Draft Report does contain some generalised statements about the need for cultural change and compliance with WCAG. However, these are somewhat undermined by the Taskforce’s failure to unequivocally advise government agencies to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and the requirements of AGIMO when it comes to web content. Rather the report suggests:
“Freedom for agencies to choose non-accessible tools after careful consideration and always with the aim of maximum accessibility compliance. This enables agencies to deliver innovative engagement projects while maximising accessibility in the circumstances and providing alternative options for accessibility. For example, an agency may wish to use Facebook as tool as part of a consultation process, which would in many cases make good sense. However, the agency would need to ensure that it was not limiting the potential for citizens to participate in the consultation because of accessibility issues associated with the tool;”
Well at first glance that seems fine, but:
- What constitutes “careful consideration” – a quick chat with colleagues by the water cooler or commissioning someone with specialist knowledge to thoroughly research the issue?
- How can you choose a non-accessible tool “always with the aim of maximum accessibility compliance”?
- What “circumstances” and what “options for alternatives” should be considered when “maximising accessibility”?
- And, if you don’t make material accessible are you not limiting the potential for some citizens to participate?
In my opinion, all these issues could be adequately addressed by the Taskforce recommending agencies comply with the requirements of WCAG 2.0 with appropriate technologies declared “accessibility supported.”
In Recommendation 13 – Accessibility, the Taskforce recommends:
“Agency compliance with the Worldwide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the minimum accessibility level for all online community engagement and online PSI [Public Sector Information] provision is required.”
Once again this all seems fine, but in the next point the Taskforce steps back from fully supporting the need for accessible web content. Quote:
“Where an agency is considering a project where strict compliance with WCAG accessibility guidelines would unacceptably delay or prevent a project from proceeding, AGIMO will provide guidance on options to facilitate maximum access for people with disabilities;
In this case projects should only proceed with an online statement explaining site accessibility, together with an outline of where and why it does not meet a specific WCAG guideline, and what alternative options for accessible access were considered or are provided and plans for future compliance.”
More weasel words: What is “unacceptable delay”? When push comes to shove, under this recommendation, would an agency have to do anything more than “consider” an alternative option and indicate that they plan to comply at some undetermined time in the future?
A quick aside on the question of what is acceptable in terms of time: I couldn’t help noticing that the audio from the Government 2.0 Roadshows of last August still don’t appear to have transcripts, even though they were promised at the time. The “Vox Pop 2.0 Learning Journey” blog makes for interesting reading in this regard.
Now, as many will know, the failure to supply a text alternative is in breach of WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 as well as AGIMO guidelines, but I am not sure if 6 months would be considered an acceptable or unacceptable amount of time to comply with these requirements. I also notice that the Vox Pop 2.0 blog asked for people to help generate the transcripts, in part as an example of “crowdsourcing and collaboration”. Wishful thinking or deliberate obfuscation, I leave it up to you to decide. Whatever you decide, I am not sure it is appropriate for a government taskforce to leave meeting its obligations in the area of web content accessibility up to the charity of others.
In conclusion, I feel the Draft Report presents a very narrow, technology-centric view of what is required. The report seems to assume all citizens who may wish to engage with the government are able-bodied, web-savvy, can read English and are both willing and able to use social networking tools.
Rather than arguing the case for social inclusion; the report is more concerned with canvassing the various excuses and discounts for not addressing the issue of making sure all people, including those with disabilities, will be able to engage in the proposed Government 2.0 world.
NOTE: I will be examining issues involved in balancing the use of new technologies with accessibility requirements during the WCAG 2.0 in Depth workshops in April and May.