The DTI Responds
Last month I posted about the disquiet I felt about the DTI's new website . Subsequently I emailed an enquiry to the department, requesting 6 pieces of information about the development of the website. My main concerns were that the site was inaccessible, ignored almost wholesale the government's own guidelines on the development of websites, and subsequently was an example of the mis-use of public funds.
Exactly 20 working days later on Friday June 16th (boy do they know their rights under the FOI legislation) I received a reply. It makes for interesting reading, but for me raises more questions than it answers.
For the record here are the 6 things I asked for and the responses I received, verbatim (with my added links):
- The total budget and actual spend for development of the new website.
- There was a budget of approximately £200000 for the development of the new website. The spend on website development is estimated at £175000 which includes costs from Fresh01 and the Department's main IT supplier, Fujitsu .
- Whether the website was developed by a team at the DTI or by a private company. If the latter please provide the name of the company.
- The website was designed under contract by Fresh 01 . The design was then implemented by the Department's main IT supplier, Fujitsu , into a Content Management System .
- A copy of the requirements document for the production of the new website.
- A copy of the requirements document is attached. This formed part of the 'Invitation to Tender for rebuild of the website, brief for customer research, design & information architecture, and usability testing phases'. [Download the document - dti.pdf (118kb, PDF format); dti.doc (87kb, MS Word format)]
- A copy of any tender documentation related to the production of the new website.
- Unfortunately the DTI considered their answer to the previous question to also answer this, despite the mention of a more comprehensive 'Invitation to Tender' document. I'll attempt to secure a copy of this in my next information request.
- The basis for this statement on the DTI website: "This website meets the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) AA-level standard."
- The statement relating to accessibility was an error. It was removed from the website on 19 May 2006 when we reviewed the site in the light of questions raised.
- Details of what quality assurance procedures were followed to ensure the new website met the requirements of the department and satisfied the relevant legal requirements for websites.
- Two main rounds of User Assurance Testing were carried out on each template of the Content Management System, using test scripts. There was no formal User Assurance Testing for accessibility.
Let's take a look at the accessibility issues. The requirements document, echoing the government's own standards, specifies that:
10. Companies should note that the final website must comply with the Government Website Guidelines: http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/oee/oee.nsf/sections/webguidelines-handbook-top/$file/handbookindex.htm and Level AA of the Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3.org/WAI)."
It also states that one of the key objectives of the DTI website rebuild is:
To be a leading example of usable, accessible web design"
Finally, in Annex I, the objectives of the Usability Testing Phase are stated in these terms:
We need to ensure that we provide high quality, usable templates for incorporation into the Percussion CMS. To do this we need a robust programme of usability testing carried out during the design and build phase. This is important in ensuring that the site meets accessibility guidelines for the disabled and other groups, but it is also intended to improve the experience for all users. We need to ensure that users can find what they need to quickly and easily on the site.
We will expect the successful tenderer for this phase of the project to work closely with Percussion and also the company responsible for developing the templates. The results of usability tests will feed into the process of new page templates as they are developed.
Testing should carried out with representative groups of the DTI site's users and potential users. The final website must comply with the Government Website Guidelines and Level AA of the Web Accessibility Initiative.
All laudable stuff, but sadly the reality doesn't match the rhetoric. Why did the DTI:
- pay £200,000 to private companies for a website which didn't even come close to meeting one of the key objectives of their website rebuild project?
- Fail to test at all for accessibility, as they have clearly admitted in their response, despite it being an explicit objective of the Usability Testing Phase?
- Erroneously claim WAI AA conformance when the site was launched? We know it was an error, the question is how did the error arise? Did someone really believe the site was accessible? Did the companies involve assure the DTI that it met the stated standard?
This seems to be a classic case of a gap between the standards of accessibility a commissioner is stipulating in a requirements document, and their ability to verify that those standards have been met by suppliers. What concerns me is that no-one in the DTI or in any other central government department (the eGU anyone?) seems to have take it upon themselves to fulfil that quality assurance role, and as I've said many times before it's a major failing of many government web projects currently.
Who's to blame?
It's hard to see who comes out of this with any credit at all:
- The DTI themselves have failed seriously in their project management - the requirements document is okay, but is effectively worthless since the suppliers haven't been held accountable to it.
- The suppliers, Fresh01 and Fujitsu, had full knowledge of the standards specified in the tender documentation and failed miserably to meet them.
- The content management system used, Rhythmyx, has an accessibility check feature, but that doesn't appear to be sufficient to prevent editors from producing thoroughly inaccessible content and invalid HTML. If it supports the production of sites to conformance level AA it shouldn't allow the publishing of invalid HTML, period.
What happens now?
It's fascinating to me how a government department can spend £200,000 in 2006 on such a poor website. There's no shortage of guidance, advice and support for those seeking to produce and commission quality websites today, so why did the DTI and its suppliers fail to take pretty much any of it on-board? What steps will the DTI be taking now they know the website doesn't meet the objectives and requirements they stipulated? I'll be trying to learn more over the coming weeks - I've been directed to make furhter enquiries about the website to the DTI's Response Centre (firstname.lastname@example.org) and of course I'll post what I do learn here.