Better Connected & web accessibility
SOCITM's Better Connected 2007 is published next week. Almost a year ago to the day I posted somewhat critically about the report's use of SiteMorse, and its reliance on automated testing for some of its findings. This year I've become rather more personally interested in the report - I was disappointed to learn earlier this week that ClacksWeb is not one of the 2 sites which were found to conform with WCAG level AA.
I'll cut to the chase. BC's assessment of the accessibility of local authority websites is fundamentally flawed. Admittedly this is a reflection of the use of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 as the instrument of measurement, but it's flawed all the same.
The single most important aspect of that flaw is this: syntactically valid HTML is not a primary indicator of web accessibility, and by the same token syntactically invalid HTML does not categorically indicate an inaccessible website.
Valid HTML is at best a proxy indicator of web accessibility - that is an indicator that doesn't have a causal link with the outcome (in this case an accessible website), but rather is something that is likely to be found where the outcome exists. Simply put, web developers who appreciate the issues around accessibility are more likely to be informed professionals who also appreciate the benefits of adopting and adhering to web standards. However, just as with SiteMorse's much maligned league tables, using HTML validity as an initial filter to identify "more accessible" sites is wholly invalid.
For the purposes of Better Connected an arbitrary threshold of 50 errors across 200 tested pages was used. Any sites reporting less than 50 errors went forward to be considered for WCAG AA conformance, those reporting more than 50 errors did not. Leaving aside this arbitrary limit, this also shows a gross failure of logic - to conform to level AA of WCAG a site must surely report zero errors across its 200 pages? A single error breaches checkpoint 3.2 of the guidelines, rendering it unable to conform to level AA.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are 8 years old this year. In web terms they are at the very least pensionable, and quite probably pushing up the daisies. And remember they are guidelines, and as time passes it becomes more important that those using them as guidance recognise this.
Education is the key to improving the state of web accessibility, whether we're talking about government or any other sector. Web developers and managers, content editors, suppliers of applications that produce web-based output - all of these people require a sound understanding of the accessibility issues in their respective areas of operation to achieve and sustain an accessible online presence, and that understanding can only come through learning.
A good start would be to make the findings of the automated tests for BC available to the local authorities themselves. I was disappointed to discover 158 validation errors had been found on ClacksWeb - was it a single error across 158 pages, or one really bad page? The two scenarios have quite different implications for me as a manager, but to date I've been unable to elicit the details, and the errors aren't apparent on the site any longer.
Little fault, if any, should be attributed to the RNIB for this state of affairs - there is no practical way 468 websites can be adequately tested for accessibility on an annual basis without a significant financial and resource commitment.
The solution, however unpalatable it might be to the bean counters who seem to have a desperate need to rank and score us all, is to abandon the concept of ranking 468 websites for accessibility, and to stop testing them against an 8 year-old set of guidelines. Instead SOCITM should much more wisely employ the expertise of the highly skilled and knowledgeable staff at the RNIB to identify, highlight and promote best practice in web accessibility, both in the local government sector and beyond. I'm certain the WAC staff could come up with some fantastic educational resources if they were given free rein with SOCITM's financial contribution for BC. The current state of affairs is like asking the Michelin Guide to judge restaurants on the quality of their cutlery.
The question that I keeping coming back to is this - what does the Better Connected reporting of web accessibility achieve? Last year it painted a fairly depressing picture, and this year that picture is almost identical. If SOCITM wants to be an agent for change it needs to do more than just reporting a problem exists, and start putting its members' best interests first by helping them to address the problem.