March 17, 2008
Customer Service Excellence not excellent
I told myself a while ago that I'd retired from bashing government websites. The DTI apart it never seemed to do much good, and I was getting reputation for being a zealot (which couldn't be further from the truth - I'm really a very pragmatic developer and know that at every turn in a web development project there are compromises to be made).
When the Cabinet Office's Customer Service Excellence website appeared last week I had a dig around, wasn't very impressed by what I saw and left it at that. But since then there's been a nagging voice at the back of my mind, urging me to think a little harder about this.
This bit of the site I found particularly hard to swallow:
The Government wants public services for all that are efficient, effective, excellent, equitable and empowering - with the citizen always and everywhere at the heart of public service provision.
So, let's consider the evidence and you can help me decide whether the Cabinet Office deserve to be hauled over the coals for the CSE website.
Firstly this is the same Cabinet Office that last year issued a consultation document, Delivering Inclusive Websites, which suggested that any government website that failed to conform to WCAG level AA by December 2008 could have its domain withdrawn, and that all new government websites should conform on launch.
So, as you'd expect, being brand spanking new the CSE website states proudly on its accessibility page:
In general, the site conforms to WAI double AA rating where HTML is used. Where documents are made available in other formats, conformance has not been achieved.
I think it's reasonable to have some documents in other formats which don't conform, so we'll overlook that.
Sadly, as you may have guessed, the rest of the site falls some way short of level AA conformance, and indeed some way short of level A conformance. I spent 15 minutes testing a few of the pages and found enough to satisfy me it was a bit short of the required standard. For example the home page features not a single HTML heading and lots of pictures of text without alt attributes. There are lots of other failings but the developers clearly need an accessibility 101 refresher.
The site isn't very good, and when you consider that:
- this is a government website produced in 2008
- for the government's new Customer Service Excellence standard
- by the department responsible for setting standards for government websites
- which is recommending that new government websites conform to WCAG level AA
- and which in 2006 contributed to the BSI's PAS 78, Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites
- and the site has serious accessibilty failings
…you can probably understand why I've come out of retirement.
I've made enquiries to the FOI team at the Cabinet Office. If you're tempted to do the same please don't - we had problems with the DTI dodging difficult questions because too many people were interested, it would be a shame if that were to happen again.
October 18, 2007
FOI enquiry - withdrawal of .gov.uk domains
As part of the preparation for my talk at Techshare earlier this month I made an FOI enquiry to the COI on 15th September about the conditions of use for .gov.uk domains.
I have a question about the conditions of use for .gov.uk names, which appear on the Cabinet Office at http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/government_it/web_guidelines/domain_names.aspx
These conditions state in section 4 that websites which do not comply with current UK disability legislation will have their domain names withdrawn. Other circumstances when .gov.uk domain names may be withdrawn are also detailed.
Could you please tell me:
- How many .gov.uk domains have been withdrawn during the lifetime of these conditions for failure to comply with disability legislation.
- How many .gov.uk domains have been withdrawn for other reasons listed in the conditions.
To give a little more context, Section 4a of the conditions of use state:
The applications (Web, email, etc) using a .gov.uk domain name must comply with current UK legislation and support channels that provide accessibility for disabled people, members of ethnic minorities and those at risk of social/digital exclusion. Legislation includes Copyright, Data Protection Act and Disability Discrimination Act. Abuse of will result in the name being withdrawn.
Today I received this response from the COI:
Firstly, it is important to understand the legislative context and the guidance for compliance with it. In your letter you state in relation to the conditions of use of a .gov.uk domain name that, 'websites which do not comply with current UK disability legislation will have their domain names withdrawn.' This isn't the case for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are not just looking at whether a website complies with disability legislation, we are also looking at whether a website meets the minimum standards for accessibility. The guidelines state that websites should 'comply with the accessibility recommendation for public sector sites, that is, W3C WAI Level AA.'
Secondly, it should be stressed that disability legislation is in place to protect the rights of the individual, not to detail the specific requirements on websites (both within and outside the .gov.uk namespace). Even if websites meet the recommended minimum standard, this is no guarantee that the user experience for people with disabilities will be problem free. This fact was highlighted in the formal investigation carried out by the Disability Rights Commission and re-iterated in the 2005 survey of public service eAccessibility commissioned by the Cabinet Office.
Thirdly, the guidelines go on to say that, 'Failure to comply with this may result in the name being withdrawn.' This implies that websites will be considered for withdrawal if they fail to meet the minimum standard, not automatically withdrawn.
Having said that, the Government has been working with industry, academia and the third sector to build a robust approach to delivering inclusive websites. To ensure that government pays due regard to current disability legislation (the Public Sector Disability Equality Duty) and in order to meet European objectives for inclusive e-government (Riga Ministerial Declaration 2006), COI has updated Chapter 2.4 of the Guidelines for UK Government Websites and proposes that all government websites must meet Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines by December 2008. The updated guidance has recently been sent out for formal consultation and is attached for your information.
In answer to your question,
- No website domain names have been withdrawn for failure to comply with disability legislation; and
- No website domain names have been withdrawn for the other reasons set out in the conditions of use.
However, the government has taken a proactive approach to reducing the overall number of websites it owns and in the future we can expect to see increased focus on raising the standards for government websites, including inclusivity and accessibility. This is part of the Transformational Government Strategy to converge websites around audience channels including Directgov and BusinessLink. This will be reflected in the updated policy on naming and registering websites, which will go for formal consultation later this month.
The most telling part of the response for me is that the conditions of use for .gov.uk domains have never been enforced. Given that section 4a explicitly states that sites not complying with current legislation will have their name withdrawn, one can only conclude that the agency responsible for upholding the conditions considers every website ever to be published under a .gov.uk domain to be compliant with current UK legislation around accessibility. (Or am I being unduly harsh and literal?) More support for the view that the proposal in Delivering Inclusive Websites to use WCAG as a measure and domain withdrawal as a consequence is a waste of time and needs to be replaced with a more positive and realistic scheme?
Perhaps more revealing of the government's future strategy is the final paragraph, which refers to the reduction in the number of government websites and an increased focus on raising standards. It's likely that the recently issued consultation around web accessibility is a thinly disguised ploy to encourage as many .gov.uk sites as possible to move into the loving arms of DirectGov, or at least onto the technical platform it now shares with several other large, high profile departmental sites. If it happened it wouldn't be a bad thing.
October 5, 2007
New UK government web accessibility consultation
On Tuesday the COI (Central Office of Information) released a consultation document titled "Delivering inclusive websites: user-centred accessibility". The document isn't yet available online, but I'm told it should be on the Cabinet Office site from some time next week.
The main thrust of the document is that all existing UK government websites should be accessible to WCAG level AA by end December 2008, while all new sites should be conformant before being launched. The main difference between this policy target and the endless procession of missed targets we've seen over the past few years is the explicit threat of the withdrawal of the .gov.uk domain for sites which fail to meet the standard.
The COI (and the Cabinet Office before them) already have this power under the Code of Practice for .gov.uk domains (see Where are the gatekeepers, March 2006) but as far as I know have never exercised it. Whether the threat is real this time remains to be seen.
But it is only a consultation document at this stage, and it's a prime opportunity to lobby the government to adopt a robust stance over non-compliance. If anyone wants a copy of the document please email me and I'll be happy to pass it on.
Here's the text that accompanied the document:
The Central Office of Information (COI) would like to invite you provide feedback on the attached document, Delivering Inclusive Websites (TG102), by end of business November 13, 2007.
This guidance is an update of Chapter 2.4 of the Guidelines for UK Government Websites http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/e-government/webguidelines/
In order to meet European objectives for inclusive e-government and so that the UK public sector meets its obligations with regards to disability legislation, we have stipulated that all government websites must meet Level Double-A of the W3C guidelines by December 2008. Failure to satisfy this requirement will result in initiation of the process to withdraw the .gov.uk domain name used by the website.
Government websites are strongly recommended to develop an accessibility policy to aid the planning and procurement of inclusive websites. This includes building a business case, analysing user needs, developing an accessibility test plan and procuring accessible content authoring tools. The guidance covers some of the design solutions to common problems faced by users but is mainly aimed at strategic managers and project managers to assist with planning and procurement.
Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
June 3, 2007
UK government and domain redirection
Here's a quick quiz question: is there any earthly reason why many UK central government sites aren't redirecting their root domains to www. sub-domains?
I needed to check the HMRC website today for some information about VAT, so I typed hmrc.gov.uk into Firefox's address field, hit return and promptly got a server not found response.
A quick check shows that the same is true for dfes.gov.uk, dti.gov.uk, number-10.gov.uk, dft.gov.uk and many others.
But homeoffice.gov.uk, mod.uk (why it's not .gov.uk is another rant for another day) and doh.gov.uk (but not dh.gov.uk) get it right. While dwp.gov.uk and direct.gov.uk serve their sites from the root domain as well as the www. domain.
Standards? What are standards?
April 26, 2007
DTI update - good money after bad?
Loyal readers will remember that in May last year I started to post about the DTI's new yet inaccessible website, developed at a cost of £200,000 of taxpayers' money. If this is news to you please start with the summary I posted in August when the story ran in Private Eye, and at my co-conspirator Bruce Lawson's website, where he has a special category just for the DTI.
In February the DTI posted an accessibility update to their website, detailing a three-step improvement plan, to be completed in early summer 2007.
Being a curious bloke (so I've been told) I was keen to learn more about this plan, and in particular how much more of our money it was going to take to clean up the mess produced by the previous contractors. So I sent the DTI this FOI enquiry on 22nd March:
I'd be grateful if you could provide details of the work described on this page related to the accessibility of the DTI website:
- The cost of emplying Nomensa to audit the website.
- The cost of step one of the remedial work to be undertaken, described as "Make the necessary accessibility improvements to the core DTI website. This will consist of both technical and content work streams. They will address the underlying design, code and content issues that have been identified as requiring attention to meet the appropriate standards."
- The name of the contracted company undertaking the work in step one.
- The budgeted cost of completing the entire process described on the page referred to above.
Please contact me if you require any clarification of this request.
The DTI responded on 23rd April:
FOI REQUEST 07/0139 - DTI WEBSITE
I am writing in response to your email of 22 March 2007 in which you requested information relating to the DTI website.
- The total budget for the website accessibility audit was £10,000. This cost covered:
- An accessibility audit of the DTI website templates;
- Guidance on creating and maintaining accessible pdf documents;
- Presentation of the results at DTI;
- Copies of the reports;
- A workshop on issues raised by the audit
- Central Office of Information procurement and project management costs.
- On the website Step One is described as "consist[ing] of both technical and content work streams". The technical workstream has two elements:
The content workstream is being developed; cost is not yet confirmed.
- Building the website templates. Cost: £59,837
- Upgrading the Content Management System software. This work, unrelated to the accessibility issue, was due and it was prudent to combine it with the template work. Cost: £45,666
- The company contracted to undertake the technical workstream in Step One is Fujitsu.
- The budgeted costs for the technical workstream is £59,837, with a further £45,666 for the CMS software upgrade. The content workstream for Step One is being developed; cost is not yet confirmed. Steps Two and Three of the accessibility project will follow the content workstream.
- The DTI is spending £60,000 on building templates for a website launched under a year ago at a cost of £200,000.
- The £60,000 is part of the money to be spent ensuring that the DTI website meets the standards the department specified in the original requirements for their site, despite the suppliers of that site being made fully aware of those requirements and failing to deliver them.
- The DTI is employing Fujitsu, the very same company that received the lion's share of the £200,000 spent on the original site, to meet the standards they were contracted to deliver in the first place.
- The £60,000 covers only one half of the first step in a three-step process.
- Costs for the other two-and-a-half steps are not yet confirmed.
- The DTI claim the improvement work will be completed by early summer 2007.
I have two perspectives on this. On the one hand, this is positive action, and with Nomensa's help the DTI will most likely emerge with an accessible, usable website. Hoorah. On the other hand, it is a marvellous example of how not to procure, develop and deliver an accessible website. The cost of the remedial work looks likely to approach if not exceed the cost of the original development. A perfect illustration of why you build accessibility in from the very start. No doubt more to come about the DTI in the near future.
March 2, 2007
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.
September 19, 2006
DTI Internal Review
I've finally had a response from the DTI on the internal review I requested into their decision not to honour the follow-up FOI request I made in July. In short, the Chief Operating Officer at the DTI has decided that the department were justified in declining to answer the questions set out in that request. Can't say I'm surprised.
If I wanted to pursue the matter the next course of action would be to appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office. I'm not satisfied with the DTI's answer, which (apart from being poorly written) consists of little more than platitudes and half-arsed excuses, but for now I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and sit back and wait to see the fruits of their labour.
Here's the full text of the response I received by email, retyped by my own fair hand since the PDF attachment it was contained in consisted of a scanned letter. Good job I'm not blind.
Dear Mr Champion,
Thank you for your email of 26 July 2006 requesting an internal review of the Department's decision to decline your request of 25 June made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In line with Departmental policy this matter was passed to me for consideration as Director-General with responsibility for the website policy area.
I have now had the opportunity of reviewing this matter. After giving full consideration to your request and the information provided by the E-Communications team I am content that the s12 and s5(1) justification for declining was valid in this instance. Having reached that conclusion, I set out later in this letter the steps we will take that may help with your enquiry.
The nine requests totalled 51 separate questions, 27 questions were asked in the first tranche of requests (which we answered in full) and 24 were asked in the second tranche of requests. In calculating the cost of answering these questions the following elements were taken into consideration:
- undertaking a number of searches to determine, locate, retrieve and extract any relevant infromation from a variety of document that spanned a four year period. This included email correspondence, project plans, project governance documentation, project meeting notes, invitation to Tender documents, tender board papers, proposals, contracts, customer briefs, service request documentation, invoices and user acceptance testing strategies and scripts.
The volume of questions, combined with the breadth of information held, would have taken us over the £600 threshold.
Having considered your request for review, I have also considered the other action we can take. We are preparing statements that we can publish on the website explaining the current position on accessibility and the background to the procurement. That may help you to refine your request to bring it below the financial threshold. The statement will explain that we are carrying out an audit and we would aim to be in a position subsequently to explain the action we are taking on accessibility.
I recognise that the position on accessibility of the site is unsatisfactory - it is unfortunate that this was the outcome of the procurement. There was undoubtedly a failure to ensure that it was compliant with the accessibility guidelines. The development of the site was a long and complicated process that took place over several years and involved numbers of different people in DTI and its suppliers. We certainly aim to learn lessons from it but a detailed investigation of it would be time-consuming and probably would not provide complete answers to the questions you have raised. Our focus at present is on the action required to bring the site to an appropriate standard of accessibility.
Hilary Douglas, Chief Operating Officer
The DTI site's accessibility page does now have a notice which includes this passage:
An accessibility audit is being carried out by a specialist independent agency. The audit will identify where the site fails to comply with relevant accessibility standards. The recommendations will be used to draft an implementation plan.
If there's anyone willing to submit an FOI enquiry asking which specialist independent agency they've employed I'd be very interested to hear the answer.
August 17, 2006
Private Eye for the DTI
A warm welcome to anyone who has been led here by that esteemed publication Private Eye. Just so you don't have to rake around the less interesting corners of the site, you can find the bits about the DTI here:
- 17th May 2006 - DTI achieves new low
- 18th June 2006 - The DTI responds
- 27th June 2006 - More questions for the DTI
- 21st July 2006 - DTI update - FOI shenanigans
My co-conspirator Bruce Lawson has a handy category just for the DTI on his site, clever bloke, which will complete the picture.
For visitors who don't subscribe to the Eye (shame on you) Bruce has a transcript of the Eye piece on his site.
At the moment I'm waiting for a response to the internal review I requested after the department dodged our follow-up enquiry. They've told me:
The Department is carrying out an Internal Review into the decision not to disclose the information you request. The review will be undertaken by the Director General within the DTI who is responsible for the policy area within which your original request falls.
The target for conducting an internal review is 20 working days from receipt of your letter. We will write to you again following the review.
I made my request for an internal review on 26th July, so should have a response by 23rd August, which will be published here. If the result of the review is unsatisfactory the final course of action is an appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office.
The tip of the iceberg?
It's probably worth pointing out that the DTI is by no means the only government department to procure and publish such a low quality website, and in doing so ignore the government's own guidelines on web development. There's a fundamental flaw in the current e-government setup at Whitehall, where the eGovernment Unit issues some very good (if now dated) guidance on producing accessible, usable websites, based on best practice, which is subsequently ignored by departments. There's no threat of sanctions from the government itself, so the only risks the departments are taking by ignoring the guidance are of legal action (miniscule) and bad publicity (hello!).
July 21, 2006
DTI update - FOI shenanigans
I've been on my hols this week, and on my return I discovered, as predicted, that the DTI had replied to the follow-up Freedom of Information (FOI) enquiry Bruce Lawson and I submitted to them on 26th June. Unfortunately the DTI has rather neatly, but not necessarily fairly, side-stepped the entire issue, and used a technicality to avoid fulfilling our enquiry.
Here's the email from the DTI in full, I'll leave you to have a quick read and draw your own conclusions before reading mine:
Dear Mr Champion
Thank you for your request for information on the accessibility of the Department of Trade and Industry's website which we received on 26/06/06. I regret that we cannot provide this information, as the cost of administering your request would exceed the limit prescribed under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act. This is £600, which represents the estimated cost of spending 24 hours in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information. Where the cost of compliance with a request would exceed the appropriate limit, we are not obliged to comply with that request.
We have received nine separate FOI requests regarding the accessibility of the DTI website. All nine requests appear to have been generated by contributors to the blether.com website and discussion forum:
Regulation 5(1) of the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004 provides that, where two or more requests for the same or similar information are made to a public authority by different persons who appear to be acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign, those requests may be aggregated for the purposes of estimating whether compliance with the requests would exceed the appropriate limit.
We have aggregated the nine requests received on this subject, and estimate that the cost of compliance with them would exceed the appropriate limit. We are therefore not obliged to provide the information requested.
However, the DTI is aware of the accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit is planned and the recommendations from the audit will identify accessibility improvements.
If you have any queries about this letter, please contact the DTI Response Centre quoting the FOI reference number above.
If you are unhappy with the way the Department of Trade and Industry has handled your request you may ask for an internal review. If you wish to complain, you should contact us at:
Department of Trade and Industry
1 Victoria Street
London SW1H 0ET
If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at:
Information Commissioner's Office
Cheshire SK9 5AF
DTI Response Centre
Tel: 020 7215 5000
For those of you not familiar with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), public authorities subject to its provisions are not obliged to respond to requests where the estimated cost of
determining what information the authority holds, locating the information, retrieving it, and, if necessary, editing or redacting it exceeds £600, calculated at a notional rate of £25 per hour.
In addition, under section 12(4)(b) of the Act, authorities can aggregate multiple enquiries for information from different individuals where it appears to the authority that the requests have been made in concert or as part of a campaign.
In short, the DTI is refusing to answer legitimate questions about the processes it followed in procuring certain services, and about processes it may or may not have in place for future procurement.
The FOIA is regulated by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The ICO issues guidance to public authorities about their responsibilities under the legislation, and to the public about their rights. The ICO offers this guidance (PDF) to authorities refusing requests due to excessive costs:
- Confirm or deny whether the information is held (unless to do so would constitute disclosure of exempt information)
- Where the cost exceeds the appropriate limit, state what this cost is.
- Provide advice and assistance if possible. We would encourage public authorities to advise what steps could be taken by the applicant to make the request fall within the appropriate limit (e.g narrowing the scope of the request), or
- Provide what information could be produced within the appropriate limit.
- Outline your authority's appeals procedure (or clearly state that no procedure exits if this is the case).
- Provide details of the right to appeal to the Information Commissioner.
In this case the DTI has chosen to ignore the first four of these guidelines, merely providing information about appeals procedures. (Ignoring guidelines is clearly something of a habit for the DTI.) They also seem to have missed the point entirely by stating that:
...the DTI is aware of the accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit is planned and the recommendations from the audit will identify accessibility improvements.
It would be a tad distressing if they weren't aware of the issues by now, but of course what we're trying to discover is how they missed the issues in the first place, and what they are doing to prevent it happening again.
The upshot is that I will be requesting an internal review from the DTI, and if I find that unsatisfactory I'll be perfectly happy to appeal to the ICO.
If anyone reading this made an FOI enquiry about the DTI site please get in touch, since we might as well make it a real campaign if the DTI are going to treat it as one. And if you didn't, and you feel strongly about this, please take Bruce's advice and write to your MP.
June 28, 2006
supply2.gov.uk - DTI fail again
There are now more than 7500 Government contracts advertised on a new business portal which removes the barriers faced by many small businesses to access public sector contracts.
Unfortunately the link to the instruction page is broken.
The site's accessibility statement includes the most confused definition of WCAG conformance I've ever seen:
Additionally the site meets with Bobby (opens in a new window) approved Conformance Level AA in association with the Web Content Guidelines (opens in a new window).
And of course it fails to meet the claimed level of conformance, for various reasons including requiring scripting to be available, for using deprecated markup in a few places, non-contiguous headings, lack of labels for form elements, misuse of the apostrophe, and best of all for introducing a brand new HTML element to the world, <h7> (it's right there on the home page).
This is actually a real shame, because the site is quite nicely built in general, but falls down on the detail. There's also evidence of a rush job in the markup, where the (js dependent) search form is commented out, and a beta statement still resides. I'll email them with these observations, and hopefully in due course it will be made more accessible and we can celebrate a decent DTI website for a change.
Blaze Aware - fire safety for sighted people
The Blaze Aware website is designed to be a fun, creative and interactive way of getting the message across.
I love the "low graphics" version, which basically turns off the 460k background image. Except of course it defaults to the high graphics version, so your browser's probably downloaded and cached the image by the time you turn it off. Seems like the DTI have some competition after all.
It's hosted by a company called Civic , who proclaim themselves to be
expert in web and digital communication. It's not clear if they were responsible for the development. [Edit: I've been contacted by someone at Civic who has stated that they were not responsible for the design and development of the site.] Bizarrely it's hosted on a subdomain, aphrodite.civiccomputing.com - visit the root for a giggle, but be prepared to disconnect immediately!
Oh, and it cost £36,000. I'll be making enquiries...
June 27, 2006
More questions for the DTI
Being unhappy with the DTI's response to our recent enquiries regarding the development of their new website, Bruce Lawson and I have put our heads together and asked them some further questions. You can see the full list on Bruce's site .
When we get answers, probably on or around 21st July, we'll post them here and at Bruce's place, where you'll be able to comment.
June 21, 2006
Next stop - East Midlands Conference Centre
If you work in the public sector and are interested in web accessibility and broader web development issues for government sites, you might be interested in this event:
Currently in production and back by popular demand is a forum to showcase the leading edge of public sector website development highlighting innovation, usability and compatibility. Government Websites 2.0 - The Next Generation will be held on the 15th August at the East Midlands Conference Centre (Nottingham).
Not sure about "leading edge", but you'll get to hear me bang on about accessibility for half an hour or so, and participate in the panel, discussing the question "What is the purpose and function of a local authority website?". If anyone knows the answer please email me, otherwise I'll just have to talk bollocks and hope no-one notices...
June 18, 2006
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 (email@example.com) and of course I'll post what I do learn here.
May 19, 2006
My top 3 public sector sites
What are your three top-rated public-service web sites? And is it just accessibility you focus on, or content and effectiveness?
To answer the second question first, I don't just focus on accessibility, but I do believe that it a high degree of accessibility is a fundamental characteristic of any quality website. It's a good general indicator - to be truly accessible a site must have a number of other inherent qualities, including valid, semantic mark-up, good information architecture and a usable interface.
I also like to see apparently minor features like clean, technology-neutral URLs, good 404 pages, robust error recovery, user-friendly functions like RSS feeds and mailing lists, and effective search. It's this attention to detail that separates a great site from an average site for me.
My three top-rated public service sites? It's a great question, and the answer is naturally very subjective. All of these sites have issues (as does every site I've ever worked on I hasten to add), but I'll go for:
Try as I might I couldn't come up with an exemplar from central government. I did consider the National Crime Squad since it's been standards-based for a long time now, but it's a defunct body and the site won't be there much longer.
So what are your top three public sector sites? What gems have I missed? They needn't be UK or english-language sites - it would be really interesting to hear of some top notch sites from elsewhere.
May 17, 2006
DTI achieves new low
Usually it's accompanied by a feeling of disappointment, resignation and perhaps mild surprise. This week though I'm truly shocked by the mind-numbing, soul-crushing, bile-inducing awfulness of a new UK central government website. I've checked the date on this news release at least half a dozen times in the hope that it says May 2000 and not May 2006, or will reveal itself to be a sick joke. But no luck, it's a fact, the DTI's newly revamped website is about as shit as it's possible for a large, corporate website to be.
To make matters worse it's clear that they either don't know how shit it is, or don't care. Take their accessibility page for example, which boldly claims
This time though I'm not just going to whinge about it here, I've been galvanised into action. I'm determined to do some digging to find out just what process was followed to produce this monstrosity, how much it cost and why the eGovernment Unit , whose mission according to the PM is
ensuring that IT supports the business transformation of Government itself so that we can provide better, more efficient, public services, are failing so miserably in their responsibility to
promote best practice across government.
March 30, 2006
Seduced by automated testing?
There's a wee bit of this year's Better Connected that escaped my attention on first reading, but happily an item in Headstar's very worthy E-access Bulletin this week led me back to the report. It concerns the disparity between WAI conformance claims on councils' websites and their real level of comformance.
Of the 296 sites in the transactional (T) and content plus (C+) categories which claimed a particular level of conformance, only 69 were found to achieve that level in reality, or just 23%. There are only really two explanations for such an alarming disparity - either the councils in question are deliberately over-stating their conformance level, or, more likely in my opinion, they are being led to believe that their sites are achieving a higher conformance level than they really are.
Better Connected suggests that the culprit might be automated testing:
There is no doubt that achieving Level A is hard work and that measuring it is a complex business. Many might also be lulled into thinking that passing the automated tests of Level A (and Level AA and AAA) means that you have achieved comformance at those levels.
If this is true it's fair to say that the use of automated testing is effectively damaging the accessibility of the sites in question, rather than improving it. Given the gravity afforded to the SiteMorse league tables in some quarters, it's easy to understand why councils might be seduced into developing and measuring their sites using the company's tool alone. But as has been said before , the number of WAI guidelines that can be reliably tested with automated software is very small indeed, and the only way to really know if your site is accessible is to have people use it, preferably disabled people using a range of assistive technologies.
An analogy I like to use with non-technical, non-web managers is that of a car's MOT Test (for non-UK readers the MOT Test is a comprehensive safety test that cars have to pass every year). A full accessibility audit is like an MOT Test - it delves into aspects of your site's performance and accessibility that you can't reach yourself, and that you really aren't qualified to judge. An automated test on the other hand is like emailing a photograph of your car, with a note of the make, model and year, to a bloke who knows a bit about cars, and having him judge on that evidence alone if your car is road-worthy and safe to travel in. Which would you rather your passengers travelled in?
PS: I know this is a familiar refrain, and I know that I bang on about it all the time, but I've been convinced of the value of repetition by Jeff Atwood.
March 29, 2006
Guardian Inside View
When Better Connected was published at the beginning of the month I was asked if I'd write a short piece for the Guardian newspaper detailing our approach to web development at Clackmannanshire Council, with a slight emphasis on accessibility. I was very happy to do so, and it was finally published in today's paper, in the Epublic supplement. You can also read it online at the Guardian site - Why size doesn't matter in setting web standards .
Also worth a read is the headline article in the supplement, Online, but out of touch .
March 24, 2006
Where are the gatekeepers?
I'm a great fan of standards. They provide a constant point of reference, an ideal to measure yourself and others against. Not just the standards that are set for us by the W3C and their ilk, that have far-reaching and universal benefits, but also those we set for ourselves. Without standards how can we know for sure that we're achieving the levels of quality we aspire to?
It seems to me to be a lack of standards that has led Feather to post about the (mis)use of significant wads of public money for the sponsorship of a conference, some of which will have gone towards developing an inaccessible website . He asks:
What if our provincial and federal governments made web accessibility a requirement for actually recieving the sponsorship money? What if organizations that get any funding from the government had to have accessible web sites? Would any of that help awareness? Would it make a difference? Is it simply that accessibility wasn't a requirement on the project, and so it just didn't happen?
My gut feeling is that awareness of web accessibility issues is still next to zero outside of the small but steadily expanding web standards clique. We are getting there, slowly, but when the websites of the agencies Derek cites, the Ontario Media Development Corporation , Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation , aren't accessible, what hope is there that the websites of projects they are sponsoring are going to be held to higher standards?
Here in the UK we're no less guilty. In recent months I've covered the brand new and in many cases horribly inaccessible websites of agencies either partially or wholly funded by our national government, and expressed my frustration at their disregard for (or ignorance of) the government's own standards .
The question I keep asking is where are the gatekeepers in these scenarios? Setting standards is only effective when someone is doing the measuring at the sharp end, fulfilling the quality assurance role that gives practical foundation to the commitment made in the standards. Or you could call it putting your money where your mouth is.
I'd like to see an enforcement of standards for all new .gov.uk domains, with domains only allocated to projects once they have demonstrated the necessary commitment and follow-through on accessibility and other standards. Currently the conditions for use of .gov.uk domains states:
When you are using a .gov.uk domain name to deliver a web presence you are reminded that websites should comply with the e-Government Interoperability Framework, the Guidelines for UK Government websites and Framework for Local Government particularly on such issues as use of metadata, PICS labelling, accessibility and security.
Excuse my language, but screw "reminding" them, that's all just a bit too afternoon tea and bowler hats for my liking. If they don't comply then don't allocate the domain, or if it's already been allocated then withdraw the domain, after a warning shot if you want to be soft. I'm sure it would concentrate the mind wonderfully.
February 27, 2006
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
[This piece was written for Public Sector Forums and is cross-posted here to allow comments from those who don't have access to that site.]
Or SOCITM and SiteMorse vs. the ODPM and Site Confidence...
There's a pithy saying, much loved by researchers and statisticians, that goes something like this:
Be sure to measure what you value, because you will surely come to value what you measure.
Sage advice, which you would be wise to follow whatever business you're in. In reality, a greater danger comes from the likelihood that others will come to value what you measure, or worse still, what others measure about you.
We're all familiar with the arguments for and against automated web testing. It should form an integral part of any web team's quality assurance policy, and can save enormous amounts of time pinpointing problems buried deep in your site. By itself an automated testing tool can be a valuable aid in improving the quality of your website. But when automated tests are used to compare websites the problems start to come thick and fast. The recent disparity between the 'performance' tests from SiteMorse and Site Confidence are a case in point.
Who can you trust? SiteMorse will tell you that their tests are a valid measure of a site's performance. Site Confidence will tell you the same. Yet as previously reported on PSF the results from each vary wildly. SOCITM have offered this explanation for the variation:
"The reality is that both the SiteMorse and Site Confidence products test download speed in different ways and to a different depth. Neither is right or wrong, just different."
And therein lies the real problem. If both are valid tests of site performance then neither is of any value without knowing precisely what is being tested, and how those tests are being conducted. The difficulty is that no-one is in a position to make a judgement about the validity of the tests, because no-one outside of the two companies knows the detail.
It's worryingly easy to pick holes in automated tests. Site Confidence publishes a 'UK 100' benchmark table on its website, and at the time of writing it has Next On-Line Shopping sitting proudly at number 1, with an average download speed of 3.30 sec for a page weighing 15.33kb. The problem is that the Next homepage is actually over 56kb. At number 5 is Thomas Cook , with a reported page size of 24.92kb, when in fact it's actually a whopping 172kb. Where does the problem lie in this case? Are the sites serving something different to the Site Confidence tool? Is the tool missing some elements, perhaps those referenced within style sheets, or those from different domains? The real problem is that we can't tell from the information provided, and the same holds true for SiteMorse league tables.
A few associates and I have been in correspondence with SOCITM for some months now about the use of automated tests for Better Connected. To date the responses from SOCITM have not completely alleviated our concerns. While some issues have been addressed by SiteMorse, many remain unanswered, and perhaps the greater concern is the attitude of SOCITM. For example, when pressed on why SOCITM hadn't sought a third party view of SiteMorse's testing methods, the response was:
You wonder why we have not done an independent audit of the SM tests. To date when detailed points have been raised, SM has found the reason and a satisfactory explanation, almost always some misunderstanding of the standard, or some problem caused by the CMS or by the ISP. In other words, there has been little point in mounting what would be an expensive exercise. You may, of course, not be satisfied with the explanations in the attached document to this set of detailed points.
I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions from that response, other than to say that I wasn't the slightest bit comforted by it.
Our concerns extend beyond Better Connected to the publication of web league tables in general. The fact is that we know very little about how SiteMorse conduct their tests, or what they are actually measuring. In some cases SiteMorse, or any testing company, will have to assert their interpretation of guidelines and recommendations to test against them, and have to make assumptions about what effect a particular problem might have on a user. For example SiteMorse will report an error against WCAG guideline 1.1 if the alt attribute of an image contains a filename, despite there being legitimate circumstances where such an alt attribute might be required. The fact is there are only two WCAG guidelines which can be wholly tested by automated tools .
While SOCITM make no use of the accessibility tests from SiteMorse, there are similar concerns about performance tests based on no recognised standard, or which have no impact on users. For example SiteMorse raises a warning for title elements with a length of more than 128 characters, citing the 1992 W3C Style Guide for Online Hypertext as the source of the guidance. This guide is at best a good read for those with an interest in the history of the web, but for SiteMorse to use it as the basis for testing sites over a decade later is highly questionable. To quote from the first paragraph of the guide:
It has not been updated to discuss recent developments in HTML., and is out of date in many places, except for the addition of a few new pages, with given dates.
SiteMorse justifies the use of this test in league tables by saying that many browsers truncate the title in the title bar. But this ignores the fact that the title element is used for more than just title bar presentation (for example for search engine indexing), and that the truncation can depend on the size of the browser window (at 800x600 on my PC, using Firefox, the title is truncated at 101 characters, for example). While it may be useful as a warning to a web developer, who can then review the title for the use of the clearest possible language, it certainly should not be used as an indicator in the compilation of league tables.
From our correspondence with SOCITM it became clear very quickly that SOCITM don't know much about how SiteMorse tests either - as evidenced above there has been blind acceptance of the explanations given by the company and no independent expert view sought.
In most other arenas league tables are based on clear and transparent criteria. Football, exam results, olympic medals - all rely on known, verifiable facts. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the current LA site league tables.
Our main assertion is that SOCITM should be working with local authorities and UK e-standards bodies (if there are any left) to produce a specification for the testing of websites using meaningful, independently assessed measures which are based on consensus, rather than blindly accepting the existing, opaque tests offered by SiteMorse, Site Confidence or any other private concern. There needs to be public discussion about precisely what we should be measuring, how those measures are conducted and what conclusions it would be valid to draw from the results.
In the end it all comes down to a question of credibility - for Better Connected, SOCITM, the testing companies, and most importantly those of us who are responsible for local authority websites. It's likely that league tables are here to stay, but unless we are prepared to question the numbers behind the tables, and the way those numbers are produced, we're probably getting what we deserve.
February 21, 2006
Off to Zanzibar to meet the Zanzibarbarians
I'm in need of enlightenment. How would one start with a defined need, say for an online marketplace for suppliers to government and buyers in government to connect with each other, and end up with Zanzibar ?
I know it's Tuesday, so we were about due another .gov.uk website which rides roughshod over the government's own guidelines for producing websites, but this one's a bit more curious and has me puzzled.
Technically it's absolute shite. Table-based layout, no doctype, spacer.gif in abundance, terrible CSS, no headings. It's the brochure site of your favourite local firm of solicitors circa 1999.
So why as
A key part of the Government's procurement strategy is Zanzibar quite so awful? And why is it called Zanzibar? And why is the domain zanzibaronline.gov.uk instead of zanzibar.gov.uk? I think we should be told.
A bonus point to anyone who can name the classic film the title of this post comes from (without cheating!).
November 9, 2005
GC Accessibility Award
As reported previously, ClacksWeb was shortlisted for the Accessibility prize at the Good Communication Awards. On Monday I was lucky enough to be at the Bafta building in London to hear the site announced as the winner, and to receive the award from Garry Richardson, of BBC Sports Report fame. The first eight awards were presented by Phil Woolas, Minister for Local Government, but he had to dash off to another place, so Garry stepped into the breach for the later awards, including ours. Can't say I was gutted. ;O)
How much an award means depends on a lot of things, such as the number, breadth and quality of entries, and one of the most important factors is the authority of the judges. It was great then to see that the judging panel were all people in the industry I respected - Patrick Lauke , Derek Featherstone , Richard Conyard and Donna Smilie - and it made it a bit more special to know that the judges knew what they were talking about.
After breakfast at the fantastic Patisserie Valerie on Piccadilly we also got to do a bit of shopping, hitting Fortnum & Mason , Hamleys and Molton Brown . I don't miss living in London, but it would be nice if I could have chocolates from F&M's more than once a year!
October 28, 2005
Businesses shun UK eGovernment services
The eGov Monitor reported this week that recent figures published by the European Union show UK businesses lagging behind their continental counterparts in the take-up online government services. The Monitor makes no effort to explain this position, where the UK has one of the highest ratings for availability and sophistication of online services for business, but the lowest consumption of those services by businesses in the EU. Only 36% of UK businesses polled had used the internet to obtain information from public authorities, compared to 94% in Sweden and 90% in Finland.
It's hard to infer very much in the way of solid conclusions from the figures alone. My first instinct is that the apparent lack of any co-ordinated development strategy for central government web sites and services is a significant factor in the UK's poor showing. The lack of consistency between the multitude of ministry and departmental sites must be a barrier to uptake - which business wants to spend time navigating through perhaps 3 or 4 websites with different schemes of navigation, separate registration processes for users, and different levels of service provision, when they can rely on paper forms, the telephone and the venerable Royal Mail?
As an example, the HM Revenue & Customs provide a good range of online services, including PAYE for employers and the well-exposed self-assessment for income tax. Both require separate registrations, and those registrations are only valid at the HM R&C site. If I need to register my business with the Health and Safety Executive at the same time, I need to visit another site, with a different design, layout and navigation system, and download a form to print and send by mail, since there's no online service available. It's not a pleasant prospect.
My wife and I have got a small business (a smallholding) and since we sell food we're VAT registered. I'm also a web professional. So why aren't I using the eVAT service? Because it's just too much trouble. We're sent a paper form every quarter with a prepaid return envelope, and we fill it in and bung it in the mail. It's convenient and it works for us, as I'm sure it does for many, many other business. And this illustrates the crux of any successful online service - there has to be a tangible benefit to the user, and where businesses are concerned that means a financial benefit.
There will be other factors of course - mistrust or fear of online services (what if my information is lost?); mistrust of government in general (what will they do with my information?); lack of communication of potential benefits (what's in it for me?); entrenched business practices (we've always done it this way and it's never let us down). But for me the priority for the government is the pursuit of some uniformity in their online offerings, and perhaps even a brand. Just not Directgov.
October 26, 2005
Shortlisted for GC Award
It was very gratifying to learn on Monday that ClacksWeb is one of three government sites shortlisted for the 'Accessibility Award' in the e-Government category of the Good Communication Awards 2005 . I'll be popping down to London on 7th November for the awards event, hosted by Phil Woolas MP, Minister for Local Government, to learn the decision of the judging panel, and even if we don't win it's great exposure for the Council.
October 18, 2005
DTI e-commerce award winner horror
The winners of the DTI E-commerce awards for 2005 were announced last week. I must admit it passed me by (I was on my hols) but I was interested to see who had won the 'eGovernment National ICT Innovators Award' on my return. According to the award site :
These awards will recognise best practice in the development of information and communication technologies (ICT) by UK business and public sector communities.
Heady stuff, and there's more:
Awards will be presented to individuals and or project teams that have demonstrated clarity of thinking and development/deployment of an approach that has the capacity to change the ICT paradigm in the particular technology,market sector.
While it's not a surprise - there are still a vast number of sites out there that don't degrade gracefully - the fact that this site won a national award is evidence of the long, long way we still have to go as an industry before accessibility and web standards are established as de facto good practice.