I created my first government website in 1995. In those days the Woody Allen quote was pretty much accurate: 80% of success was just showing up. Having a web site earned a city bragging rights, even if the site was nothing more than a home page with a few links.
As the decade progressed and web authoring tools became commonplace, most cities advanced to the point where they had at least a token web presence. While the sites were primitive when compared to commercial websites, local government saw the Internet as revolutionary. Suddenly there was this great tool that could be used to quickly disseminate all kinds of information to the community. Best of all, the medium was relatively cheap. There was incredible excitement about this new high tech, cost effective information delivery method.
Needless to say, accessibility was not a consideration in the early days of the web. As we discovered in our recent survey of municipal web accessibility, it’s not much of a consideration today, either, despite the pressing needs of each agency’s constituency. Of the 408 California cities we tested, 91% failed to achieve Section 508 compliance. The numbers were nearly as bad for the WCAG guidelines, with 89% of the sites failing to achieve WCAG’s Priority 1.
Our findings indicate that the vast majority of city websites are frozen in time — not only are they inaccessbile, but most are unsuable. The only change in the past nine years is that most cities appear to have forgotten why they embraced the web in the first place. The novelty of the Internet has worn off, and unbridled enthusiasm has been replaced by the day-to-day realities of posting city council agendas and annual financial statements. The result is that many cities put little effort into improving the quality of their websites.
This failure is a shame for a couple of reasons:
- For the disabled, including many senior citizens, the Internet is usually the most convenient way to interact with local government agencies. It’s generally safe to say that disabilities frequently result in mobility challenges. For disabled individuals, a trip to city hall might require as much planning as a trip to another country.
- The Internet remains a cost effective information delivery platform. In California (and around the country), municipalities struggle to do more with less. The web represents their best hope for continuing acceptable levels of customer service in the face of shrinking budgets. It is arguable that the failure of municipalities to effectively deliver accessible web content actually costs cities money — in both direct costs and indirect costs such as valuable staff time expended fulfilling routine information requests that could easily be routed through the city website.
Lack of consistent navigation was one of the most widespread problems. Time and again, we were dropped into a site with no roadmap forward or backward. As mentioned, city websites can impact direct and indirect costs, yet we suspect most constituents give up in frustration a few clicks into the website. We’ve noted nearly a dozen common usability issues that were present on nearly every site that was tested manually. If our experience is any indication, best practices are almost non-existent on municipal websites.
We limited our testing to municipalities in the state of California (primarily because that’s where we’re located). We tested 408 city websites in two phases. The first phase involved automated testing using the Bobby testing tool. Sites were tested for compliance with Section 508 and WCAG 1.0. Following the initial testing phase, a secondary manual testing phase was undertaken to confirm the Bobby results. Approximately 75 sites were tested manually, including all sites that passed the initial test. There were several instances where sites passed the automated test, but failed manual testing. In most cases, these sites had poorly coded splash pages that were unusable without images. When in doubt, we accessed sites using the text-based Lynx browser. Questionable sites that passed automated testing, but were unusable in Lynx, were failed.
I’ll be the first to admit that our results may be somewhat misleading. We only tested the home pages of the sites. In nearly all cases, further testing would lead to a higher rate of failure. In some respects, we tried to be generous in our testing. We’re of the belief that it’s better to encourage the few that are close to compliance than it is to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that absolutely no sites are in compliance.
I should also note that Section 508 is a Federal standard. Municipalities are not bound to comply to Section 508 or WCAG. Frequently, however, we find that municipalities identify Section 508 compliance as a voluntary goal because of the important role their sites play in day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, many agencies seem unaware of the details of Section 508 compliance, or the fact that maintaining accessibility is an ongoing process, rather than a one-time effort. We hope our survey raises awareness of this important issue and look forward to hearing from municipalities who wish to be proactive in making their sites more accessible.