Changing government standards and ‘Common Look and Feel’
This is a reprint of the post I wrote for GovFresh. It's mostly a re-write of the earlier blog post I wrote specifically for the Canadian government.
Most western governments have in the last decade developed an accessibility strategy for their websites, often based on WCAG 1.0. At the end of 2008, the WC3 announced the final version of WCAG 2.0 and the public sector is now struggling to keep up. In Canada there was a recent announcement about a revised Common Look and Feel (CLF). In the USA the Section 508 is in its first of six revisions, part of which will be to adapt to the new approach to standards. I’m not sure that most citizens will notice the changes to government websites, however for both people with disabilities and the tax payers, it will be a very big deal.
In a recent search it seems that the Government of Canada is seen to be a leader in the global public sector because of our CLF implementation. One of the greatest successes has been the enforcement of a common branding across the public sector. I used to call the CLF 1.0 the Common ugly Look and Feel because it really was boxy and bland, however, it’s gotten a lot better.
Most government sites are looking better than they did a decade ago. Branding shouldn’t force sites to be identical, but it’s important that citizens are able to quickly identify a site as that of their government. This effort should allow some shared learning between departments about best practices for the usability of websites as well.
The Internet has changed dramatically since 1998 when the USA Government released it’s Section 508 guidelines. Canada began developing it’s CLF standards this year, but didn’t enforce them until 2002 so it had an opportunity to look at other approaches to accessibility. The most significant of which was produced by the W3C, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999. This was the leading accessibility standard for almost a decade. Understandably, governments need some time before adopting a finalized international standard into their own policies.
In the revision process for Section 508 the CLF they will be carefully looking at WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which were released in 2008. Governments & industry leaders around the world are embracing the new standard, but there are also draft guidelines like the Authoring Tool (ATAG) 2.0 and WAI-ARIA which will respectively improve content authoring for people with disabilities and work to keep up with the rapidly changing web technology.
As more information from government is served through the Internet the more important it is that all of it is accessible to citizens with all levels of ability. This is not a light undertaking and this is critical to being a modern democratic country. Both federal governments have ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, have made a more serious commitment to serving all of their citizens.
There are a whole lot of government web pages, today Google indexed 414 million .gov and 102 million .gc.ca web pages. I’m sure that there are inaccuracies in this and duplicated web pages. I’m also not sure how Canada has just ¼ of the web pages that the USA in this very simple comparison. There are probably many pages that aren’t listed with that domain or that simply have a policy of instructing search engines not to index. Regardless, it’s a huge responsibility to maintain this amount of content.
As governments try to keep up with citizen expectations they will be adding new technology like AJAX scripting to provide a more responsive interface for their users. This type of approach ultimately makes a web site more like a desktop application. Interactive applications are more complex for both security and accessibility issues as well.
The Internet is rapidly evolving and International standards will continue to rush to keep up with them. Whether it is WAI-ARIA adoption or HTML5, government agencies will need to adapt over time. Stricter regulations around web accessibility are in the works and accessibility approaches will be rushing to keep pace. All of this requires that governments begin to anticipate change and incorporate solutions that allow them to evolve with it to improve accessibility & reduce costs. As we’ve tried to outline in our Accessibility White Paper having a proactive approach to accessibility is key to success.
Government Is opening
The Internet has also given citizens an increased expectation for better access to their government. People want better access to the data that the government has collected on their behalf. Initiatives in the UK and USA to promote open data in government have clearly set a precedent, as have municipalities around the globe. The tools and standards for open data are established, but meaningful adoption has yet to be embraced across the board. Adoption of new standards like RDFa as is starting in the UK, needs to be applied in more pilots. For both internal and external audiences there are considerable cost savings to be made in providing machine readable versions of content.
Citizens are also looking for ways to participate with their government. People are now used to being able to leave comments, login to sites to interact with personalized content and even have sites remember what they are interested in. It can often be difficult to find information in government sites, but dynamic tools like this can be useful to ensure that citizens get the information they need quickly. This will require some significant re-thinking of how government manages, security, privacy & membership. It is very encouraging to hear that the US federal government has adopted an OpenID framework.
The blogosphere has also been very active in reviewing and critiquing the revised plans. Two designers have now contributed branding options for the CLF. Many people have offered critiques of the first revision of Section 508. Reactions and evaluations are often immediate on the Web and it is critical that governments learn to be responsive to this. David Eaves said it well: A digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analog government.
Change Isn’t Cheap
This is going to be a huge task. Simply keeping up with the legal responsibilities for governments to deliver hundreds of millions of webpages to all of it’s citizens is an enormous undertaking. However, it can be made much more manageable if government agencies embrace open source and open standards as they have in the United Kingdom. Several agencies in the USA have taken a lead on this including the US military. Openly supporting collaboration between government departments as well as organizations and individuals outside of government sector is surely the only way to keep up with the changing pace of technology.
Adoption of good free software tools like Drupal and WordPress that already have a huge user base to leverage is going to be key to ensuring that the government’s web pages are able to keep up with the changing demands. Drupal 7 is already implementing many WCAG 2.0 requirements in the core and also now has built-in RDFa support.
Whatever the new standards are adopted, it will need to be rolled out and evaluated on millions of web pages. The closer those standards are to the current WCAG 2.0 framework the easier it will be to use automated tools to evaluate it’s accessibility. New government standards should not just be a list of rules and examples, but there is a huge need to be interactive and provide as much access to re-usable code as they can. To be cost effective governments need to be investing heavily in setting up sample content management tools that they have permission to distribute and enhance between departments. It doesn’t need to favor open source solutions, but any solution which cannot be freely distributed, used and modified at least between government departments, is not worth investing in.
The best solutions within government need to be actively shared as widely as possible so tax payers aren’t having to be paying for every department to recreate the wheel.
Any implementation of government web standards needs to take into consideration the evolving nature of the web. Any solution for department sites that don’t easily allow for site wide changes to incorporated needs to be rejected. In the last few years the Canadian government has spent many millions adopting the CLF 2.0 guidelines. If in doing so they had incorporated forward thinking free software solutions future upgrades to their sites to make them more open and accessible would be much more affordable.
About The Author
Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.