Changing Standards in Government
Very recently Canada's Treasury Board announced that the Common Look and Feel (CLF) for the Internet 2.0 Standard is being updated. Now, for those folks who don't spend a lot of time on Government of Canada websites it's not something that you are likely to notice. However for both people with disabilities & the Canadian tax payer at large it could be a very big deal.
I want to first point out some of the good work done rethinking the CLF. Thomas Bradley's Proposal for CLF3.0 predated the public announcement for the update and presents a neat vision. More recently Cornelius Rachieru's post Thoughts on CLF 3.0 From Outside the Firewall produced a very neat vision of what is possible. Both of these visions will allow for much more visually interesting websites while maintaining an acceptable level of branding I feel.
I used to call the CLF the Common Ugly Look and Feel as CLF 1.0 was pretty terrible to look at. CLF 2.0 was a huge step in the right direction and there have been some very nice sites that still respect the standard but have a lot more flair to them. With these two early concept pieces I'm sure that CLF 3.0 (if that is what it is called) will be even better looking. There are also some really great ideas floating around to help standardize best practices around use of emerging technologies.
Less immediately obvious to most of us will be the accessibility component which has always been a core part of the standard. The Internet has changed dramatically since Treasury Board began developing the CLF back in 1998. The WC3 produced the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999 and this was the leading standard for a decade when it was updated in WCAG 2.0. Sadly the timing of the release of the latest release of WCAG didn't make it into the CLF 2.0 standard.
The first key point in the announcement CLF update is to "take into account the most recent version of internationally accepted Web content accessibility guidelines." This would definitely include the WCAG 2.0 standard which governments & industry around the world are embracing, but also likely the Authoring Tool (ATAG) 2.0 and WAI-ARIA which are presently still in a draft form.
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. The Government of Canada is presently facing a number of Human Rights challenges and with the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, this becomes an even more serious commitment.
There are a whole lot of government of Canada web pages, today Google suggested over 101 million. Compared with this simple Google test in 2008 there are the following pages using a gc.ca domain:
Page Type Oct 2008 March 2010
Google has indexed more than 5 times the number of Government of Canada web pages than it did 18 months ago. All of those should at this point be CLF 2.0 compliant (although they aren't). The CLF will be updated over the next two fiscal years at which point there will probably be over 200 million public facing web pages (even if the speed of growth decreases & millions of pages are culled).
More government pages are going to be adopting AJAX scripting to provide a more responsive interface for their users. This does need to be addressed in CLF 3.0. The more a web site becomes like a desktop application through interactive applications like this, the more complex the accessibility requirements for it become.
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. The USA's Section 508 standard is one of many being updated. Stricter regulations around web accessibility are in the works and accessibility approaches will be rushing to keep pace. We've recently published an Accessibility White Paper that touches on some additional issues.
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 & USA to promote open data in government have clearly set a precedent, but so have several Canadian municipalities. The tools & standards for open data are established. The adoption of Dublin Core in the CLF 2.0 is a step in this direction, but generally these haven't been applied in a meaningful way. Adoption of new standards like RDFa need to be anticipated. For both internal & external purposes 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 interesting how even with something like the CLF revision Treasury Board does need to consider the blogs which have been posted with design suggestions. Two designers have now contributed visuals which need to be considered.
Change Isn't Cheap
This is going to be a huge task. Simply keeping up with the legal responsibilities of the Canadian government to deliver content to all of it's citizens effectively through the web is an enormous undertaking. However, it can be made much more manageable if government agencies in Canada embrace open source and open standards as they have in the United Kingdom. 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 & Word Press that already have a huge user base to leverage is going to be key to ensuring that the government's 100 million web pages are able to keep up with the changing accessibility standards. Drupal is already implementing many WCAG 2.0 requirements in the core install and is reviewing the draft WAI-ARIA & ATAG 2.0 requirements as well.
Whatever the new definition of the CLF is, it will need to be rolled out and evaluated on more than 100 million web pages. The CLF 2.0 provided government departments with a new set of regulations and an example CSS/HTML template. The CLF 3.0 initiative needs to be much more interactive and provide as much access to re-usable code as they can. To be cost effective Treasury Board needs to invest heavily in setting up sample content management tools that they have permission to distribute & enhance between departments. The technological infrastructure for proper software version control is already in place and is being used to allow those working on solutions to for existing CLF 2.0 sites to collaborate.
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 that they are always evolving. Any solution for department sites that doesn't allow flexible site wide theming changes needs to be reconsidered.
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.