Accessibility: The key to making government work better


Joshue O Connor, Head of Accessibility (Interim) at Government Digital Service (GDS) argues that accessibility is the key component of making government work better

Today, we hear much talk of ideals like inclusion and equality. Without practical application, any ideal is aspirational at best. How are inclusion and equality to be achieved?

Can accessibility make government work better?

The web is a powerful tool and a democratising force in our lives. It levels the playing field, makes a meritocracy possible. For diversity of ability to thrive in our technocratic
culture, standards to simplify information for everyone are powerful and more than ever needed. Accessibility comes from user involvement, good code and design practices. Most barriers for disabled people are unintentional. No one sets out build inaccessible services.

Why does accessibility mean more than putting things online?

It is about making things work for people with disabilities. This simple definition helps to focus attention in a practical way. To initially talk about ‘everyone’ is nebulous.

Accessibility does not just ‘happen’. It needs care, attention, discussion, argument, effort and failure. ‘Try again. Fail again, fail better’ to paraphrase Samuel Beckett. This is at the heart of Agile, the development model that is the new darling of government. Effective accessibility is a deep cultural wave that moves sideways. It is not a ‘vertical’ but a horizontal culture, a wave – that ebbs and flows touching designers, developers, content people, policy people, procurers and more.

Accessibility just does not work in silos. Nor, in progressive organisations, can it be contained. It grows and thrives in a culture where the various players support the organisational goal of making things accessible, with the understanding that making this happen takes, time, effort and mutual goodwill.

Why is it important that a public sector website or app works for everyone?

There are push and pull factors that make accessibility so important to the government. There is a moral obligation and an impetus to honour and maintain the ‘social contract’. There are also practical fiscal considerations such as enhanced revenue generation from gathering more taxes, quickly and efficiently and having effective well-designed services that meet real user needs.

Without efforts to embed accessibility in service creation, they may be totally inaccessible to many people. Putting the user first, collecting user needs and building services around those needs; are at the heart of progressive government. These are cultural paradigms that inform the spirit of what accessibility is and how it relates to effective public service.

Why is it important that all public sector websites meet accessibility standards?

There are legal requirements to comply with the Equality Act 2010 (the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland) and the EU Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications of public sector bodies. However, these are ‘sticks’. At Government Digital Service (GDS), we are aware of the ‘carrot’ and how the practical application of an accessible culture will better meet the needs of government and the public. By designing for extremes, we can better serve the needs of more users.

Accessibility: A perfect challenge Government exists to serve the public but also itself. Accessibility can help achieve both goals. As an engineering issue, accessibility is the perfect challenge.

While adhering to standards is no doubt important, it is not the end goal. There is a ‘spirit of accessibility’ which is about doing your best, as a service provider;
driven by a moral imperative or realisation that this is the ‘right thing to do’.

In order to adhere to the social contract, the government must take an active role to provide accessible platforms and services, while nurturing an accessibility culture across its services.

Accessibility and the future

We can speculate that in a positive vision of the future, accessibility will just disappear because it becomes a basic part of building any great product or service. It
will be a part of the ‘definition of done’. This future always seems to be just ‘around the corner’, or in the next update.

In a more realistic future, platforms and technologies will still need attention from accessibility experts and user involvement to effectively build services. Machine learning and so-called artificial intelligence (AI) or automated machine reasoning may have a part to play bringing new opportunities and potentially new barriers.

While it may be algorithms or rules that are used to determine what is required to facilitate a humane user experience. Who will write those rules?

Joshue O Connor
Head of Accessibility (Interim)
Government Digital Service (GDS)


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