Digital accessibility: Transforming government

Transforming government
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Alison Pritchard, Director General, Government Digital Service comments that digital accessibility is transforming government to meet user needs

When GDS says accessibility is everyone’s responsibility, we mean it. Even royalty, as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall found out when visiting the Cabinet Office: the duo seemed impressed by a demo of assistive technologies reading GOV.UK, so we like to think our approach to accessibility has the royal seal of approval.

Accessibility at the heart of GDS

Our design principles were written on the walls of our first office, and included “moving barriers aside”. For digital government, accessibility means making sure services can be used by the widest possible audience. It’s not second nature at GDS, it’s been in our DNA since our inception in 2011.

Whether thinking about permanent, temporary or situational accessibility needs, we challenge ourselves to focus on the most important questions: “what’s the user need?” and “are we putting users first?”.

This is why we set up the GDS Accessibility Empathy Lab and the Accessibility in government blog. It’s why we test on assistive technologies, make content accessible via voice assistants, publish in HTML rather than adding to the PDF mountain, and design for mobile. And why we make ‘device neutral’ content so it can be found using whatever device users choose – passport application via PlayStation anyone?

Regulations build on existing laws

Accessibility isn’t just something I’m passionate about – it’s mandated by law. The Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (for Northern Ireland) apply a legal obligation to provide equal access to people with disabilities.

On top, the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018 require organisations to make websites, intranets and mobile apps accessible. New websites must already be compliant, and existing websites had the deadline of 23rd September 2020. This includes publishing an accessibility statement, providing a feedback form, and meeting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) to level AA.

GDS is responsible for proactively monitoring these regulations for the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and for working with public sector organisations to get up to scratch.

As digital accessibility leaders, we want to help organisations meet and keep pace with the regulations. We have enforcement powers, but ideally want to work with people to help them achieve what they need to in order to hand out gold stars, rather than reprimand.

It’s about working across, and with, the public sector in a collaborative effort to improve accessibility standards for all public services. We publish guidance and resources on GOV.UK, run the Accessibility Leaders Network, and host events such as Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

These relationships, and the new regulations coming into force, meant when huge and unexpected challenges arose this year, we weren’t starting from scratch.

Coronavirus, accessibility and digital transformation

Nearly a decade of digital transformation with accessibility at its core enabled our response to coronavirus (COVID-19). The pandemic called on digital government to step up – and we did.

Services were developed at speed and under intense scrutiny. In less than five days, a coronavirus homepage was designed, built and shipped on GOV.UK. It stood up to huge traffic, with 26.4 million views in its first month.

This proved that time and pressure constraints shouldn’t be put above accessibility requirements. We can do both: stand up services quickly and in an accessible way. And we should be doing it for our users.

Since March, myriad services have been set up in response to COVID-19. The pace and scale of this work would have been impossible without our existing portfolio of tools. Things like the GOV.UK Design System, which provides WCAG compliant components, mean we can be confident that services that take advantage of the Design System are being built with accessibility in mind.

These are huge achievements for digital government and shows that time constraints and high pressure scenarios don’t excuse compromising on accessibility.

The future of government

The events of recent months confirmed what we think the future of government needs to be: joined up, trusted, and responsive to user needs. To do that, we have to keep accessibility and user needs at the heart of digital government.

If we don’t, we’ll fail the one in five people who have a condition or impairment that affects how they interpret or access information. Committing to accessibility means no-one is left behind by the digital government revolution of the last decade.

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Director General
Government Digital Service


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