Web accessibility: 100 days of the new government

  • Author: Chris Pycroft
  • Date: 11 Dec 2013

Monday December 16 marks 100 days since the Coalition claimed victory in September’s federal election. While there has been plenty of talk about ‘mainstream’ priorities, web accessibility still remains a pivotal issue for millions of Australians. So what has been promised by our new government, what steps have been taken and what can we expect in the future for web access in Australia?

The Coalition’s Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy (PDF, 1MB) outlines a number of changes and policies, some of which have already progressed.  Outlined below, the proposed developments and structural changes are designed to provide consistency to online government communications, and also allow existing bodies to have a greater influence on current and future ICT policy.  

AGIMO to become an elevated advisory body

The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) is to become an advisory body to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This would mean that the office, which was responsible for the implementation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 into common government practice, would provide advice on any reviewed or new government ICT policy. This change began to be implemented soon after the new government took office.

Digital Design Standard and Digital Design Guide to be developed

To ensure that all online government services are of similar standards, the development of a Digital Service Standard and Digital Design Guide was promised. This is being created due to the internet being identified as the default method of interacting with users (us).

The government’s pre-election policy stated that the new service standard and design guide will be modelled off equivalents from the United Kingdom. For accessibility, this is a positive step, as the UK Government Service Design Manual states that all services should aim to meet Level AA of the WCAG 2.0, and that failing to do so would be in breach of equality laws currently in place. Consultations are expected to begin in the first half of 2014.

Interactions and materials online by 2017

While another election will take place prior to the completion of this commitment, it has been promised that by 2017:

  • All correspondence, documents and forms will be available digitally. This coincides with the pledge to provide the option of receiving any government materials in a digital form or in hard copy. Any form, document or correspondence placed on a government website will be required to meet accessibility standards as per the National Transition Strategy (NTS), and/or the impending Digital Design Standard.
  • Any government interaction that happens more than 50,000 times a year should be able to be completed online. Similar to static content that is placed online, these interactions will also be subject to relevant accessibility standards.

Reporting on mobile accessibility

All government agencies will be specifically required to report on whether their services are ‘mobile-accessible’ by the end of 2015. Although this reporting is aimed to provide a greater understanding of whether services work across multiple platforms (iOS, Android etc.) and whether it can be accessed from a range of mobile tablets (smartphones, tablets), mobile websites are subject to accessibility standards if they have a .gov.au domain.

What’s already in place?

The key piece of policy (particularly in relation to web accessibility), the NTS, is still currently in place. This means that all Commonwealth government websites are required to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA by the end of 2014. The majority of state and territory websites have agreed to the same standards and timelines. The Digital Design Standard will be released by the end of 2014, and is expected to provide continued accessibility requirements for all Commonwealth websites to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards.

A survey was conducted earlier this year to determine if the first mandatory requirement of the NTS was met (WCAG 2.0 Level A standards by the end of 2012), and a report with the survey results is expected to be released in the near future. Early indications suggest that there is improvement with the number of government websites that meet WCAG standards, but many agencies are still putting accessibility provisions in place.

Where to now?

It has been 100 days since the new government has been in office and while we haven’t seen much direct action specifically on web accessibility, the Coalition’s Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy suggests there will be more government communications taking place online. This increases the need for web accessibility policy as more government information becomes available online.

The development of the Digital Service Standard and Digital Design Guide sets up an opportunity to include a strategy for WCAG 2.0 compliance post-2014. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but plenty of progress is being made.