The National Transition Strategy – is it on track?

The Australian government has been working hard over the past two years to ensure that all Federal and most state government websites meet the minimal Level 'A' requirement of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by the end of this year. With six months to go, it's a good time to reflect on the progress to date and identify some potential issues that need to be addressed to help ensure the government reaches its target.

The initial launch of WCAG 1.0 in 1999 was heralded as a massive step forward in ensuring websites are created in an accessible way. However, while WCAG 1.0 was widely adopted around the world, Australia was a little slow on the uptake. While over the next ten years WCAG 1.0 did start to appear in state and territory-based policies and a number of disability access and inclusion plans, its implementation was lacking.

Many in Australia had hoped that with WCAG 2.0 being launched in December 2008, there was a second chance to get it right: to join countries such as the United States, European Union members and New Zealand in embracing WCAG 2.0 and really put accessibility on the agenda. While most countries announced their position almost simultaneously with the WCAG 2.0 launch, Australia appeared to take a 'wait and see' approach, which caused much disappointment.

However, 18 months later, much joy and celebration swept through the Australian accessibility community when the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services issued an unexpected media release on 23 February 2010 endorsing WCAG 2.0 with a formal release of the National Transition Strategy (NTS) on 30 June 2010.

This was fantastic news. Not only did it make WCAG 2.0 a mandatory requirement set up by the Federal government, but there were specific timeframes for implementation, being Level 'A' by the end of 2012, and Level 'AA' by the end of 2014. Complete details of Australia's accessibility position can be found on the Australian government's accessibility requirements Accessibility page.

So after a slow start, it seemed that by mid-2010 the government had moved away from its ad-hoc state-based approach to accessibility and gone with a uniform, Federal initiative to take accessibility seriously. The initiative was set, all of government appeared to agree with the NTS and a Community of Expertise discussion portal was established for community engagement. These initiatives, combined with a realistic two and a half year implementation plan for Level 'A', made it seem like things were off to a good start.

Yet, while the initiative caught many people who work in the accessibility area by surprise, it appeared to do the same for the State and Territory governments. While the initial NTS media release and website postings suggested that all the States and Territories had agreed to the Federal government timeframes, one by one they released their own interpretations over the next year or so.

While many states ultimately decided to follow the Federal model, some states such as Queensland decided to implement all of WCAG 2.0 except for some of the harder bits, while Western Australia decided to take an extra year to determine their position. Governments also differ on whether or not Level 'AA' is mandatory.

Now, with only six months to go until the first NTS deadline, it's been interesting to hear from consumers and ICT professionals alike about the NTS and the different views on its progress. There are two really common statements that seem to keep emerging. The consumers' question is "Where's the evidence that the NTS is making a difference to the accessibility of government information?" and from ICT professionals it's "We're working hard on this and making headway, but will there be an opportunity to address our concerns?"

So, with these two significantly different perspectives in mind, a few questions need to be asked:

  • Are there government websites out there that can demonstrate the NTS in action?
  • How likely is it that in six months' time all the websites will be accessible, and
  • What are the concerns that ICT professionals want to raise?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that change is happening. Government websites such as Seniors.gov.au and a website that one of my colleagues highlighted recently, IP Australia, are two good examples of how the NTS is having an impact. Other projects which are not necessarily related to accessibility, such as the amalgamation of the Centrelink website into the Department of Human Services will almost certainly see an improvement in accessibility as a result of the NTS.

While there are some encouraging signs for consumers that change is occurring, and presumably will become more obvious as the end of 2012 swings around, I agree that there is cause for concern as to why there aren't more obvious examples of accessible government websites.

Perhaps this ties in with the concerns of ICT professionals, both those who work within government and those contracted to work on government web projects. Based on the conversations I've had with designers and developers, I have absolutely no doubt there are many accessibility champions working very hard under difficult conditions to try and meet the NTS, but there are also a number of common themes that run through their concerns.

The first concern revolves around the statement, "I am an accessibility island in my department". Several people who work in government and have a passion for accessibility have expressed difficulties in getting accessibility procedures established. Rather than have department-wide accessibility procedures, one or two people are designated as the 'go to' staff when it comes to WCAG 2.0 implementation. These people are usually given enough authority to address particular accessibility issues, but not enough to achieve broad organisational change. As a result, they tend to end up 'putting out fires' rather than changing the system.

Second is the issue of 'Producers versus Developers'. This is partly due to the problem above. I've heard a number of developers complain about how they do a lot of work to get their website templates accessible, only to have content process make accessibility errors and ruin it. Likewise I've heard a number of content producers complain that they do all the right things but they are posting their documents onto an inaccessible website. This appears to be another case where organisation-wide procedural changes could really help.

The third issue revolves around legacy and out-dated technologies. Many web professionals have expressed frustration over being unable to make use of modern web accessibility standards because internally older web standards are required for backwards compatibility. A common complaint is that Internet Explorer 6 is still in use due to compatibility requirements of third-party applications, and any web development work, whether internal or external, must maintain compatibility with this web browser Another legacy issue revolves around old scanned PDFs which are still important enough to keep, but not important enough to justify someone's time to go through them and make them accessible.

The next issue is time. As previously discussed, it took longer for the States and Territories to get going on the NTS and those which did commit to the same timeframes as the Federal government have commented that it will be hard to meet the end-of-year-deadline.

And finally there's the issue of auditing. Given the limited human resourcing, people have reported that it's challenging to get accurate information about exactly how accessible the current website is and what steps need to be taken to address it. Enterprise-based auditing software that isn't prohibitively expensive is often sought to find ways in addressing the issue. This is likely to become more of an issue as auditing reports are provided regarding the progress of the transition.

Clearly these issues are concerning but with six months to go, there's still time in my view to undertake changes that can make a big difference to the NTS implementation. Such possibilities include:

  • More people: most of these issues can be resolved by either training ICT professionals with accessibility knowledge or by bringing in accessibility specialists. Ensuring more people have the ability to improve accessibility-based procedures across all ICT professionals will ultimately bring a cohesive work environment where accessibility just happens.
  • Upgrade internal infrastructure and adopt current web standards: while I sympathise with the situation of not wanting to upgrade an expensive third-party application, forcing users to stay with Internet Explorer 6 may be more costly in the long run than is currently realised. An 11 year old web browser is well past its use-by date and it's important that ICT professionals are given the freedom to develop and design to the latest web accessibility standards.
  • Increase access to resources: government departments could ensure that more staff have time and access to accessibility-related resources such as those available on this website.

So at this stage, is it likely that every Federal government and most other .gov.au websites will comply with WCAG 2.0 Level 'A' by the end of the year?

In all honesty, it's a pretty big ask.

I'm optimistic that if the concerns of people working at the coalface of the NTS are addressed, an obvious and significant improvement to the accessibility of government information will occur by the end of the year.

Dr Scott Hollier represents Media Access Australia on the W3C Advisory Committee and publishes the W3C Column monthly.


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