Public Sector Fails the Website Standards they claim to meet!

Many Government departments, Councils and other public organisations are still failing to meet the latest accessibility, availability and performance standards even though they must comply by UK law. Poor compliance with the latest standards can not only cost thousands of pounds, but it can also deny the tax-paying public access to essential services and information. The problems identified range from slow performance due to poor download times and meta-tagging, with some websites or web pages being unavailable for long periods of time, to HTML coding errors and broken links...

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(PRWEB) September 10, 2004

Many Government departments, Councils and other public organisations are still failing to meet the latest accessibility, availability and performance standards even though they must comply by UK law. Poor compliance with the latest standards can not only cost thousands of pounds, but it can also deny the tax-paying public access to essential services and information. The problems identified range from slow performance due to poor download times and meta-tagging, with some websites or web pages being unavailable for long periods of time, to HTML coding errors and broken links.

In fact, the problem is serious: the latest website compliance league table for public bodies from SiteMorse™, shows that all but one of the 71 sites tested failed to meet the accessibility AA standards (Although many claim to meet this standard). The exception is the website of the Child Support Agency (csa.gov.uk) which, since using SiteMorse™, has managed to attain a consistent 100% compliance (for automated tests) and its website is the only one found to be error free.

At the bottom of the league table this month is the Government News Network, while a debilitating 620 website function errors were found on consumer.gov.uk. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (culture.gov.uk) had the highest number of warnings, 20,000 in total, and thus failed to meet the W3C’s HTML standards for website compliance. Meanwhile, 32 sites achieved a score of 90% relating to accessibility compliance (measured against the current Web Accessibility Initiatives – WAI - standards), and only 19 met this completely. Two sites were down during this month’s tests: e-venturing.gov.uk and hmce.gov.uk.

Once again the CSA was the only public body to achieve 100% compliance with regards to the eGMS standards, with only one other managing to achieve a percentage score of 90%, while 83% of the other sites tested failed miserably to comply. In the download speed stakes the worst offender was the Department for Transport, which was 178 times slower than the walesoffice.gov.uk.

The tests carried out by SiteMorse™ look at the first 250 pages of each website checking to see if they meet all the latest standards and the UK’s legislative requirements. A detailed report is produced, and individual errors report on everything from faulty or outdated email addresses to bad paths on each site. The individual ranking warnings look at violations of the W3C or IETF standards, such as poor coding which affect the visual display of a website or its download times. The testing is automated, but according to SiteMorse™ these tests only indicate the first level one of compliance. A number of manual tests can be applied to reach the next stage.

Although the Child Support Agency champions the work done by SiteMorse™, not everyone is in favour of it. In fact some public bodies are using a rival compliance testing product called Bobby, which is referred to by the Cabinet Office in its Web Handbook on Universal Accessibility + Checklist. In section 2.4.7.1 of that document, which provides guidelines on how to meet the standards, it warns: “Getting validation clearances, a successful Bobby test, and a W3C WAI rating does not necessarily guarantee that your site is accessible via a screen reader.”

Peter Barton (of Lincolnshire County Council) says: “I think that automation has its place, but I don’t believe that it is always the answer. It may be a guide and I can understand why people use automation, but as it is a real person who uses a system I think that automation can give skewed or often pedantic results. We are being measured by SiteMorse™, which I resent because I don’t believe that it is the fountain of all knowledge. I personally don’t see any benefits and things aren’t so, just because they say so.”

Out of such comments there does appear to be a fear of being made accountable. There are others too who’ve made similar remarks. Barton’s argument against automated testing, which is what SiteMorse™ specialises in as a leader within its field, is that the tests are based – in his words – on standards that are not definitive and that are constantly evolving. He is right in saying that they are evolving, and as a result it is – he claims perhaps rightly – difficult for people in local government to keep up with them when they change so frequently. “So at some point”, he says, “We are going to be non-compliant, especially when measured automatically.”

Nicholas Le Seelleur, from SiteMorse™ commented ‘Yes the standards are continuing to evolve, but our systems only test for globally recognised and laid down standards, for UK Government we also offer a set of specific tests, checking sites for the mandatory requirements set by Government’

However, the benefits of the research and of SiteMorse™ itself are quite clear to the Child Support Agency (See insightexec.com’s “Web Performance Tools: The Customer’s View”, Bridgnorth District Council (which has been congratulated on its results by the Shropshire Star), Thurrock Council and Adur District Council. Being top of the SiteMorse™ league can generate much beneficial publicity, while making sure that people actually visit and have access to a website. The British Paralympics Association, with the Olympics on the horizon, recently also felt proud that its site achieved top marks from SiteMorse™ for accessibility.

Kevin Sleeman, the IEG and Web Development Manager at Bridgnorth District Council says, “We are happy with the performance of SiteMorse™ and use their testing service to ensure that regular checks are made on our website. We feel that it is a responsibility to the people who visit our site to check those reports and eliminate problems, as and when they occur, so as to make sure that that the visitor’s experience is as error free as possible.”

He also says that if technical problems are allowed to go unchecked, they could render a website useless. There’s a Public Relations element to it, helping the Council to engender a sense of professionalism in what it does while promoting trust and confidence in its ability to deliver local services and by providing information about its activities. Sleeman also adds that the council is not aware of any other system or service that is “able to test so many elements of the website and combinations of features on as regular a basis as SiteMorse™ can.”

Thurrock’s Web Manager, Steve Rigden, highlights the importance of compliance testing. “If local and national government websites stray from recognised standards, there is an increased risk that citizens will be denied access to services. It is always tempting to assume that our customers use the same web browsers on the same platforms and have the same accessibility requirements as our in-house users. In reality this is far from the case, and by complying with standards we greatly improve our chances of providing the best services to the widest audience.”

To conclude, he says: “The introduction of web-based monitoring tools, enabling independent companies to provide full technical quality assessments, can only help to bring this important area of web design back to the fore, where it belongs. The results generated by the SiteMorse™ tool demonstrate that, in the U.K. public sector, levels of standards’ compliance vary considerably.”

At the end of the day, would you like your site to perform as well as the CSA and also be top of the league?

By Graham Jarvis

Editor- CIMTech International, written on behalf of SiteMorse Technologies Ltd.

Free website tests available, please go to http://www.sitemorse.com for details, or for further information please email mail@sitemorse.com or call 0870 759 3300.

Further Reading

1.    Insightexec.com – Web Performance Tools Give A Customer View - Child Support Agency (http://crm.insightexec.com/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=130779)

2.    Shropshire Star - Council's site truly deserves accolade - Bridgnorth District Council (http://www.shropshirestar.com/features/columnists/publish/article_21195.shtml)

3.    Adur District Council - News Release: Highly rated website (27-05-2003) - http://www.adur.gov.uk/whats-new/press-room/2003/nr-03-063.htm
4.    The British Paralympics Association - BPA website receives top marks in accessibility study - http://www.paralympics.org.uk/news.asp?section=000100010008&showItemID=400
5.    Cabinet Office – Web Handbook – Building in universal accessibility + checklist – http://e-government.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/Resources/WebHandbookIndex1Article/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=4000092&chk=XHiT3L
6.    Cabinet Office - Top 10 Guidelines for UK local government websites - http://e-government.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/Resources/WebGuidelinesArticle/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=4003964&chk=L2GpD6
7.    Cabinet Office – Metadata - What is the e-Government Unit's role? - http://e-government.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/Briefings/BriefingsArticle/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=4000207&chk=dtmcHu
8.    PublicTechnology.net – Government website errors limit access to public services and information – http://www.publictechnology.net/print.php?sid=1101
9.    Activewebcontent.com – Article: Banks Risk Litigation For Not Complying with Web Accessibility Legislation – http://www.activewebcontent.com/Default.aspx?sID=730&cID=120&ctID=11

SiteMorse™ Overview

By simulating a user visiting your website, SiteMorse™ is able to provide a thorough test of the site, and by replicating every possible page and combination of pages or actions a visitor could choose, SiteMorse™ is able to test for problems that prevent the site from operating correctly across the many browsers, user hardware types, corporate access tools (firewalls / proxy servers / networks) along with the many ISP and hosting possibilities - both hardware and software (including operating systems etc).

SiteMorse™ checks for over 100 different problems, including missing images, broken links, violations of W3C / IETF standards, faulty email addresses, DNS errors, etc.

Internal / manual testing of the site, often with just a modem and stand-alone PC, could never practically emulate the many possible user access permutations - even for the home user, let alone a corporate user.

Free website tests available, please go to http://www.sitemorse.com for details, or for further information please email mail@sitemorse.com or call 0870 759 3340.

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