The Socitm effect

Synopsis

In our accessibility analysis of some local authority websites that are failing their site visitors, we at AccessEquals detected a hidden trend. While we were very surprised at the low level of web accessibility of the 65 one star council websites we were able to review, they are by no means the worst. Our analysis shows that the worst performing and most inaccessible council web sites are usually those run by local authorities that don’t subscribe to the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm).

To put it in context, local authority websites undergo an annual survey by Socitm, who organises this massive research project and compiles the “Better Connected” report of survey findings.

For Better Connected 2015, 407 Council websites were ranked using a star rating system. Three and four star sites are counted as performing satisfactorily; one and two star ranked sites are either inaccessible or fail to provide the type of service that council tax payers have a right to expect.

Socitm is a subscription service that provides councils and other public bodies with information, consultancy, and access to best practice and guidance to help them offer a quality online service to their council tax payers. That’s fair, as grandma says, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

However, some local authorities don’t seem to think that they need this kind of support and advice. Socitm-subscribing councils make up around 75% of the 407 surveyed for the report. 112 UK local authorities aren’t subscribed to it.

We weren’t able to do an independent check of the unsubscribed councils’ website accessibility as they aren’t named. However, we could, and did, compare the results of subscribed and unsubscribed councils.

Comparing the ranking

The Better Connected star ranking is a measure of overall performance, including accessibility, usability and service provision. The stats for the councils awarded 3 or 4 star ranking, (performing satisfactorily) show:

  • 54% (158) of the subscribed councils give satisfactory online service to their residents.
  • Only 23% (26) of the unsubscribed councils perform satisfactorily.

So the people living in the areas covered by the unsubscribed councils, which includes nine London Boroughs and no fewer than 62 Shire Districts, have a 77% chance that their council’s online performance is well below what it should be.

Comparing performable tasks

The star ranking is computed from a number of different factors, including a check for the type of task that you might reasonably expect to be able to do online at your local authority’s website, such as report a missed bin collection. The Better Connected assessors have a list of these tasks and report on how many of them they could successfully complete.

  • 74% of tasks attempted on subscribed sites were successful.
  • 53% of tasks attempted on unsubscribed sites were successful.

Computerised handling of enquiries is both more cost-effective and more efficient than manual methods. So you’d think that budget conscious councils would be as keen as mustard to get as many of these tasks online as possible. But almost half of those who don’t subscribe to Socitm are also unprepared to give council tax payers access to economic means of communicating with them.

Impartial assessment

There are two factors that convince us that the assessment contains no bias against unsubscribed councils, the first we know from several years experience as assessors and the second is published on the Socitm website:

  • The Better Connected survey assessors have no idea of the subscription status of any of the councils under assessment.
  • All councils have at least two months after the end of assessment to either subscribe or unsubscribe from Socitm.

Conclusion

Our analysis suggests that there is a significant ‘Socitm Effect’. The correlation between Socitm subscription and website accessibility and usability is evident and we believe, linked to the quality of the advice and guidance available to subscribers. It’s not possible to establish beyond doubt that subscription is the only or primary factor. But what is obvious is that councils that don’t invest in a subscription seem equally reluctant to invest in web accessibility and the provision of the most cost-effective services and best online experience for their constituents.

Disabled people excluded by inaccessible council websites

Most of us will moan about our local council at some time in our lives: missed bin collections or streets full of litter are just two of the things likely to irritate us. We feel cheated out of a service we’re paying for. Now imagine how much more frustrating it is for disabled or older people, many of whom can’t use their council’s website, not even to find out how to complain about being unable to use the website.

Under the Equality Act Local Authorities in the UK are legally obliged to ensure that their websites are accessible to everybody.

How are council websites monitored?

They all undergo an annual survey by the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), who report on the results each Spring in a report called “Better Connected”. It ranks council websites using a star rating system, where three and four-star sites are performing satisfactorily, while one and two star ranked sites miss the mark. Some of them miss it by miles.
The 2014-2015 Better Connected report highlights some distressing results for people with accessibility needs:

  • 43% of council websites earned a three star or four star rating.
  • 57% were found wanting and only got one or two star rating.

Better Connected surveys check for more than just accessibility – they also cover service provision and usability on each website. So the 57% below-par council sites are likely to be frustrating or confusing for everyone.

Then why am I talking in terms of service denial for people with disabilities? Well, it started as curiosity. Until three years ago I was involved for a long period in the accessibility testing component of Better Connected. Local authority website accessibility was pretty dire back then. Perhaps it had changed?

So the AccessEquals team spent a few fruitful hours focusing on the accessibility of identifiable council websites that earned only one star. We were shocked. Not only are all the sites we checked failing to meet the accessibility standard required by UK government, but some were so bad that disabled or older people would find it impossible to move beyond the home page.

Access denied

People who can’t use a mouse

The most seriously affected people are those with dexterity problems: older people with hand tremors; teenagers with sports injuries; computer nerds with repetitive strain injuries or those with disabilities that prevent them using a mouse. Usually these users will navigate a site [One way to cope with this is to move ] by moving sequentially through links and form controls using the keyboard tab key. This is called keyboard navigation.

In the 65 one star sites we found:

  • 21 sites with important content that simply couldn’t be reached or activated by keyboard navigation
  • 24 sites with links that had either poor or no focus indication at all. So keyboard users would not be able to see which links they have tabbed to and therefore will be unsure which link they are activating
  • 3 sites with no way for keyboard users to reach the main content without having to tab through dozens of links. In contrast, mouse users can reach all content quickly.
  • 3 sites with JavaScript functionality that caused loss of focus. Imagine, you’ve pressed the tab key 32 times and there’s only three more to go before you get to the link you want … bam, you’re suddenly back to the page top. Excruciating!

Of the 65 one-star sites viewed, 43, a shocking 66.2%, were found to be unusable for anyone who has to use a mouse.

People using screenreaders

People who are blind or have serious sight loss use screenreader software to convert text to speech or Braille so that they can read and interact with websites.

So, council websites can expect visits from people like property solicitors who need to find out about permitted development, students who want to know how to vote, or householders who want to report missed bins. All may be blind screen reader users, and as they can’t use a mouse they are also keyboard only users.

In the 65 one star sites examined we found:

  • 21 sites with important content that couldn’t be reached or activated by screenreader users.
  • 3 sites with no way for screenreader users to reach the main content without having to tab through dozens of links. In contrast, mouse users can reach all content quickly.
  • 3 sites with JavaScript functionality that caused loss of focus. Imagine, you’ve pressed the tab key 32 times and there’s only three more to go before you get to the link you want … bam, you’re suddenly back to the page top. Excruciating!
  • 2 sites using visual cues like colour as the only indication that fields are required or errors have occurred in forms.
  • 4 sites using a CAPTCHA challenge (a distorted image of text) in forms, but don’t have an audio alternative for non-sighted users.
  • 5 sites in the Welsh language have English text that is not identified as such so that screenreaders will not pronounce the content properly. Sometimes entire pages in Welsh are read as English.

In total 38 sites, or 58% of the 65 one star sites have accessibility errors so insurmountable that even expert screenreader users would be unable to work their way through them.

People with attention difficulties

People who have difficulty concentrating will find it impossible if a web page contains moving or blinking content that distracts them and can’t be stopped. Most affected are those with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, but it may also impact others.

Also, where the moving content contains text, the lack of a pause mechanism makes it difficult or impossible for people who can’t read quickly to understand what the message was.

In the 65 one star sites we examined:
30 (46%) with carousels or other constantly moving content with no means of pausing or stopping the animation.

Access disrupted

Apart from the complete barriers, I should also mention that of these 65 websites:

  • 29 (44.6%) didn’t use heading structure correctly. Several had home pages with no headings at all, while others used heading markup as a means of styling.
  • 23 (35.4%) have a number of instances of images with inappropriate or missing alternative text.
  • 26 (40%) have form errors ranging from identical ID attribute values used on multiple input elements or unlabelled form fields and buttons, right down to labels not being coded properly resulting in required field indicators not being detectable by screenreaders.
  • 47 (72.3%) use text and background colours that don’t meet the minimum required contrast ratio.

All in all the one star rating was a fair cop. What I find so surprising is that so many of the websites are clearly new, modern designs, and look very professional. I just hope that accessibility was clearly marked as an essential component in any requirements specification, so that the victim councils can try to reclaim some of the wasted revenue.

The highlights of Better Connected 2015 results are available after registration at
the Socitm website