ArticleInclusion & Accessibility

Why CIOs should invest in an accessible government

By October 26, 2021 December 2nd, 2021 No Comments

Why CIOs Should Invest in an Accessible Government

Guest Blog by Mike Gifford from CivicActions, our Digital Services Coalition Partner

Mike GiffordThere is growing momentum around inclusion and accessibility in government, and the President himself has made it a key priority through his recent Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Executive Order.

So, what does this mean for government leaders, especially CIOs? It’s time to invest in accessibility — which in turn will help you build more inclusive teams AND future-proof your organization.

Inclusive by design

1 in 4 people in America has a permanent disability — and many more have temporary disabilities — so it is hard to think of any government project that wouldn’t benefit from considering accessibility. From returning Veterans with limited mobility to people who are reading on a smartphone in the sun, everyone should be able to engage with important digital content from their government.

The pandemic has demonstrated how crucial modern digital services are to our economy and daily lives. We cannot assume that people will be able to engage with their governments in person or over the phone. All citizens — of all abilities — need to be able to utilize digital tools to engage.

Focusing on digital accessibility also improves representation and diversity in the federal workforce. People with disabilities are often well educated and highly capable but are not represented in the workforce because of accessibility barriers. By making government workplaces and processes more accessible, modern executives can draw from a wider pool of candidates, broadening their workforce and ensuring they are putting the best talent available on the delivery of critical services.

Organizational culture of accessibility

Accessibility is a team sport, but it all starts at the top. It is nearly impossible for an organization to achieve even minimal Section 508 requirements if it is clear that it isn’t a priority for the CIO. Having President Biden prioritize accessibility sets a real precedent for the entire federal government.

Executives need to foster champions for accessibility throughout the organization and communicate the importance of accessibility on a regular basis. Everyone involved in creating digital content or delivering services needs to understand how their role can contribute to a more inclusive approach. Having champions in design, development and content generation can help ensure your organization stays ahead of accessibility issues. This is a lesson I have learned firsthand in my own organization, CivicActions.

CivicActions is a mission-driven digital services company. We are known for our leadership role introducing agile and open-source best practices into government agencies. We have extensive experience developing excellent customer experiences by leveraging the Drupal Content Management System. We are getting better known for our strategic approach to digital accessibility.

CivicActions has been investing in accessibility for a long time. In 2020 Henry Poole and the leadership team further prioritized the commitment through the acquisition of OpenConcept Consulting Inc. to level-up on accessibility. In 2021 hundreds of hours were invested in our accessibility practice area. One of the major outcomes of this was to build our practice area site, which highlights our open and agile approach to digital accessibility.  A few months ago, we also began investing in an onboarding program to ensure that new staff are given a solid introduction to accessibility best practices.

Every team member needs to understand how their role fits into the larger picture. We are working in the open to better define these roles in CivicActions’ accessibility site. Keeping up with the rate of change on the Internet is hard, but making our work open makes it more important. Modern digital accessibility is like a relay race. To win, each runner needs to know exactly where to pick up from the earlier runner and how to best hand over the baton to the next runner.

What leaders can do

It is hard to imagine what a post-COVID society will look like, but we can be confident that our society isn’t going to completely give up the flexibility that a fully digital office has provided. Ensuring that your organization can support people with disabilities will give you more flexibility to do your best work. Here are some actions for leaders to promote inclusion and accessibility in their organization:

Establish accessibility as a clear priority for every project, starting at the beginning. 

The earlier you bring accessibility into your project, the more robust and cheaper it will be. Additionally, incorporating people with lived experience of disability in the design and ideation phase of a project can help ensure that your project has a bigger impact. Leaders must demonstrate their commitment to accessibility by initiating the priority, maintaining expectations, staffing appropriately, and providing support to help their team adjust to the change.

The longer government agencies wait to address accessibility, the higher the cost to remediate.  A recent article from CivicActions published their analysis of 2 million .gov web pages, highlighting how large of a remediation effort is needed for just existing digital content.

Provide accessibility training and ensure your teams participate.
Accessibility training can teach your staff how to identify, prevent, and remediate any barriers that may prevent people with disabilities from engaging in your digital content. Additionally, it will help your staff understand why accessibility is important – a fundamental piece of gaining employee support for the change.

In addition to agency-wide training, leaders should consider requiring accessibility training as part of their onboarding process for new employees, as well as staff certification opportunities like Trusted Tester and the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP).

Accessibility should be continually monitored to ensure that teams are delivering higher quality results over time.

Follow current accessibility standards and best practices.

To help make web content more accessible for people with disabilities, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative developed  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Moving a federal agency towards following these standards will take some time and effort, but leaders can ease this transition by providing accessibility testing throughout the project lifecycle. This article we wrote for Smashing Magazine details this layered approach to accessibility testing extensively.

Teams need to be engaged outside of the department with the broader accessibility industry. Initiatives like Global Accessibility Awareness Day can be terrific opportunities to learn. There are amazing resources on digital accessibility which are available for free and regularly updated. Teams should be given time to learn about how to make their sites more inclusive.

Make sure your internal systems are accessible so that the people you hire can be retained and succeed.

Most likely they aren’t accessible. Many government employees aren’t able to install browser extensions to help them evaluate the accessibility of websites, but fortunately the SSA has developed this ANDI bookmarklet which should be available to everyone. You can also try to navigate your site only using your keyboard.

It is always cheaper and more robust if accessibility is addressed early in the project lifecycle. Procurement is a key piece of this and PeatWork’s BuyIT tool has some great resources to help the procurement process for new tools? Also when structuring your RFP’s remember the White House (DEIA) Executive Order which calls for the elimination of barriers for federal staff as well. Most Section 508 requirements are specifically for public facing content.

Governments generally buy digital tools to help better manage content. This inevitably requires an editing interface to allow authors to manage the content. The authoring experience is generally overlooked in Government ICT. If authoring tools aren’t accessible, then it will be difficult to hire and retain authors with disabilities. Furthermore, authors should be supported to create accessible content. When working to a deadline, everyone can occasionally miss accessibility. Tools can be set up to alert authors when accessibility steps have been skipped.

Now what?

Just like security, there is no checkbox that you can use to make sure that you are secure. Accessibility is a journey and requires constant vigilance. Checklists can be useful, but they can also shut down opportunities for your team to engage with one another and learn how to be more inclusive. Giving your team time to take advantage of the many free resources on the internet or participate in great events like the Global Accessibility Awareness Day is a great way for everyone to learn.

The best time to address accessibility was at the start of a project, the second-best time is now. How can you engage your team today in making your work more inclusive? What can your team implement that helps everyone see that all of your user interfaces are more accessible today than they were yesterday? This is a great opportunity to demonstrate that more citizens are able to engage with the content that your agency creates.