How Bracknell Forest Council improved its website accessibility to deliver public services for all citizens

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood October 4, 2019
Summary:
Authority says it’s improved the accessibility of its website as part of a drive to deliver equal access for all visitors

Bracknell website

So how do you get up to 2nd place in the highly-respected Sitemorse INDEX for the third quarter  - with an impressive overall score of 9.8 and 9/10 for accessibility - and simultaneously gain The Shaw Trust ‘Accessible’ rating, which anyone who’s ever tried to work toward is a very high standard of accessibility to meet?

Ask the internal IT leader who led the work at the organisation that’s managed just that, Bracknell Forest Council, and the deceptively simple answer comes back:

You need a holistic approach to Web accessibility, as there are many ways that it can be improved. No single approach can fully resolve issues that arise.

The speaker here is the authority’s Digital Services Manager, Colin Stenning, who says he and his team’s efforts in all this by Bristol-based digital agency Microserve, which has expertise in Drupal, the Content Management System favoured by the Council. The partner has also worked on similar projects with bodies such as the World Wildlife Fund, which Stenning says was a definite factor at procurement, which happened through G-Cloud.

The first step was to undertake a full audit of all the Council’s work on the site to date, followed by a full migration of the site to a reliable managed hosting environment, which removed risk from the client's in-house team. Then, the front end of the website was completely re-worked in line with Government Digital Service Standards guidelines so as to be sure to meet the expected high standards of accessibility.

Directive 

The work also sets Bracknell up well to meet the strictures of The EU Web Accessibility Directive - a new piece of legislation that aims to consolidate accessibility standards across the European Union, making web accessibility a legal requirement, and which UK public sector bodies really need to start getting ready for.

That’s because the Directive requires that EU member states have processes in place to “ensure that public sector bodies take the necessary measures to make their websites and mobile applications more accessible”. Brexit aside, the Web Accessibility Directive will likely remain the benchmark in the UK for website accessibility in the public sector for some considerable time, after all.

A unitary council in Berkshire with over 120,000 residents, this part of the county is famous for many things, including being the setting for two major parts of the Harry Potter films: film crews used a property in Martin’s Heron in the first film for shooting the young wizard’s home with the dreaded Dursleys, and years later came back to get footage of Swinley Forest for scenes in the Deathly Hallows Part One.

Stenning told diginomica government that the Council is working toward a “new narrative” for the organisation that its leadership believes is right for the challenges it faces, and which has identified a need to provide an essential safety net for the people and areas with the greatest need.

Thus, a fully accessible website sits at the heart of all it’s doing to build that “narrative,” he explains:

The council has an ongoing commitment to make its website accessible, inclusive and user-friendly for everyone, and we’ve been working to ensure it’s fully accessible through an ongoing programme of work.

That work has included fixing any and all fixing accessibility issues that arise in the website code or generated via Drupal, as well as reviewing its content to ensure it is useful and easy to read (the website is reviewed each year by the Plain English Campaign and currently holds an Internet Crystal Mark, he adds).

That’s not all. There’s also regular testing of the website by people with a wide range of disabilities and any added text has to pass an accessible, easy to understand format test to check it’s available to people with learning disabilities, but also has be beneficial for people with other conditions that can affect how they process information.

It also includes constant work to reduce the number of documents on the website with accessibility issues, mainly by making them into fully-accessible PDFs.

The public website is now fully WAI AA compliant and has been ranked joint second in the UK in the latest Sitemorse INDEX review for local government. If you’re not familiar, the INDEX is an independent industry standard for benchmarking digital governance; sites are reviewed and scored based on 1,600 tests, checks and measures per page, identifying actions that improve user experience, optimisation and compliance.

This ranking includes factors such as loading speed, links and accessibility, and for Stenning, meeting it:

reflects our ongoing commitment to making the website inclusive and user friendly for everyone as well as the ongoing work by the digital services team to improve accessibility. 

A lot of work, then - but worth it, Stenning argues, as,

Ensuring that our website is fully accessible will make it easier and quicker to use as making our website accessible to all will ensure that our residents can transact with the council online, and obtain information about council services.

In terms of next steps, Stenning says that in six months he’d like to rise from 2 to 1 in the Sitemorse INDEX Review for local government - and that if all goes to plan, Bracknell Forest Council will be recognised as one of the best overall in the whole of the UK.