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January 24, 2023updated 25 Jan 2023 9:54am

DWP to spend £100k auditing accessibility of Universal Credit digital services

After a leaked internal document showed DWP services have accessibility problems, a new audit could help address the issue.

By Sophia Waterfield

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has handed out a contract worth nearly £100­­,000­ for an assessment of its Universal Credit digital services to ensure they adhere to accessibility regulations and identify areas of improvement. The contract award comes after DWP reportedly admitted in an internal document last that only one in three of its digital services are accessible.

Accessibility keyboard used by a blind person.
Public sector organisations need to offer accessible user experiences. (Photo by zlikovec/Shutterstock)

The Universal Credit scheme is a single monthly benefit payment for working-age people who are considered to be on a low income or out of work.

According to the contract award notice, the value of the contract was between £97,030 to £197,030 for a period of two years. The company providing IT consultancy services, Nomensa, has worked with NHS Digital, the Cabinet Office, The Insolvency Service and UK Research and Innovation.

The Government’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) found public sector departments and agencies to have accessibility issues on nearly all of its tested websites. According to CDDO’s ‘Accessibility monitoring of public sector websites and mobile apps 2020-2021’ report, only 7% of websites had all the required information in their accessibility statements and 20% of organisations did not respond to the CDDO at all.

Public sector departments need to boost service accessibility

The UK is home to 14.6 million disabled people, which represents 22% of the total population. To cater for this demographic, public sector organisations and departments are required to make their websites and mobile apps accessible. Legislation requires that a statement detailing any accessibility issues, as well as whom to contact when there is a problem, must be published on each service app and website.

To ensure compliance with these regulations, the CDDO monitors large public sector organisations, larger local governments and central health organisations. It uses the European standard for accessibility requirements for ICT products and services and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 to gauge the standard of adherence to the law. There are three levels of WCAG accessibility – A, AA and AAA. Public sector bodies must meet the ‘AA’ standard of the guidelines.

During 2020 and 2021, the CDDO tested 593 websites using ‘simplified testing’ and found that only eight websites had no accessibility issues. Of this, only five had compliant accessibility statements. After the 12-week period, 59% of the organisations had fixed the issues or had a ‘short-term roadmap’ to do so. Collectively, from a sample of 421 tests, 2691 issues were found.

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What are the most common accessibility issues on public sector websites?

According to the CDDO and tested against the WCAG 2.1 guidelines, the main issue for public sector organisation websites is ‘focus value’. This was 12% of issues reported.

Focus value is to help a user know which element has the keyboard focus. This means that any keyboard-operable user interface needs to have a mode of operation where the keyboard focus indicator is visible such as a visible border or vertical bar for text insertion. The WCAG provides examples of sufficient techniques to meet these criteria, which can help disabled people with attention, short-term memory limitations or limitations in executive processes discover where the focus is located.

The next most common issue was ‘name, role, value’ (11%). This ensures that assistive technologies can gather information about, activate and keep up to date on the status of user interface controls in the content, affecting users of screen readers, screen magnifiers and speech recognition software.

How does the UK government conduct accessibility testing?

As part of its reporting, the CDDO conducts three testing types: simplified, detailed and mobile app testing. Simplified covers a small sample of pages and uses mostly automated accessibility testing, with details covering a wider range of pages and tests against all relevant WCAG success criteria.

Each public sector body receives its results from the Cabinet Office department and has 12 weeks to make fixes and report back on its progress. This is then passed back to the relevant equality body.

Core pages such as ‘home’ and ‘contact’ are identified and audited, as well as pages that contain elements such as tables or different layout styles. CDDO also looks for forms and PDFs that have an admin purpose or have been published since 28 September 2018; HTML is considered the standard for accessible documents as it uses custom browser settings, whereas PDFs do not work well with assistive technologies such as screen readers.

The CDDO records severe or critical errors using a system called Axe, and then manually checks them to ensure accuracy. Other manual checks need to be conducted such as accessing links without a mouse, keyboard traps, focus order and any unexpected actions when tabbing. These issues are all documented in the WCAG guidelines.

Do DWP’s digital services have an accessibility problem?

The government department has come under fire over its ‘inaccessible’ digital services.

According to a report from Disability News Service (DNS) last year, DWP had refused to release a report that would show which of its website and other digital services are breaching regulations on accessibility. It followed the leak of an internal report that showed that 36 of the 141 live digital services run by the department were ‘very high risk’ with another 23 considered ‘high risk.’ Of these, 56 services are used by benefit claimants and other members of the public; the outlet reports that only 24 (43%) are compliant with the accessibility regulations.

DNS has requested the information under the Freedom of Information legislation, however, DWP has cited the information related to the “formulation and development” of government policy.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal Credit helps millions of people every year and it is vital that it can be accessed by all who need it.

“Universal Credit already complies with expected WCAG, however, the independent audit will help to ensure that the department continues to do so as it develops further and to identify any areas of improvement where necessary.”

Read more: Senior civil servants told to get to grips with AI and cloud computing

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