Chatbots on council websites

I recently blogged about some personal research that I’d carried out to help identify which councils in the UK and Ireland are using webchat and chatbots.

In this blog post I will share some additional research I have done on chatbots. Nothing very ground breaking, but I hope it will help councils who are beginning their chatbot journey and want to find out more. I have created a new Airtable which lists all councils currently using chatbots.

A very big thank you to localgov colleagues who got in touch and helped me to fill in some gaps where I’d missed councils that are using chatbots. The problem is that chatbots aren’t always displayed on every page of a council website, so I can’t be 100% certain of capturing all of them. I checked out likely locations, such as on the home page, contact us, plus possible service pages (council tax, waste and recycling, benefits etc). I still don’t think I’ve captured all examples and welcome further input from localgov colleagues.

Availability of chatbots on a website

Are chatbots added to all web pages?YesNo
Number of councils24 (49%)25 (51%)

About half of councils with chatbots have chosen to place them on all web pages and half only on the service pages that they relate to. Take up of a chatbot is probably improved by being on all pages but if it can’t adequately answer service sitewide queries then its not worth adding across the site.

Chatbot help pages

Is a chatbot help page provided?YesNo
Number of councils24 (49%)25 (51%)

I’d expected to find more examples of help pages on chatbots. About half choose to include a help page, but the content of these is quite variable.

Relatively few councils explain why they have introduced chatbots, what they cover and how they can be used. As councils are often trialling chatbot functionality I think that this content is important and helps to promote its use. Examples of best practice on this include Cheshire East Council, Pembrokeshire County Council and Lewes and Eastbourne Councils. I particularly like Pembrokeshire County Council’s ‘Reasons to try Penfro’, which details the potential benefits of using their chatbot.

In other cases information about chatbots focusses on potential accessibility and personal data issues. I would argue that information relating to accessibility or personal data should be covered by all councils using chatbots.

Liverpool City Council clearly explains the accessibility status of their chatbot. My only criticism would be that the accessibility statement for their chatbot was last reviewed in October 2021 and probably needs to be updated.

An example of best practice on the data aspect of chatbots is Aberdeen City Council, who explain how they will use any personal data given by customers whilst interacting with a chatbot.

Chatbot title

Chatbots are variably presented by councils as digital assistants, smart assistants, web assistant, virtual agents and so on. It would be good for consistency if councils could agree on one title which best describes the work of a chatbot, but I doubt that will happen.

Chatbot name

Several councils has chosen to give their chatbots a name, perhaps to personalise them and make them more approachable. My favourite names are Oggie at Bridgend County Borough Council and Mona, a bilingual chatbot (Welsh/English) from the Isle of Anglesey. The chatbot at Telford & Wrekin Council appears to have a split personality, being variously known as TelfBot and Tom.

Images on chatbots at Telford & Wrekin Council.

Chatbot service topics

One of the key purposes of a chatbot on council website is to try to answer frequently asked questions. This helps to reduce the load on a customer services team but also helps customers by saving them the time and effort of phoning up or trying to find an answer on the website.

In this section I have identified the main services that councils have signposted on their chatbots. Waste and recycling is the most popular service in this respect, largely because it is the service that perhaps generates the most queries from customers. Council tax, benefits, planning and parking are also popular chatbot service topics.

I was pleased to see that a few councils have added in Cost of living support, recognising it as a growing need. Chatbots should be regularly reviewed to make sure that the information that they provide is up to date and relevant. I was a little surprised, for example, to see COVID-19 still being listed as a topic.

Further information on chatbots

If you are considering adding a chatbot to your council’s website I would thoroughly recommend reading about the Local Digital project on Chatbots and AI. The project lead on this was Neil Lawrence, now a Product Owner at Placecube (see video below).

Other useful sources of information include:

Webchat and chatbots on council websites

My personal research of council websites and content management systems that they use has been extended to include the use of webchat and chatbots.

I reviewed every council website individually as I couldn’t find any tools or websites to help to detect webchat or chatbots. I checked the homepage, contact us, council tax and waste and recycling pages of each council as these seemed to be the most likely places to find webchat and chatbot services. It is possible that I have missed some, so if you spot any gaps please let me know.

In most cases councils either choose to use webchat or a chatbot – or they choose not to use either. Some councils, however, choose to use chatbots which pass off to a human being, usually to a customer services advisor, via webchat. This is perhaps the best of both worlds as bots can’t always provide a full response.

I have added details of councils using webchat and chatbots to an updated version of Airtable.

Below are details of the number of councils using webchat or chatbots by country. The use of these services is currently relatively low across UK and Ireland. I would expect, however, that the use of chatbots will increase over time, replacing the use of webchat.

CountryCouncils using WebchatCouncils using Chatbots
Northern Ireland11
United Kingdom and Ireland4449

The name given to a chatbot varies from council to council. Some call them chatbots while others refer to them as digital, smart or virtual assistants, or even as an artificial intelligence service. Some consistency on the naming of the service across councils might be useful. In one council it was introduced as a smart assistant and then as a chatbot. In another council it was referred to as both a smart assistant and as a virtual assistant.

Some councils have decided to give their chatbot a name, perhaps in an attempt to give it a personality or make it feel less robotic. My favourite names are Oggie at Bridgend County Borough Council and Mona, a bilingual chatbot (Welsh/English) from the Isle of Anglesey.

Chatbot nameCouncil
AB-1Aberdeen City Council
AbbotArgyle and Bute Council
AiDACheshire West and Chester Council
AimeeRother District Council
AlfieOadby & Wigston Borough Council
AmiStockport Metropolitan Borough Council
BasilCoventry City Council
BerkleyWest Berkshire Council
BethTorfaen County Borough Council
BOBBroxbourne Council
BOBiCardiff Council
BobbieBreckland Council
BrenDABrent Council
CeciliaCheshire East Council
ELLISLewes and Eastbourne Councils
Ker-KnowCornwall Council
MaxLewisham Council
MaxSwindon Council
MonaIsle of Anglesey
MontyMonmouthshire County Council
OggieBridgend County Borough Council
OwlbotLeeds City Council
PenfroPembrokeshire County Council
RiaDerry City and Strabane District Council
SamLichfield District Council
SOBOTSouthampton City Council
Sur-iSurrey County Council
TomTelford & Wrekin Council
WALISWalsall Council

CMS used by Irish Local Authorities

I decided this week to extend my review of CMS used by local authorities to include councils in Ireland. This was prompted by Tipperary County Council being named as the first local authority in Ireland to be built using LocalGov Drupal. Their new site is due to be launched next week. I hadn’t really ever looked at council sites on the Emerald Isle before, so found it fascinating to check them out.

My immediate impression was that many sites appeared to look quite dated and in need of a refresh. Not all sites, but enough to suggest that perhaps councils could usefully take the opportunity to review the CMS that they are using and consider the potential benefits of using LocalGov Drupal.

I have added the newly reviewed Irish sites to a fresh version of Airtable covering local authority CMS in UK and Ireland.

This has resulted in Drupal being listed as the most popular CMS in the UK and Ireland. Drupal and pTools appear to be the most popular CMS for building council websites. There are a fair number though that I couldn’t identify the CMS, but I suspect that they might also have been built using pTools. If anybody can help to confirm the CMS used for the ones I couldn’t identify I would be very grateful.

I have also created a map of local authorities in Ireland.

CMS used by local authorities in the UK

Further to my previous blog posts on CMS in English Local Authorities and CMS used by Scottish Local Authorities I have now created a map showing CMS used in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately I had to start from scratch again so this took quite a long time and was a bit laborious, but I hope it will prove useful. I have ordered the map by web content management system. I have listed selected the most used CMS and then added a catch all for the remaining CMS. There are just so many different CMS that its impossible to plot them all as separate sections on Google maps. I only found seven local authorities where I couldn’t detect the CMS that they use. If anyone can help with any of these please contact me via Twitter. Equally if you find any errors please do let me know.

Local authority boundaries used in the map were sourced from the Office for National Statistics licensed under Open Government Licence v.3.0. Many thanks to the ONS for sharing such a useful map.

I’m still planning to create a separate map for CMS used by Welsh local authorities as I promised I’d do this in a previous blog post. Then I think I’ll move onto a new topic and I have some really good ideas on what to focus my personal research, that I think will be very interesting to work on. Watch this space!

CMS used by Scottish Local Authorities

Further to my previous blog post on CMS in English Local Authorities I have created a map showing CMS used in Scottish Local Authorities. In due course I’ll also look to do the same for Welsh Local Authorities and then hopefully a combined UK CMS map. These maps are very much a first draft and I’ll look to make improvements over time.

I’ve managed to identify most CMS used by Scottish Local Authorities. There is now just one gap, namely Clackmannanshire. If anyone knows what content management system this council uses then please let me know (if they use a CMS of course).

CMS used by English local authorities

I have been reviewing CMS used in local government across the UK for the last three years. I’ve shared this personal research with the LocalGov Drupal project and more recently with Dave Briggs, who has carried out some research of his own. This reinvigorated my interest in this subject so I decided to map the CMS used by councils to better understand the geographical spread. To date I have done this for English local authorities, but I’d like to extend it to all UK local authorities if I can find Wales and Scotland authorities in a mapping format (ideally KML).

When I started using web content management systems twenty years ago the majority of councils used proprietary or licensed software. The use of open source was quite marginal and dare I say seemed an option of last resort. I certainly would not have been brave enough in those days to use an open source CMS. How things have changed! Now more and more councils are using open source, the two main ones being Drupal and Umbraco. At Bracknell Forest we started using Drupal 4 years ago and have not looked back. The absence of licensing costs means that any budget can be focussed on developing new functionality and improving customer experience.

When I started using Drupal I could see the opportunities of working with other councils to develop a shared local gov Drupal distribution. Sadly at the time collaboration in local government digital was in its infancy and noone seemed that interested in exploring the opportunities. That all changed when Will Callaghan tweeted about councils working to together to build websites, rather than constantly reinventing the wheel. Will’s efforts and persistence resulted in funding from the MHCLG to make LocalGov Drupal a reality. The growth has been phenomenal (due in most part to the boundless enthusiasm of Will Callaghan, Finn Lewis and countless others) and in the space of what seems a very short time 22 councils are now actively using or about to use LocalGov Drupal.

The map shows that a myriad of CMS are used across England. The leading proprietary CMS providers, Jadu and GOSS dominate much of the landscape. Amongst open source CMS providers, Drupal is used by more councils, but Umbraco has a wider geographical presence. It will be interesting to see how this changes over the next couple of years as LocalGov Drupal gains traction and more councils join the revolution. I don’t use that word lightly here, it is a revolution and one which will undoubtedly bring enormous benefits. The roadmap for delivering improved website functionality for councils using LocalGov Drupal is starting to take shape and it will undoubtedly transform and improve service delivery and customer experience.

I don’t think it is unfair to say that council websites have remained much the same over the last ten years. The offering has been static for too long and that has to change as people’s expectations of modern websites has risen dramatically over this period. Design wise council websites appear to be much of a muchness, with a GOV.UK influenced design attempted by many. I would like to see this change, for council websites to incorporate far greater functionality and provide a better customer experience, but also to present a sense of place to better promote and celebrate the communities and residents that they serve.

If you spot any mistakes on the map or want to suggest any updates then please do get in contact.

A review of cookie consent on council websites

Earlier this year I reviewed cookie consent on our public website. This was in advance of an audit of the council by the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office). I discovered that whilst we met most of the requirements, we fell short of full compliance. This came as a bit of a surprise and it spurred me into changing our approach in advance of the ICO audit. I wrote about what I did next on our Digital Services team blog.

I also checked what other councils were doing to try to find some best practice. I found a few good examples, but in general the experience I found wasn’t that great. So I decided to do some wider personal research into cookie consent on council websites.   

The background to cookie consent

The Cookie Law started as an EU Directive adopted by all EU countries in May 2011. It gave individuals rights to refuse the use of cookies that reduce their online privacy. Each country then updated its own laws to comply. In the UK the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations were updated.

The initial guidance around cookie consent was rather vague and confusing. As a result websites met compliance but often failed to safeguard privacy.

In most cases websites added some JavaScript to display a banner when a page is first loaded. The banner would encourage users to continue and accept the cookies on the site. Websites encouraged users to sort out cookies by changing their browser settings. Unfortunately, the average user didn’t have the knowledge, inclination or the time to do this. As a result, most users accepted cookies to continue to use the website.

Cookie guidelines have changed

The good news is that the guidance around cookie compliance is now less ambiguous. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has published guidelines on how website owners must comply. The key elements of the guidance are that website owners need to:

  1. Tell people the cookies are there
  2. Explain what the cookies are doing and why
  3. Get a user’s consent to store a cookie on their device
  4. Make sure users have the means to enable or disable non-essential cookies and make this easy to do

It is the latter guideline that is the real game changer with regards to cookie consent. Website owners now have to provide functionality to enable or disable non-essential cookies. Non-essential cookies have to be withheld on a website before a user has made a choice on whether to accept them.

Privacy matters

The changes outlined above should help to improve the privacy of users online. But, this won’t happen overnight and it needs website owners to take some action. Website owners owe it to their users to review and improve their approach to cookie consent. The ICO provides extensive guidance and it should form the starting point of any review.

Website owners also need to consider the user experience of cookie consent. They need to review the approach taken and add information written in plain English.

Reviewing cookie consent across local government

I reviewed cookie consent by checking every council website in the UK (408).  I wanted to find best practice and review cookie consent across the sector. Here are the headline figures:

Cookie guidance Number of councils meeting the guidance
Overall percentage
Tell people the cookies are there 405 99.26%
Explain what the cookies are doing and why 400 98.04%
Get the person’s consent to store a cookie on their device 307 75.24%
Make sure users have the means to enable or disable non-essential cookies and make this easy to do 146 35.78%
Cookie guidance score (0-4) Number of councils Overall percentage
0 3 <1%
1 4 <1%
2 95 23.34%
3 162 39.70%
4 144 35.88%
My research reveals that around a third of councils are compliant. The rest have some work to do to review and improve cookie consent. I suspect that councils may not have revisited cookie consent since the guidelines changed.

User experience is the main thing that concerned me about cookie consent. The user experience of cookie consent is variable and needs attention. On many websites the cookie policy is not referenced from the cookie banner and users have to search for it. Information about cookies should all be in one place to help users to make an informed decision.

Other user experience issues that I found included:
  • referencing the cookie policy from the cookie banner, but not linking to it
  • the cookie banner taking too long to load, often because other popups were also loading
  • poor colour contrast on cookie links on cookie banners, making them difficult to read
  • adding cookie details in a PDF rather than listing them on a page
  • providing insufficient detail about the cookies used on the website

Cookie compliance tips


To conclude here are my top ten cookie consent tips:

I am happy to share individual results with local authorities. If this is of interest please contact me. I will aim to review cookie compliance in local government in a year’s time to find out what progress has been made.

Council Accessibility Pages and Statements

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, came into force on 23 September 2018. It aims to ensure that public sector websites and mobile apps are accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities. It specifies that public sector websites will need to meet accessibility standards and publish an accessibility statement.

In November 2018 the Government Digital Service (GDS) advised that they were working on a model accessibility statement for public sector website owners. This was due in the New Year but so far has not been published. Like other local authority digital managers I have already taken some action and added an accessibility statement to our website. Aware that it wasn’t that great I thought I’d spend a little time checking other council websites for any best practice about how to write accessibility statements. As I struggled to find anything meaningful I decided to carry out some personal research out of work hours and reviewed accessibility pages and accessibility statements for all councils in the UK (over 400 websites). I have always had a keen interest in finding out what other councils are doing and how their websites are developing, so this was also a good opportunity to update my knowledge.

My findings are outlined in this blog post. What I discovered was that very few if any councils have so far produced a meaningful accessibility statement. This wasn’t a great surprise as there hasn’t so far been any great encouragement for councils to do this.  What did come as a surprise was that accessibility pages on council websites generally appear to be out-of-date or inadequate. I was surprised that web accessibility isn’t given greater prominence and attention on council websites. If councils are putting effort into improving the accessibility of their websites, then they are underselling the work that they are doing by not updating their accessibility pages or making them hard to find.

I hope that this blog post will encourage local authorities to review their accessibility pages. It is in no way meant to run down the hard work that councils are doing on web accessibility, but I do think that there is work to be done across the sector with regards to the range and usefulness of information provided. I will focus on the wider picture and will promote good practice, but I have no intention of naming and shaming specific councils. I don’t see that I have any right to do this or indeed think that there is any value in doing so.

How many websites have an accessibility page?

Pie chart showing council websites with an accessibility page. 86% do and 14% of councils don't have an accessibility page.I checked each council website to try to find an accessibility page. I started on the homepage, where I expected to find a link to an accessibility page, either in the header or the footer.

If this failed I searched for accessibility on a council’s website. From this I found that 14% of council websites don’t appear to have an accessibility page. If they do, then it is pretty hidden and it is shouldn’t be.

I expected to find a link to an accessibility page on all council websites and was surprised when I couldn’t find one. A few of those without an accessibility page did present accessibility features, such as providing the ability to change font sizes and a colour scheme.

How easy is it to find the accessibility page?

Pie chart showing how easy it is to find the accessibility page. On 72% of council sites it is easy and on 28% of sites it isn't easy to find.It should be easy to find the accessibility page. The prime location is the first link in the header, but anywhere in the header or footer should make it easy to find. I certainly didn’t expect to search for the accessibility page or to find it in the help section.

I found that it was easy to find on 72% of local authority sites. I had to use the search to find the accessibility page on 11% of websites.

How many websites have an Accessibility Statement?

Websites with an Accessibility Statement. 14% do and 86% don't.I didn’t expect to find many Accessibility Statements as full guidance for this hasn’t been issued by central government. I was surprised to find that 14% of councils have an Accessibility Statement. However, many of these can’t really be proper statements as they just contain basic details about accessibility features. I suspect some have just renamed their accessibility page as an Accessibility Statement. Nice try but I certainly wasn’t fooled!

One site proudly announces that the website doesn’t have a separate accessibility statement because they have tried to design the website to be as accessible and usable as possible for every user. That is entirely laudable but I’m sorry you now need to provide an Accessibility Statement!

Less than a handful of council websites currently contain all the key elements of an Accessibility Statement, which should:

  • list any inaccessible parts of the website or app
  • show how people with access needs can get alternatives to content that’s not accessible
  • provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues
  • provide information on the enforcement procedure if people are not happy with the response
  • be published in a fully accessible form
  • follow a consistent format
  • be updated annually

Let’s have a closer look at the first three of these requirements.

How many councils list inaccessible parts of a website or app?
Websites detailing inaccessible parts of a website or app. 5% of council websites do and 95% don't detail accessibility issues.

At present only a small number of websites specifically list inaccessible parts of a website or app. Issues raised cover accessibility issues with specific content formats such as videos, PDFs and maps. A bigger issue relates to third party applications. Some councils demonstrate that they have reviewed their wider website estate and list accessibility issues on specific third-party websites or applications. Some take ownership of accessibility issues and state that they are working with suppliers to put things right. A few councils, however, state that they aren’t responsible for the accessibility of third-party websites and applications.

How many councils provide alternatives to content that’s not accessible?

Pie chart showing percentage of councils providing content in alternative formats.

Only 5% of councils currently provide alternatives to content that is known not to be accessible. Alternatives quoted include large print, Braille, audio cassette and CD. Alternatives used to be regularly offered in the days when print rather than online was more readily available.

The demand for alternative accessible formats can be significantly, though not completely, reduced if the information provided is:

  • written in plain language
  • as concise as possible
  • designed to be as legible as possible

How many websites provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues?

Pie chart showing percentage of councils providing contact details to report issuesForty per cent of councils provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues. The contact point tends to either be a generic customer services or web team email. There are few examples of forms set up to capture specific feedback or issues.

Websites should actively encourage feedback on accessibility and there really is no excuse for not including details of who to contact.

Good examples of council accessibility pages and statements

These are the accessibility pages and statements that for me stood out from the rest:

  1. Blackpool Council
  2. Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council

There were others that impressed me in terms of approach and content, but they unfortunately hadn’t been updated for 2 or more years.

How can councils improve their web accessibility content

To conclude this blog post I’d like to share some thoughts about how councils can improve the range of information that they provide about web accessibility. I suspect that the catalyst to producing meaningful Accessibility Statements will happen when the GDS (Government Digital Service) issues a model statement.

  1.  Review your accessibility content

    The best advice I can give to councils is simply to revisit their accessibility pages. Many are clearly out of date and have not been checked for years. It was quite easy to identify out of date content because of references to:

    a) Out of date web browsers and operating systems

    I found plenty of references to IE6, but more worryingly to IE4 (released in 1997) and Netscape Navigator (released in 1994). I also found a few references to Windows XP (support for this operating system ended in 2014). One council warns users that ‘Global internet corporations such as Google and Facebook are already taking measures to de-support Internet Explorer 6.’ 3 years ago this advice might have been useful, but not anymore.

    b) Old versions of the WCAG guidelines

    WCAG 2.1 should be referenced on accessibility pages as this is the current version of the guidelines. Many sites correctly mention it but I did find a significant number that quote version 2.0 (published in 2008) and even version 1.0 (published in 1999.)

    c) Last published dates

    The clearest indication of out of date content are last published dates. I found several dating back to 2015 and 2016.

  2. Set a regular review date for accessibility content

    Having reviewed your accessibility content make sure that you set a regular review date for it and update it annually. Include it in your website content review programme and treat it in the same way that you would any other content on your website.

  3. Think beyond accessibility software

    Many councils have invested in accessibility services such as Browsealoud and Readspeaker, or accessibility features provided by the web content management software used (Jadu is a good example here).  These products help to improve the experience for users by enabling users change to change site settings (for example text size and colour contrast) enable text to speech and provide language translation.

    These products are useful, though improvements to browser technology mean that many of these services can be accessed by users for every website that they visit, not just yours. People with accessibility needs can adjust their devices to access your website before they visit and so may not need to use the add on software that you provide.

    Adding accessibility software doesn’t automatically make your website fully accessible. It can complement the work that you are doing to improve the accessibility of your website, but it doesn’t replace it. Many councils use their accessibility pages to promote the accessibility software that they use and offer no other useful information about how accessibility is being managed and improved on the website. My advice is to think beyond the accessibility software that you provide, detail your approach to accessibility, detail known issues and explain how users can get in contact to report issues.

Ten top tips for designing an accessible council website

There are two things in my work life that I am passionate about – website accessibility and building effective council websites. So I thought I’d write a blog post that combines both of these passions, particularly as I believe that website accessibility is fundamental to building an effective website. This blog post is aimed at digital professionals in local government but what it covers is relevant to anybody who is building or has responsibility for managing a website.

What is web accessibility and why is it important?

Web accessibilityWeb accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with and can contribute to the Web. The Web is now a fundamental part of our daily lives and a key resource for education, government, commerce, health care and more. It is essential that the Web is accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with disabilities.

As more and more services become ‘digital by default’ we have a responsibility for making sure that they are designed to be accessible to all. If we don’t we will be excluding people with disabilities from accessing our services and making our websites inhospitable places to visit.

Web accessibility is also important from a business perspective. Websites that are accessible to people with disabilities will also perform better for all visitors. Research by SOCITM, the representative body for public service ICT professionals, found that the performance on a number of tasks on council websites was 41% better on the accessible sites than the rest. SOCITM have said that its research suggests “a significant relationship between the accessibility of the websites for people with disabilities and the more general usability of the websites for everyone.” Put simply, web accessibility matters and we need to take it seriously.

Disability infographic - source: Usablenet

Disability infographic – source: Usablenet


Why do council websites need to meet accessibility guidelines?

Nobody should be excluded from accessing services online. To do so would represent a breach of the Equality Act 2010.

All government websites, whether built for central or local government, need to meet or exceed level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. These guidelines explain how to make websites accessible for people with disabilities.

How accessible are council websites?

Pie chart showing the accessibility of council websites

The accessibility of council websites across the UK currently leaves a lot to be desired. In 2015 the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) carried out a review into the accessibility of 407 council websites. Overall, 176 councils (43%) were rated by the DAC as satisfactory, but only three sites out of this total were rated very good. Seven sites (2%) were rated inaccessible and another 225 sites (55%) were rated poor.

The results of the review make it clear that in general local authorities need to take web accessibility more seriously. Over half of the councils in the UK are potentially failing to meet legal requirements but perhaps more importantly they are failing to make their websites accessible for their respective disabled residents.

What can councils do to make their websites accessible?

The starting point is for councils to acknowledge that web accessibility is an essential requirement and one that needs ongoing attention. To help councils to meet this challenge I have identified ten tips for designing an accessible council website:

  1. Understand the difficulties experienced by disabled web users

    The only true way to understand web accessibility is to experience some of the issues that disabled users have to endure on a day to day basis. My first experience of this was on a visit to the RNIB where a blind web user demonstrated how he used a screen reader to visit websites. I was shocked at just how frustrating this can be on a poorly developed website and amazed at the patience that the web user showed as thousands of web links were read out to him at lightning speed. This experience ignited my passion for getting web accessibility right.

    There are a number of ways that you can better understand the difficulties experienced by disabled web users. One of the best ways is to get in contact with local disability groups and ask to meet up with members to discuss their web accessibility experiences and challenges. An alternative is to contact organisations that provide web accessibility services, such as the Shaw Trust, the Digital Accessibility Centre and the RNIB. These organisations can provide help and advice, training and web testing services.

  2. Raise awareness of accessibility amongst internal audiences and particularly to senior managers

    Raising awareness of web accessibility throughout the council will help to reduce issues arising and ensure buy in from senior managers. It will help, for example, to ensure that content is provided in accessible formats and help to avoid inappropriate purchases of inaccessible third party web applications.

    One way to raise awareness is to develop a simple online training session that all staff can access to improve their understanding of web accessibility. Another way is to brief procurement staff to make sure that web accessibility issues are considered when purchasing any new web based application. Web managers also should devote time to briefing senior managers and helping them to appreciate the business benefits of tackling web accessibility.

  3. Design in accessibility at the beginning of a website

    It is possible to fix accessibility issues on existing websites, but this can be a long and arduous task, particularly if a council is using proprietary software such as a web content management system. My advice is to carry out a full review of web accessibility and determine whether it is feasible to resolve major issues. If it is then put together a programme of work to fix accessibility issues and work meticulously and patiently through this, testing as you go along to assess your progress. If it isn’t feasible to retro fix web accessibility issues then consider carrying out a website redevelopment. Failure to meet web compliance can help to build a business case for website redevelopment particularly as there is a legal requirement to meet web accessibility standards. 

    If you are using external suppliers to assist with your redevelopment then make sure that you check their accessibility credentials before employing them. Most web design and development agencies will claim to have an understanding of web accessibility, but make sure that you challenge this thoroughly during the procurement phase. Beware suppliers who offer to do the minimum needed to meet accessibility standards or suggest that this can be sorted out by simply plumbing in some external web accessibility services.

  4. Build accessibility into criteria for procurement

    As mentioned above procurement is a key phase in your web accessibility journey. Choosing the right supplier is critical otherwise you may design in accessibility issues rather than avoiding them. Make meeting WAI AA accessibility compliance a key requirement but don’t stop there. Ask suppliers to provide examples of websites that they have built to demonstrate how they have tackled web accessibility – and then test those websites to confirm that they are compliant. Beware suppliers who simply claim that web accessibility issues have been introduced by local authorities after the website build. There will certainly be issues introduced after the build has been completed, but it should be fairly easy to spot issues that suppliers themselves have built into website templates.

  5. Make accessibility a key responsibility of all members of your web team

    Web accessibility is more than just a set of technical issues, so don’t confine responsibility for it to the technical member(s) of the team. Accessibility issues can be added in through content and design, so make sure that every member of your web team fully understands web accessibility. Invest in training where you can and if you are the manager make sure that you inspire your team to keep their knowledge up to date and become champions of web accessibility. Recruit people who have an appreciation of and passion for accessibility and make sure that the responsibilities for it are clearly referenced in their job descriptions.

  6. Select a range of automated tools to assist with reviewing accessibility

    There are a wide range of tools to use to help you to assess and manage web accessibility. Many of these are free and they will help to save you a great deal of time. Council websites are generally large websites containing several hundred pages (if not thousands in some cases), so manual checking really isn’t an option. Automated testing will help to identify issues that occur across the whole website or just on specific page types. Free examples include Wave, AChecker and Cynthia Says and paid for examples include Powermapper and AccessIN.

    There are also a range of paid for web accessibility services that are available which can automatically alert you to issues as they occur. The value of these services is that they help you to fix issues in a timely way. Examples include Sitemorse and Siteimprove.

  7. Complement automated testing with real life accessibility testing by disabled web users

    Automated testing is useful but it can never be 100% accurate and it may not always reveal issues that can affect disabled users. So I would always recommend that you complement automated testing with real life testing by disabled users. Organisations such as the Shaw Trust, DAC and RNIB provide comprehensive testing services that cut across a wide range of disabilities, using a variety of assistive web technologies. If you can’t afford paid for testing then I would recommend approaching local disability groups whose members may well be more than happy to volunteer their help.

  8. Consider the accessibility of your third party web applications

    Sorting out web accessibility on the council’s website is important but it is not the end of the story. Most council websites use a wide range of third party web applications to support services such as planning, payments, bookings and mapping. These applications also need to meet web accessibility guidelines otherwise disabled users will fail to complete the task(s) that they have set out to complete when visiting your website.

    Third party website applications pose a major challenge for local authorities as resolving issues is in the hands of suppliers. One way to reduce these issues is to build accessibility into the criteria for procurement. This will help when purchasing new external services but not help with existing suppliers unless contracts are periodically reviewed and accessibility can be set as criteria for renewal.

  9. Build accessibility checks into the publishing process

    Once your new site is live you will need to actively build in accessibility checking into the publishing process. It is very easy to import in accessibility issues through content, either by importing spurious code or by failing to make content accessible. Importing Microsoft Word content and failing to tag PDF documents are responsible for many of the web accessibility issues arising from content.

    Where possible I would advise that you build accessibility checks into the publishing process to ensure that issues are considered and tested before they go live. This can be done manually and assisted by the use of checklists to remind web content authors of what to consider. A good example of a checklist is Userium.

    I would also recommend using content standards to reinforce best practice and help to avoid accessibility issues. For example check out the LocalGov Digital Content Standards.

  10. Carry out regular web accessibility testing

    My final tip is to carry out regular testing of your council website. Testing should be considered an ongoing task and requirement to prevent major accessibility issues from occurring. Failing to complete regular testing is a key reason for the poor state of web accessibility across local authorities. Testing can often be seen as a one off task, done at the start of a new website and then forgotten about until the next website redevelopment. The challenge is to keep the momentum going and not to lose sight of web accessibility.

    Using external website accreditation services (such as provided by the Shaw Trust, DAC and RNIB) can certainly help to keep your focus on this challenge. But beware of treating website accreditation like an annual car MOT. If issues arise they need to be dealt with in a timely way and not left until the next yearly inspection.

I hope that these tips will encourage you to take a fresh look at the web accessibility of your council website. If you have any further tips to contribute please add your comments below. I’d be particularly interested to hear about how you deal with web accessibility issues or if you have any other suggestions for useful web accessibility tools or testing techniques.