Council website is only 1% compliant with accessibility rules

Croydon Council has failed to meet its legal obligations to make its website accessible to visually impaired residents, according to an independent survey.

Not very good: the ‘clunky’ Croydon Council website

Regulations passed in 2018 gave Britain’s public organisations three years to ensure that all content published after a set date was fully accessible, allowing websites and mobile apps to be used by as many people as possible, including those with impaired vision, motor difficulties, cognitive impairments or learning disabilities, deafness or impaired hearing.

The deadline for websites to comply with the regulation was September 2020.

But an assessment by document processing firm Codemantra has discovered only 1per cent of Croydon Council’s website complies with the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

Using internationally-recognised accessibility standards, Codemantra checked 701 documents on the Croydon Council website. It found that 697 failed to comply with the standards.

Checking 12,309 pages of the council website that were scanned, the assessment found more than 19,859 errors.

Transformation: Neil Williams has quit his £100,000+ per year job as head of the council’s digital service

Important documents found to be non-compliant on the Croydon Council website included details on the borough’s Family Justice Centre Referral Form.

And this is all despite the council, under then chief exec Jo Negrini, spending millions of pounds on an expensive recruitment spree under a “digital director”.

Neil Williams was put in charge of the council’s new Croydon Digital Service in 2018. He inherited what was acknowledged then to be one of the least user-friendly websites among London local authorities.

The council had recently broken all kinds of data protection laws by off-shoring to India the management and control of its entire database, including personal records and Council Tax accounts.

To fulfil the council’s statutory obligations to those with special educational needs and disabilities – SEND – Croydon launched a Local Offer site which was also found to break the law in several respects.

And it gained national notoriety when it spent at least half a million pounds on its controversially procured, and entirely unnecessary CrapApp, for residents to report fly-tips, missed bin collections and dead animals, which was so bad it had to be scrapped in 2018.

After his arrival at the council, Williams signed a “pledge” in which, basically, he promised to do his job properly: “to transform digital services for residents, putting their needs first and radically improving their experiences of interacting with the council online”.

This was Williams and Negrini’s shared vision of “digital-first”, where as much of the council’s contact with the borough’s residents would be handled remotely, online, with forms on the council website. Vast cost savings were promised…

Despite hiring dozens of staff, many of them on six-figure consultancies, to achieve the cost-savings promised by digital-first, Williams announced he was quitting his council job at the end of last November.

According to Codemantra’s survey, Croydon Council is among dozens of London authorities that are not compliant with UK regulations and globally-recognised accessibility standards, with the error affecting hundreds of documents and forms.

This means that residents who live with visual impairments or reading disabilities are denied access to important information and services and unable to complete forms they cannot read.

“While many councils have adapted websites to comply with digital accessibility regulations, we’ve found that the documents and forms that lie within the webpages have been largely ignored,” Codemantra’s Mark McCallum told Inside Croydon.

“In some cases, councils’ accessibility statements do accept they have failed to make documents accessible – but this hardly helps the website users.

“This failure is akin to providing wheelchair access into a building, but not having an elevator once inside.

“Particularly as covid infections are rising, it is crucial that sight-disabled Londoners are able to access information and find support where they live.”

As well as councils facing potential reputational and legal risks for non-compliance, productivity losses due to excluding individuals with vision impairment or burdening them with unnecessary barriers can be enormous.

According to 2021 data published by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, there are 10,300 people in Croydon Council living with sight loss and 1,825 who are registered blind or partially sighted.

“By addressing all the content on their websites and ensuring it is available to all regardless of disability, local authorities can make their communities a better place and create wider benefits,” McCallum said.

Accessibility testing of council websites was undertaken by codemantra between November 2021 and January 2022. Codemantra uses an AI-driven platform that automates digital document accessibility compliance, and transforms documents into accessible formats.

Inside Croydon invited the council to comment on this latest abject failure, but the propaganda department in Fisher’s Folly failed to respond.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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8 Responses to Council website is only 1% compliant with accessibility rules

  1. Ian Kierans says:

    Croydon Council is not just breaking laws, regulations, procedures and even failing to follow it’s own (incoherent) processes along with breaking new ground in creating misery for those in social housing and private houses. It is breaking new ground in how to create a democratic non democracy without let or hinderance from – well – anyone purported to be appointed to control those areas. Not to mention outright chaos

    Being both IT literate, process literate and disabled I can honestly say it takes some intelligence and a few loose wires to create a system that on the face of it works but apparently can deliver little to any standard.I am minded of those dud packages we had to deal with in the last century. Nice briefcase with a few wires sticking out and it was chaos.

    Just like reporting a road fault or arranging to dig up a section of pavement online. You start it with the location and the map pin then fill out all the details, but what it does not tell you is that when you submit that file the pin goes back to the start (or end) of the road. Oops.

    We wont go into what the Council and developers do when that fiasco happens other than to say well just carry on folks. So what if vulnerable residents are hospitalised as care cant get to them, blocked in folks cant get to work or are late others get tickets for bays suspended at no notice, traffic piles up with tailbacks over a mile – this could be a long list so excetera
    After all it is just a silly little pin on the map – just a bug. Apologies? None. Complaint responses? Hahaha -cue men in white coats!

    No seriously having navigated this excuse of a website I found I had better things to do – always (breathe in – breathe out came to mind)

  2. Chris Flynn says:

    From what I’ve read from accessibility experts, compliance tests are notoriously useless. It seems what is important is talking to a variety of people about their experiences. So whilst I’m not doubting there is significant room for progress (on the speed, for one!), I’m not sure if 1% is the full picture.

  3. Rod Davies says:

    I recall the person who passionately championed accessibility was made redundant by Croydon Council around 2009.
    It wasn’t valued then and probably isn’t valued much now.

  4. Roger Sharp says:

    Yer, yer, yer. Whatever. None of this is acceptable.

    But surely the true villain is central government, who have simply failed to fund properly?

    And from there, everything else has followed.

  5. Ben Welby says:

    Full disclosure – I worked with Neil for many years at the Government Digital Service before he came to Croydon. My day job is supporting governments around the world with the challenge of untangling the things which get in the way of solving these issues.

    This stuff is hard. And while there is no counter to the lead statistic your tone here is to write off CDS despite highlighting the litany of mistakes made before its creation. I know that seems to be your guiding motivation but the ugly face of that is in calling into question the motivation of a team trying to meet our needs. Needs they’ve been trying to meet through a period of utter chaos – this is not 3 years of stability it’s 3 years that you document only too well of shambolic leadership (of both the elected and the appointed), of failed regeneration, of unprecedented pandemic, of changing priorities.

    The strategy prepared for 2019 to 2024 had no clue of what was coming down the track – there can be no doubt that the ambitions and priorities of an in-house team assembled to try and unpick the dreadful tech practices of the past have been quite massively impacted by having to deal with one crisis after another. It doesn’t require much imagination to read between the lines of Neil’s leaving blog post about some of those challenges. I can only doff my cap and give that team a lot of credit for having the resilience to stick around despite all of that – they’re not the architects of the council’s mess.

    As for the meat of the post – the headline figure is dreadful, no debate. But I would really have liked Codemantra to share more about their report because I would have preferred to understand more about their approach than those soundbites before making a further comment. But I can’t find it.

    But getting back to the documents – downloadable files are notoriously awful in terms of accessibility. They can be easily made and appear to solve immediate problems *for government* but that speed almost always overlooks accessibility or their ease of use *for us*. Accessibility needs to be an upfront priority and not an afterthought.

    So well done Codemantra for shining a light onto a very important problem in terms of the addiction of too many public sector organisations to quickly punting a document (whether PDF, doc, xls) onto the internet. But let’s also recognise that they’re a business making a play for entering the UK market so they’re not benevolent observers.

    In web publishing terms the best way to solve this problem is to use HTML rather than documents. It’s a challenge which GOV.UK has wrestled with since its launch.

    I am not surprised that the Croydon website contains inaccessible documents because very rarely has anyone managed to solve it. Maybe it appears to simply be about taking each page and each document and recreating them and republishing them into more accessible formats as documents (before you even get to transforming it into HTML). But that is no small overhead. And because of the distributed nature of content the responsibility for that is going to sit with the teams who curate their content, supported by [Croydon Digital Service} rather than having CDS doing it.

    Helping to achieve that change is then part organisational culture (hard to tackle when everything is as on fire as we know things have been inside Croydon Council), part individual attitude (hard to address when people are fearing for their front-line jobs and everything is as miserable as we know things must be for council staff), and part technical (a longer-term challenge to solve in a period of pandemic reprioritisation and bankruptcy related financial challenges). But above all, it is something that takes time – I don’t think Codemantra are offering a product that simply takes 700 documents and makes them accessible at the click of a button.

    Perhaps what CDS have achieved lands more for me than it does for you because I know from first-hand experience that digital service teams work. So, as a Croydon resident I want nothing except more backing for this team, not less. If the Croydon Digital Service had done nothing else other than LocalGovDrupal I would be the most delighted resident.

    Changing the underlying technology for the council’s website to use a collaborative platform now being co-developed by 24 councils is no small thing, not least for the challenge of increasing accessibility. It is and should be a foundational enabler for good things to follow but it remains to be seen whether, in the midst of all the crises, the leadership of Croydon Council in general, and CDS in particular, is capable of playing their part in continuing what is good work or undoing whatever progress that has been possible.

    • Clearly, Ben, you’ve not heard from other council employees who, under Negrini, were subjected to cut-after-cut while they saw the empire-building going on in the old IT department, which was over-resourced, over-staffed and many of them over-arrogant, “blogging” about their “journeys” and achievements, while actually delivering little that they promised, or was needed.

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