Paul T. Jaeger (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Senior Research Associate and EBSCO Fellow, Information Use
Management and Policy Institute
Studying the effectiveness of the federal electronic government (e-government) is very important if the e-government is to mature into a completely functional virtual representation of the federal government providing full democratic participation in cyberspace. In order for the e-government to be wholly democratic, it must be fully accessible to all citizens, including individuals with disabilities. Federal law actually requires that all federal e-government websites provide their information and services in a fully accessible manner, though such universal accessibility is nowhere near the actual situation at this point. Federal agencies have the motivations of the legal mandate of accessibility and the moral imperative to provide equal access to all, but “neither law nor virtue has proven an adequate motivator” (Matthews, 2002a, n.p.). As a result, compliance with the law mandating that individuals with disabilities have equal access to federal electronic and information technologies, such as e-government websites, has been “inconsistent” and “painfully slow” (Matthews, 2002b, n.p.).
A number of comprehensive studies of the federal e-government have endeavored to determine the effectiveness of the federal e-government in the United States, including how accessible the e-government actually is. Given the enormity of the federal e-government and complexity of factors that must be considered, the authors of these studies are, for the most part, making a valiant effort. However, in spite of the ambitious goals of these studies, they do not reveal much useful information about many of the subjects, especially with regard to levels of accessibility. For the most part, these studies discuss accessibility in terms of a checklist, stating that a certain percentage of sites are accessible based on simplistic and insufficient criteria. Until the actual levels and types of accessibility are determined in detail, the true inclusiveness of the federal e-government will not be known. More importantly, if accessibility is not studied sufficiently, there is a genuine risk that the federal e-government will continue to establish itself without taking accessibility needs into account in any meaningful manner, resulting in the current low levels of accessibility being perpetuated indefinitely. The failure to make e-government accessible threatens to lead to a virtual disenfranchisement of individuals with disabilities, paralleling the exclusion faced by individuals with disabilities prior to the implementation of the first disability rights laws (Jaeger, in press).
This article will discuss the importance of studying the federal e-government and how accessible it actually is. The article will then analyze the major studies of e-government in terms of their treatment of accessibility, including methodological problems and issues of accessibility that are not addressed by the surveys. Ultimately, suggestions will be offered that might facilitate better analysis of accessibility in future studies of the federal e-government.
E-government is the use of electronic and information technology to provide government information and services through the World Wide Web. E-government activities are designed to benefit government agencies, businesses, and citizens. At this point, e-government includes the application “of technology, particularly the Internet, to enhance the access to and delivery of government information and services to citizens, businesses, government employees, and other agencies at the federal and state levels” (Hernon, Reylea, Dugan, & Cheverie, 2002, p. 388). E-government initiatives usually involve several types of electronic and information systems, including database, networking, discussion support, multimedia, automation, tracking and tracing, and personal identification technologies (Snellen, 2002). It is not simply based on technology, however, as e-government is “a way of conducting the business of the government—a strategy for delivering more effective and efficient services” (Davies, 2002, p. 72). E-government activities include managerial, consultative, and participatory interactions between citizens, the private sector, and the government (Chadwick & May, 2003).
In spite of numerous issues that still must be addressed (Aldrich, Bertot, & McClure, 2002; Borins, 2002; Jaeger, 2003; Jaeger & Thompson, 2003), the federal e-government of the United States has been making steps toward becoming a functional representation of the government online. A great amount of government information is available through the federal e-government, as are services from a range of federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. Many of these sites have already become “user-friendly, transaction-enabled, and relatively efficient entities” (Salkever & Kharif, 2002). An online presence allows the federal government and its agencies to “connect directly with its citizens and enhance service delivery, provide sustainable economic development, and safeguard democracy” (Toregas, 2001, p. 235).
E-government has great potential to allow citizens to become more involved in government and to be “more informed about government laws, regulations, policies, and services” (Muir & Oppenheim, 2002, p. 175). E-government initiatives can also promote involvement of citizens with the government, enhancing the “degree and quality of public participation in government” (Kakabadse, Kakabadse, & Kouzmin, 2003, p. 47). Most federal agencies have individual websites that offer information and services directly to citizens, including information for research, government forms and services, public policy information, employment and business opportunities, voting information, tax filing, license registration or renewal, payment of fines, and submission of comments to government officials (Larsen & Rainie, 2002). These e-government sites are often viewed by citizens as an important source of reliable information and “objective authoritative sources” (Anderson, 2002, p. 1). Once citizens begin to use e-government services, they tend to continue using e-government (Council for Excellence in Government, 2003).
The federal e-government now includes more than 22,000 websites that contain a total of more than 33 million web pages (Bednarz, 2002). The President’s stated administrative goal for e-government is to make it more “citizen-centered, results-oriented, and business-based” (White House, 2002). In late 2002, the Senate and Congress passed the E-government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347), which is also intended to expand citizen involvement in the e-government. The Act makes “communicating with the public” a primary focus of e-government (Hasson, 2002). The goals of the E-government Act for the improvement of federal e-government include increasing “opportunities for citizen participation in Government,” providing “citizen-centered Government information and services,” and promoting “access to high quality Government information and services” (P.L. 107-347, sec. 2). Clearly, both the executive and legislative branches view e-government as a very significant area for citizen involvement with the federal government.
E-government is already making a sizeable impact on democracy in the United States, changing methods of access to political information and communication about political issues, communication with government officials and elected representatives, and the delivery of government services (Nugent, 2001). In a wide variety of government functions, e-government is quickly becoming “simply the way things are done” (Howard, 2001, p. 6). The capacities of the Internet have permanently altered the entire political process from campaigning to civic engagement (Browning, 2002).
The physical and intellectual access to an object, which is known as accessibility, is of utmost importance to individuals with disabilities. Accessibility allows individuals with disabilities to be able to have use of information and services that is equal or equivalent to the use enjoyed by everyone else. The federal government has passed a number of disability rights laws related to the accessibility of cyberspace or its technology; the most important of these laws is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. § 794d). Section 508, which took effect in June 2001, was intended to address the fact that individuals with disabilities were encountering dramatic accessibility problems with federal government electronic and information technology.
The Section 508 mandate, in relation to federal e-government websites, is clear. In order to comply with Section 508, federal e-government websites must be designed to be as accessible as possible for individuals with disabilities. Section 508 requires members of the public with disabilities who are “seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data” by other members of the public (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(1)(A)(ii)). Section 508 has forced federal government Webmasters to “think seriously about Web design and usability for the first time” (Robinson, 2002, n. p.). Before the passage of Section 508, few federal government Webmasters “were aware of software programs that read Web pages aloud, let alone the vagaries of this or that screen-reading program’s foibles” (Tang, 2001a, n. p.). As technology has grown more sophisticated, many advances designed to make computers easier to use have “often created barriers for people with disabilities” (Department of Justice, 2001, p. 1). Section 508 is intended to overcome such barriers. Section 508 compels government agencies to comply with the e-government accessibility guidelines and standards issued by the Access Board (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(2)).
Generally, “an information technology system is accessible to people with disabilities if it can be used in a variety of ways that do not depend on a single sense of ability” (Nadler & Furman, 2001, p. 14). Section 508 is intended to “ensure the technologies they [the federal government] procure are accessible” (Access Board, 2002, n. p.). Along with websites, Section 508 also establishes accessibility requirements for software applications, operating systems, web-based information and applications, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, self-contained or closed products, desktop computers, and portable computers—any information technologies that might be used by members of the public or government employees with disabilities (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(6)). There is an exception to Section 508 compliance for materials related to national security and intelligence systems (29 U.S.C. § 794d(a)(5)).
Prior to the passage of Section 508, federal agencies “did not focus on the extent to which their mainstream technology was accessible to persons with disabilities” (Department of Justice, 2001, p. 1). Section 508 is designed to force agencies to focus on accessibility for individuals with all kinds of disabilities. The Section 508 guidelines (available at http://www.section508.gov) specify that e-government websites should be easily navigable for users of voice commands or a keyboard pointer rather than a mouse, should have text tags on media files so that screen readers can describe the files, should avoid using color codes that would be indecipherable to the color blind, and a wide range of other considerations. Ultimately, if the Section 508 guidelines are properly implemented on a website, that e-government site will provide its information and services equally to all users.
There have been a number of reports offering assessment of federal e-government in the past few years. These efforts range from incredibly rudimentary assignments of letter grades without explanation, such as the IT Report Cards issued by Rep. Stephen Horn (R, Calif.), to the more complex, research-based evaluations of e-government that have a stated methodology and approach. The former assessments offer little of practical value for understanding or addressing problems and, as a result, are not of concern to this discussion. For the most part, the academic reports also have limited explanations of methodologies and results in a number of areas, and still “offer a ‘report card’ mentality of assessment” (Thompson, McClure, & Jaeger, 2003, p. 407). The more academic and thorough reports that have discussed accessibility include those by the World Market Research Centre (2001), Stowers (2002), and West (2002). These studies are intended to offer an assessment of federal e-government by analyzing constituent parts and services, such as services provided, privacy, security, languages available, fees, and accessibility. The studies provide charts and rankings, but often with little explanation of the meaning underlying the ranks and percentages. As a result, the studies primarily appear as lists of percentages and rankings for each category that may not reveal much at all about the category. The fact that these studies of e-government address issues of accessibility is a distinguishing factor, though, as some major studies of e-government do not even mention disability or accessibility. For example, a recent, very comprehensive study of eight leading nations in the provision of e-government, including the United States, made no mention of disability or accessibility in the entire study (Booz Allen Hamilton, 2002).
Accessibility is particularly vulnerable to being misunderstood through the report card mentality. Since the time when Section 508 was to have been implemented, several important studies have endeavored to measure how accessible the e-government is. These studies have produced differing findings about how much of the federal e-government is really accessible. In 2001, the World Market Research Centre performed a worldwide survey of e-government, which determined that the United States was the most accessible e-government in the world, offering access for individuals with disabilities on 37% of web pages (World Markets Research Centre, 2001, p. 5). In August 2002, another study found that only 13.5% of the 148 federal websites reviewed were accessible (Stowers, 2002, p. 19). In September 2002, a third study found 28% of the websites to have accessibility features, which was an increase of 1% over the findings of the same study in the previous year (West, 2002, p. 10).
The dramatic differences in the findings of these studies can be accounted for by two factors. As noted previously, there are more than 22,000 federal websites with more than 33 million individual pages (Bednarz, 2002), which greatly reduces the likelihood of the three studies examining many similar pages in their sample groups. Perhaps more significantly, the three studies use different criteria for determining if a website is accessible. None of the studies actually provide results that describe the fully accessible federal e-government websites.
Stowers uses the most basic and insufficient methodology for rating accessibility, performing a Bobby Analysis of websites and declaring those with zero errors to be accessible (2002, p. 19). The Bobby Analysis software (available at: http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp) checks for basic design errors that may limit accessibility. The software, however, is simply not capable of measuring the full range of accessibility and usability concerns that can affect individuals with disabilities who use the site. Though the software is admirable and very useful as a basic tool, the fact that a Bobby Analysis finds zero errors (and thereby the site is “Bobby Approved”) by no means equates to a fully accessible website. Automated compliance-checking tools, such as Bobby, are able to spot potential accessibility problems, but are simply not capable of providing an accurate analysis of accessibility (Matthews, 2002b).
The methodology for both the World Market Research Centre and the West studies are similar, which is not entirely surprising since the author of the West study participated in the World Market Research Centre study (2001, p. 2). In the World Market Research Centre study, a website was accessible if it had “display features that would be helpful to the hearing or visually impaired” (p. 5). A site was considered accessible if it had TTY (Text Telephone) or TDD (Telephonic Device for the Deaf) phone numbers, was “Bobby Approved,” or was in compliance with the accessibility standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (available at http://www.w3c.org) or relevant national laws regarding accessibility (p. 5). There are several problems with this approach. First, hearing and visual impairments are not the only types of disabilities that can result in accessibility problems; individuals with certain mobility and learning impairments, among others, are liable to face significant barriers to accessibility in cyberspace. To be fully accessible, a site needs software that is designed to accommodate the needs of individuals with cognitive disabilities, voice-recognition software for those with mobility impairments, and other features. Second, the study ranked a site as accessible if it evidenced any of the features listed above. If a site has TTY and TDD numbers, but no other accessibility features, it will not be accessible to individuals with any disabilities other than hearing impairments. Nonetheless, such a website would be labeled accessible by the World Market Research Centre study. Third, the final category, compliance with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) or national accessibility laws, is not very clearly defined. The W3C guidelines on accessibility are voluntary standards created to encourage accessibility primarily in private sector websites; as such, national e-government sites may not be likely to use them as a guide for accessibility. For comparison purposes, the use of national laws is also problematic, as laws of different nations differ as to what constitutes disability and accessibility.
The West study uses the same criteria as the World Market Research Centre, but West also adds a fourth element that would make a site considered accessible—“a text version of the site or text labels for graphics” (2002, p. 10). The elements in common with the World Market Research Centre study are vulnerable to the same problems. The fourth element, labeling a site accessible if it has text versions or text labels, is problematic for reasons similar to labeling a site accessible if it has TTY or TDD numbers. If a site is accessible to the visually impaired and no one else, it is hardly fully accessible.
As a result of these methodological issues, the studies offer no information about for whom the websites are accessible, the types of accessibility options available, and the types of web pages that are accessible. By labeling a website accessible if it has some accessibility features or is accessible to individuals with one particular kind of disability, the studies are not revealing whether sites are fully accessible nor the ways in which sites are accessible. These results only demonstrate that a certain percentage of federal e-government websites have some form of accessibility and may be useable depending on the type of disability an individual has. By not explaining the types of e-government sites that are accessible (i.e. home pages but not sub pages, or executive branch sites but not legislative branch sites), the studies are further limiting their utility.
The report card nature of these studies of the accessibility of federal e-government information and services does not provide information about some very important issues. These studies offer no insight into why certain websites are accessible and others are not. Issues like cost, resistance, and lack of understanding play a significant role in determining what websites or pages will be accessible, yet such issues are not considered in these reports. Understanding the reasons why sites are not fully accessible is of vital importance to increasing accessibility. When the reasons for the lack of accessibility are understood, they can be addressed and, hopefully, eliminated. Other research does offer some insights into the reasons for lack of accessibility.
The greatest impediment to Section 508 compliance may be a lack of understanding of what Section 508 requires. As there is no national policy for accessibility to information technology, understanding of accessibility needs and requirements remains generally limited for e-government (Newcombe, 2002). Two years after the Section 508 regulations took effect, most agencies, even if aware of the requirements of Section 508, seem to have little to no idea how to comply with the law or where to find guidance on compliance (Reed, 2003a). As a result, the majority of e-government information and services remain inaccessible and many of the efforts to make e-government accessible evidence a lack of understanding of the needs of individuals with disabilities (Reed, 2003a; Matthews, 2002b).
A few agencies have created e-government sites that are accessible and that offer useful accommodations (Reed, 2003a; Caterinicchia, 2002; Matthews, 2002b). However, such success stories are sadly unique. Most agencies were totally unprepared to deal with Section 508 when it came into effect (Benner, 2001) and have made little progress since. The efforts of some agencies to comply with the requirements of Section 508 have resulted in sites that evidence scant understanding of the law and what it actually requires (Robb, 2001). It has been suggested that agencies may not be provided with sufficient training and guidance regarding Section 508 and its accessibility requirements (Robinson, 2002). Even after the compliance deadline had passed, some agencies were not even clear when they had to be in compliance or thought that the law did not apply to their website (Tang, 2001b). Similarly, some government agencies that have made an effort to comply with Section 508 have proclaimed their websites in compliance, but soon discovered that their sites were still full of accessibility problems (Matthews, 2001a).
Resistance within the federal government to the accessibility mandate has also significantly slowed Section 508 implementation (Jaeger, in press). Although the decentered nature of entities on the Internet can make any type of regulation difficult to implement (Baird, 2002), many federal agencies have demonstrated very high levels of resistance to Section 508 standards. Some agencies have argued against compliance with Section 508 as a waste of money, talent, and time, and other agencies have intentionally made only a limited number of pages Section 508 compliant (McLawhorn, 2001). A distressing number of federal websites have been suspended or shut down permanently to avoid having to meet the accessibility requirements (McLawhorn, 2001). In cases where the pages are removed completely rather than being made accessible, the content of the pages becomes literally inaccessible to all users. In order to try to shift responsibility for accessibility requirements, some agencies have rewritten contracts with technology vendors in an attempt to force all responsibility for Section 508 onto the vendors (Matthews, 2001b). It may even be possible that an agency could intentionally make its website appear to be compliant with Section 508 standards while actually remaining completely inaccessible (Federal Human Resources Week, 2001).
Another significant barrier to compliance with Section 508 is the factor of cost. Section 508 was passed by Congress as an unfunded mandate, meaning that agencies have to meet its requirements without the financial support to comply with its requirements (Robinson, 2002). Many agencies have misinterpreted Section 508 requirements so that there is the impression that Section 508 requires the installation of very expensive assistive technologies in all agency computers (Lais, 2000). The inaccurate fear of Section 508 requiring great expenditures has contributed to the resistance of implementation of Section 508. It is not impossible for Section 508 requirements to lead to significant costs. A few efforts have received publicity for costing a great deal to become compliant with Section 508 (Thibodeau, 2001). However, such expenses are atypical and some software developers, such as Microsoft, are working to make all their products fully compliant with Section 508 (Reed, 2003b). Agencies could save considerable amounts of money by using new website design software that issues alerts regarding accessibility programs and offers suggestions to correct the problems (Matthews, 2002a).
The analysis of these studies in terms of accessibility reveals a number of lessons that can be applied to future research regarding the levels of accessibility of the federal e-government. Future studies should be careful to note the following in the research process and the reporting of the study findings:
These additions would make research regarding the accessibility of federal e-government much more revealing to individuals with disabilities and certainly improve the understanding of the current levels of accessibility. There are likely other necessary categories of data that should be included in thorough studies of the accessibility of the federal e-government. Learning exactly what has been done to try to comply with the accessibility mandate of e-government will help guide efforts to increase accessibility.
Ultimately, accessibility may be such a specialized topic that it cannot be studied at anything above a minimal level in large studies of e-government as a whole. Despite the clear good intentions of the researchers engaged in large scale studies of the e-government, the general studies simply are not providing more than a minimal level of information about accessibility. In order to compile data at a level useful to disability researchers and advocates, it is probably necessary for researchers concerned with issues of accessibility to engage in the study of the federal e-government. At this point, the true level of accessibility of the federal e-government is simply not known. Although most users of the e-government who have disabilities can undoubtedly point to numerous accessibility problems they have had, adequate data has not been collected to reveal how pervasive inaccessibility is.
Researchers attuned specifically to issues of disability and accessibility will be able to address the issues related to accessibility in a much more thoughtful manner. Along with addressing the categories of information suggested above, research could also focus on the reasons for accessibility being or not being available. As there are such a wide range of possible reasons that an agency has not made the effort to make its website accessible, studying the reasons in detail would help researchers and advocates to create solutions to address those reasons. Studies could also focus on success stories. By examining the fully accessible sites in detail, research could gather the ideas and methods of government agencies that managed to develop fully accessible sites. This information could be shared with other agencies to encourage and even help shape their efforts to improve accessibility.
E-government, especially at the federal level, is becoming an increasingly important part of the democratic process in the United States. Equal access to cyberspace is an important new area of concern for social justice where those who are disadvantaged are those “who have fought for civil rights in other areas of our society” (First & Hart, 2002, p. 385). However, most academic discussions of e-government have failed to adequately account for the reasons for limited access to or usage of e-government by certain social groups (Jaeger & Thompson, in press).
Section 508 has created the legal mandate of a fully accessible federal e-government and individuals with disabilities must work to ensure that this legal mandate is fulfilled. The research shows that full accessibility remains very limited; the results of the large-scale studies of federal e-government have emphatically demonstrated the need for detailed study of the accessibility of the federal e-government. However, these studies do not offer enough information so as to help guide efforts to increase accessibility. Researchers specifically concerned with issues of disability and accessibility would likely best perform further studies of e-government that would be useful in efforts to understand and address accessibility problems. This article offers a set of preliminary ideas on what might be included in such studies. Given the increasing amounts of information and services available through the e-government, individuals with disabilities cannot afford to be excluded in any way from the e-government. Studying the levels of accessibility in detail will help provide the information and ideas to address the current lack of full accessibility.
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