Government still wrestles with digital equity, accessibility
Agencies struggle to provide services for individuals with limited English, digital literacy issues and unreliable broadband or online access, a recent survey found.
Governments at all levels are making strides toward equity and accessibility in their digital services, according to a recent report.
Nearly half (47%) of state and local and 39% of federal respondents said ensuring that constituents of all abilities can easily obtain the information and services they seek is a top priority, according to “Delivering Digital Access and Equity in the Public Sector.”
Almost 70% of respondents from both groups report that their agency has a formal accessibility framework or policy in place for making sure people with physical or mobility disabilities can access what they need. But agencies across the board are not as good at providing services for people with other issues, such as limited English fluency, digital literacy and reliable broadband or digital access, according to the survey from FedScoop/StateScoop and underwritten by EY.
Specifically, nearly double the number of state and local respondents said they have frameworks for language. More state and local respondents also reported having frameworks for people with limited digital literacy and who lack digital access.
Despite the mixed bag of efforts, nearly all respondents reported that leaders are aware of the potential obstacles all or some populations experience.
They all cite funding as the biggest challenge in delivering “an optimal level of accessibility,” the report states. For state and local workers, a lack of dedicated staff and/or skills is the second biggest obstacle, while federal respondents lament legacy technology as a hold-up.
Still, 59% of state and local respondents said their agency has an ongoing innovation process for improving accessibility, the report states. In self-assessing their accessibility performance, 30% of state and local respondents said their agency complies with diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility standards, but only 12% said their agency had enabled barrier-free, equal access to digital products, services and content.
That may be because although respondents said they favor universal design, they also say that meeting regulatory requirements is the primary driver of that approach, which the report states suggests “many agencies may still lag in meeting digital access needs.”
When it comes to call center, phone engagement and in-person engagement, state and local respondents estimated more user satisfaction than federal respondents. Scores were similar for online chat engagement and website resources and forms.
In considering what would be most helpful to improving digital accessibility, state and local respondents preferred technology: 54% cited speech-to-text tools. On the other hand, a little more than half of federal employees surveyed were looking for general accessibility training.
How constituents really feel is up in the air, however, because “around one in four respondents typically said they surveyed different populations about their accessibility needs in the past 12-24 months—suggesting agency leaders may be well served by surveying users more frequently to have a better sense of how well constituents feel they are meeting their accessibility needs,” the report states.
Other tips the report offers for closing the accessibility gap include greater interagency support and public/private coordination, particularly among broadband, software and hardware providers, and more training.
“Federal, state and local respondents said they continue to face several technical, policy and training challenges that could be better met if different groups worked more collaboratively,” the report states.
The survey was conducted online in November 2022 and received responses from 178 prequalified federal, state, county and municipal government leaders, customer experience and IT decision-makers.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
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