Logius international seminar 2018: the importance of digital inclusion

Our fast-changing and increasingly digital society offers many possibilities to make life simpler. But not everybody benefits from this equally. A large group of citizens is unable, or finds it very hard to cope with the digital world and is in danger of getting left behind. Logius therefore intends to develop its standards and services in such a way as to ensure that all citizens are able to fully interact with digital government services. For this purpose, Logius organised the international seminar ‘Usability & Accessibility: Let’s include all!’ on Thursday 4 October 2018. Almost 70 representatives of European public ICT organisations gathered in the Peace Palace in The Hague to exchange knowledge on this subject.

 

Digital inclusion kick-off by state secretary Knops

State secretary Raymond Knops of the Interior and Kingdom Relations opened the seminar, emphasising the importance of European cooperation. ‘When it comes to digital inclusion, we have work to do. Because realistically, not everyone who wants to, is able to deal with the challenges of the digital age. So we have to remove obstacles, to make the use of digital information technologies as user-friendly as possible. I believe we should work together on this, exchanging ideas on how we improve public services and bridge the digital divide.’ The state secretary already has international consultations with countries like Finland, Estonia and France. Organising international conferences would be a step in the right direction, according to Mr Knops.

The state secretary, a former officer in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, referred to the army in his introductory speech, where ‘no one should be left behind’. Knops suggested that there was an analogy with our modern society and the consequences of digitisation. And that governments are duty-bound to help people who for various reasons can’t find their way in de digital world. ‘Online services must be developed to be as smart and accessible as possible, so that everyone can use them. Logius plays a key role in this in the Netherlands. We are always trying to improve our online services. Through courses and support, and with the help of specialized organizations, we want to support everyone that is challenged by the digital society. For example: with courses in public libraries, with more focus on digital literacy in schools and with online exercises.’ The state secretary also addressed the Dutch agenda for digital government and stressed the importance of meetings like the Logius international seminar. ‘After all, together we can achieve more than alone.’

Focusing on the user

In the first session, User centered design of online public services, Bas Kooter (business consultant at Logius) and his colleague Gregory Scholten (product manager) shared their know-how on the Berichtenbox [message box] of MijnOverheid [MyGovernment]. How accessible is this service really? And has the user-friendliness actually improved over the past few years? Scholten presented a case study from 2017: many citizens were fined by the Tax Administration after they missed a message that was sent to their message box. The cause of this was that it had not been pointed out clearly enough on the MijnOverheid website that it is advisable to define an e-mail address. ‘We tried to solve this with a new activation process,’ said Scholten. ‘In this process we explain to the user the importance of notifications on users’ own e-mail address. In this new process they are also assisted step-by-step when they create an account on MijnOverheid. This is where they are told what happens if they do not register an e-mail address.

Another important development, which is linked to this, is the ‘Berichtenbox app’ of MijnOverheid. This app is to make the message box far more accessible, Kooter argued. In response to a question from the audience: isn’t it very inefficient to get an e-mail message telling you that there is a message for you in the message box?, Kooter replied: ‘That has to do with security requirements. But with the app the process will become easier, because the app gives you direct access to your messages in your message box.’

The next speaker was Johan Gustafsson, head of the UX department of Skatteverket, the Swedish tax office. He has a team of 24 employees who study user experience among other things. Over the next few years Skatteverket will make considerable investments in the accessibility of digital government services, and put a great deal of effort into focusing on people with fewer digital skills. Next to creating a better interface and visual designs, Gustafsson advocated involving copywriters. ‘By using simple, but detailed bits of content you can lead people step by step along the digital highway. We call this micro-copy.’ His organisation is also trying to collaborate with other government institutions. Gustafsson: ‘We organise meetings throughout the country that focus exclusively on user-friendliness. The ultimate goal of the Swedish government is that all services use the same approach.’ Finally he addressed the importance of test groups. The service collaborates with organisations that represent people with functional impairments, and also seeks out these target groups on social media.

Accessible government websites

During the second session, Accessibility of government websites, Kristian Mul (product manager at Logius) and Bart Simons (digital accessibility expert at Any Surfer) discussed the developments in the area of accessibility of government websites. Following a European Directive from 2016, legislation has come into force in the Netherlands that makes accessibility of government websites for people with disabilities mandatory. People with dyslexia, colour blindness, hearing and eye conditions must have the same access to government information as people without impairments. This leads to measures such as mandatory text alternatives, simpler layout and being able to use the website exclusively with a keyboard. ‘Better accessibility is good for everybody,’ said Mul, ‘not just for the 4.5 million people in the Netherlands with some kind of impairment and the growing group of older people, but also for people who want to watch a movie on the train (subtitles) or find government information in bright sunlight (contrast).’

Bart Simons from Belgium works for an NGO that offers coaching and training for accessible website construction. Simons is visually impaired, so he is well-placed to focus attention on the importance of accessible websites. He advises governments and is currently studying with a large group of students how many websites in his country actually comply with the guidelines. ‘Ten years ago it was 4%, now the figure is up to 22%. So there is still a lot of work to do.’ What is the biggest problem? Enforcement, said Simons. ‘In Belgium there isn’t a law against putting inaccessible websites online.’

Simons continues to fight for people with impairments. He is trying to convince governments and companies who manage websites that they should take a pragmatic approach. ‘Don’t look at things that are hard to realise. Just try to implement at least one simple, user-friendly modification on your website. Even if it is something as basic as changing the layout so someone with visual impairment can find the information more easily. Don’t try and read all the European directives, because you won’t see the wood for the trees. Hire an expert.’ And finally, set priorities for making your website accessible, Simons suggests. ‘A very important issue for me is the keyboard test. Blind people never use a computer mouse. The test only takes five minutes. You can use it to see if your own website can be used without a mouse. If you can’t, there is something wrong. Then you can start improving the website.’

Accessibility of government documents: the PDF challenge

Hannah Cooper (Government Digital Service, UK) and Josephine Schwebler (CPS-IT consultant with the Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit (BMU), i.e. the German Ministry for the Environment) held a discussion during the last session, Accessible government documents: the PDF challenge, on how you can offer government documents in a user-friendly way. Cooper works for gov.uk, which all 25 UK ministries have joined, and where all citizens can go for all their dealings with the government. The content designer stated that in the future gov.uk intends to offer the least possible number of PDF documents, because they are rarely the optimum format for information that is to be published in an accessible way. ‘PDFs are not easy to find and use, especially for people with impairments.’ For this reason, the British government has provided a tool that should make it possible to upload html documents. In addition, it is no longer possible to publish PDFs in their website. Cooper offers training for working with html documents and organises meetings to make government institutions aware of this.

The German Ministry for the Environment conversely considers it a challenge to make PDF documents fully accessible before they are put online. For this, they have to comply with special UA standards. PDF/UA is an open standard for document exchange, whereby the page layout is fixed. The starting point of PDF/UA is that users can exchange, view and print documents independent from the environment in which they are made, viewed or printed. For this, Schwebler offers quality checks within her ministry.

In the Netherlands, little use is being made so far of PDF/UA documents, explained Han Zuidweg (advisor at Logius). The Platform Rijksoverheid Online (PRO) is the central service where organisations within the Dutch central government can have websites made and managed. The PRO already has the policy that documents in a supplier-dependent format (such as MS Office) can no longer be published on the websites it manages. ODF, PDF and CSV are permitted, though. Currently, it is considering to only allow accessible PDF documents on the websites. This policy is still under development, and is not yet being enforced. ‘PDFs should simply be 100 percent accessible,’ Zuidweg concluded his presentation.

A joint mission

The concluding words of the seminar came from Winfried de Valk, head of Access Services at Logius. He reiterated the continuation of a ‘joint mission’: ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital age. ‘We have heard from very inspired people from various countries that all have ideals,’ he said. ‘And what we are doing is bringing them together, here in the Peace Palace, where countries try to find peaceful solutions.’

Elise Nabbe, Logius (Netherlands)