(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Make sure that Public Websites are Done Right

Every country has its own stories of huge amounts of public money wasted on services which were never obtained or could have cost much less. What is still little known among the general public is the fact that, unlike in recent years, websites have joined the list of public services which can be very expensive if they aren’t Done Right.

As far as we are concerned here, “Done Right” means both “usable by any citizen, including people with disabilities, no matter which computer and Internet browser they use” and “not wasting taxpayers money”.

This is a very important issue for two reasons. The first is that, apparently, to be an active and empowered citizen one must really go online these days. We are going towards a point where some services will only be available via the Internet. Not accessible or generally unusable public websites will waste more and more people time in the next years if they aren’t managed properly.

The other reason to be concerned is that we are not talking of pocket change here. All governments are already spending a lot of your money on nifty websites and Internet based services.

In May 2006 just revamping the website of the British Department of Trade and Industry(DTI) cost at least 175,000 Pounds! Beside the price, the result was so bad from the accessibility point of view to raise very loud complaints from professional web designers, even after an official explanation from DTI on how the website had been commissioned.

The tourist portal Italia.it was started in 2004. In December 2006 the website cost had already reached several millions Euro (45 according to some sources) but it still contained nothing more than a “coming soon” page, prompting requests for official investigations. When it finally opened, in February 2007, there still were enough doubts on how the portal is managed and its lack of accessibility to prompt the creation of a website fully devoted to investigate and reports on the matter.

Of course, the case of Italia.it is an extreme one and only part of those millions Euro are due to hardware and software choices. The general trend with most public websites, however, is the same worldwide: any Administration must have at least one website (which is a good thing, of course), but this very seldom happens in the right way. In theory, there should be no problems: laws and regulations which specify guidelines for accessibility by disabled users and other requirements of all public websites already exist in several countries.

In practice, very often nobody inside a Public Administration has the will, the technical expertise or the authorization to demand and above all verify that the web design company which won the contract for the official website fulfilled all the relevant accessibility and usability regulations at the smallest possible cost.

All those rules are worthless if the designers and their customers, that is the Public Administrations which need a website, are not held accountable to them. Sometimes this happens even when the initial, official requirements for the website were compliant with such rules. The situation, however, is not going to change soon without real public pressure from voting citizens.

Even ignoring money savings, well done public websites may deeply transform Public Administration, making their services much faster and easier to use, even from home.

Public websites done in the wrong way, instead, may become a really meaningful source of waste of public money in the next years if citizens don’t realize as soon as possible how much time and stress they could save with a decent website or how much of their money what looks like just a few screenfuls on a monitor can actually cost. Remember that even people who don’t use public websites or don’t own a computer in the first place pay these costs through their taxes.

How to act

Public websites, paid with public money, should be affordable and accessible to all citizens, including users with disabilities, not just the computer maniacs who spend half their income on a new computer every six months. These websites should be routinely tested, instead, with a two-year-old computer, the slowest Internet connection available and a text-only browser, to check how much information remains actually usable!

Do the websites of your schools and all your national or local Administrations pass these tests? If not, the right way to make this change is to complain and make pressure so that all existing public websites become Done Right, or that all new ones are designed from scratch as such. Just remember to do it on paper, through normal email, since the politicians who let these things happen may be unable to read any email. Besides that, one paper letter or fax is worth 10,000 email messages, because it’s still perceived as much more real.

To find out or denounce which public websites still waste public money without providing the best possible service you can also visit the section of the Digifreedom website specifically devoted to this purpose.

As food for thought, what if it were required by law that all websites (yes, even personal ones!) publish online a list of all the software they used for the creation of every document they put online, license numbers included? Such a measure would do a lot to fight illegal software usage, at least for some classes of programs.

Of course, if applied to personal web pages it would be extremely difficult to verify that such a law is respected and doing so could also raise privacy issues which are better avoided. Imposing these rules on business and Public Administrations websites would be an entirely different matter, however, something which could do a lot to fight that part of software piracy which is used to publish a lot of material online.