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All Access: Customer Experience and Accessibility Collide

From principles of human-centered design to adhering to web accessibility best practices, the new issue of Government Technology explores what it takes to make online government truly work for all residents.

scrolling on a smartphone
Adobe Stock/ponsulak
Accessibility in the world of government IT refers to the fact that digital services should be fully and equally available to every resident. This includes the more than 13 percent, or 42.5 million, people in the United States with a disability. This vast group consists of people with a range of challenges both obvious and invisible, including cognitive-, hearing- and vision-related.

The Web Accessibility Initiative — a program of the international nonprofit World Wide Web Consortium — states simply that “when websites and web tools are properly designed and coded, people with disabilities can use them.”

In this issue, we focus more broadly on customer experience. It’s a term that has caught on in the public sector in the last decade. Technology leaders are hard at work fulfilling policymakers’ desires to make it as simple as possible for residents to interact with government. The overarching goal many land on is an Amazon-like experience, where needs are anticipated and transactions are completed without friction.

Mastering customer experience is perhaps the ultimate expression of a commitment to accessibility. Merriam-Webster defines accessible as “capable of being reached,” or “easy to speak to or deal with.” Its next definitions are “capable of being used or seen,” and “capable of being understood or appreciated.”

If we think more broadly about accessible government, it means services that are easy to use by any member of a given constituency. It means websites that are intuitive and written plainly, it means text translated into residents’ primary languages, it means digital services that are available through assistive technologies. It also means in-person options for those less comfortable with digital-only interactions.

In Can Human-Centered Design Help Rebuild Trust in Government?, we look at the growth of human-centered design (HCD) teams across government. By definition, the practice is iterative, requiring continuous investment in the connection between the service and the customer through time. And while some agencies are more mature in their HCD work than others, there are many practical examples of places to get started that can deliver immediate benefit.

Thankfully, there are a lot of outside experts available to help too. After all, making these changes brings significant disruption.

“Start with something that might not be the highest stakes, something that will allow more time,” Stanford Designer in Residence Nadia Roumani recommended. “You need a little bit of spaciousness to actually engage in a thoughtful process, in order to introduce this innovative way of thinking, this very collaborative way of working.”

When it comes to the practice of accessibility, nothing motivates like a deadline. The U.S. Department of Justice recently added some urgency to government’s charge under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring states and localities to implement certain changes in the next few years. This has ratcheted up the importance of states’ and localities’ efforts around accessibility.

Practitioners say you should now add accessibility (alongside things like cybersecurity, data governance and privacy) to the list of considerations that need to be discussed at the outset of new projects or revisions to existing services. Tacking on accessibility features after the fact costs more and is generally a less effective approach than one in which accessibility is fully integrated from the start. In States Work to Make Digital Services Accessible for All, we dig into current accessibility efforts across the country. We look at some early leaders and their approaches to this complex and important issue in the hopes that it gives others somewhere to begin.

“It’s going to take education, outreach, training and really making this a standard operating procedure for everything we are doing,” said Bry Pardoe, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience, in comments that could apply to any number of her counterparts across the country. She adds: “We’ll continue to do that in perpetuity.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.