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How Governments Can Improve Customer Experience With Digital Accessibility

A person typing on a laptop with digital icons of file folders and documents hovering above the keyboard.

Why and how to reduce the administrative burden of your citizens and transform your agency by following these four public-sector accessibility capabilities.

Americans spend an average of 11.5 billion hours per year on required government paperwork. This enormous volume of time creates a considerable administrative burden on the population. Furthermore, this burden is unevenly distributed. Individuals with resource limitations (cognitive, financial, educational, etc.) tend to confront more administrative burdens with less capacity to effectively navigate the demands.

Government agencies are keen to promote accessibility and decrease the administrative burden for several reasons. Not only is the economy weaker when those eligible for support are prevented from receiving it — as people and communities are excluded from spending, safety and stability — but the administrative burden can also cause serious harm to citizens when they are unable to access vital services.

Digital accessibility is also a legal requirement. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires that federal agency digital content conforms with the accessibility standards set out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was recently revised to refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 Level AA, a standard required for all federal agencies. Many state governments have also passed legislation requiring the accessibility of digital content. Despite this, many digital government websites have inaccessible content and functionality, resulting in citizen burden.

In this article we explore what everyday administrative burden looks like and how government agencies should address citizen challenges around accessibility.


Administrative burdens refer to any challenge imposed on people that makes it significantly more difficult to access or maintain a benefit they would otherwise be eligible for.

According to research, 3 in 5 Americans will experience poverty in their adult lives. Living at or near the poverty line often has the consequence of less control over one’s day-to-day life and increased instability. These uncertainties are aggravated by obstacles to receiving government assistance, or by administrative burdens.

The costs that administrative burdens impose on citizens can be grouped into three categories — learning, psychological and compliance.

  1. Learning costs are entrenched with complex government systems. Individuals are frequently unaware of a program and the eligibility rules in order to benefit from services. Citizens also face difficulties in understanding how to navigate applications and often just abandon attempts to claim benefits because of the sheer complexity they encounter.
  2. Psychological costs affect citizens receiving government assistance as they encounter stigma, stress, shame and loss of autonomy.
  3. Compliance costs affect most applicants who will need to fill out and file paperwork, attend interviews, travel, make and receive phone calls and perform other activities required by administrative rules in order to maintain government benefits.

Usually, administrative burden refers to policy implementations that may be onerous, but at least they are functional for people with the energy and means to work through them. In this article, we point out that the situation is even more dire than people realize because, for those with disabilities, many digital implementations do not support their needs when it comes to online navigation.


Accessibility means that all citizens can access digital content and services no matter how they navigate online. People with disabilities may need to access digital content in a variety of ways. A citizen with impaired vision may use a screen reader, which is a type of software that navigates a website and reads out the content. Braille display or a screen magnifier are other options. A citizen with motor difficulties may use a special mouse, speech recognition software or an on-screen keyboard emulator.

Creating accessible digital content and functionality that meets Section 508 requirements does not happen by accident. Teams must be intentional about creating experiences that will work for everyone. The design and content of digital forms and other web functionality must be clear and simple, and implementations must be tested with a variety of assistive technologies to ensure that all citizens have equal access to content and functionality.

Much of the digital content and functionality created by government agencies is tested for compliance with Section 508 in an effort to accommodate people who navigate and consume content in a variety of ways. The strategy of Section 508 was to help guide agencies to procure products that were more accessible from vendors.

In 2012, the DHS Trusted Tester Process was established. The DHS Trusted Tester Process is a manual test approach to provide repeatable and reliable accessibility conformance test results on information and communication technology (ICT). DHS offers training and formal accessibility testing certification to ensure that individuals are enabled to use the DHS Trusted Tester Process effectively.


The DHS Trusted Tester process is designed to occur at the end of design and development. Testing for accessibility compliance at the end of the project is inherently problematic. Accessibility issues with the code can easily be fixed, but issues with the experience or visual design would require design changes that could impact the overall experience. Often, the original designer has left the project and is not available to make updates. Or the budget has been exhausted, and the decision is made to launch the app with the accessibility issues with the intent of fixing them later.

While the DHS Trusted Tester process is robust, it needs to be utilized in conjunction with regular design reviews that occur after each project phase so that no accessibility issues related to design will persist in the development phase. Having an accessibility specialist weigh in on designs is more effective if the entire design and copywriting team has been trained on how to produce accessible digital content. When the team is trained, most basic accessibility issues can be avoided up front, and the accessibility reviews will be smoother.

When accessibility is not considered from the beginning, inaccessible experiences will result. Common accessibility problems for citizens include design issues like poor color contrast that makes text difficult to read, functionality issues like controls that do not work with the keyboard, and content issues like vague link labels that do not describe the purpose of the link. Unfortunately, PDF forms that are not compatible with screen readers are common on government websites.

Creating an accessible document need not be difficult. In fact, anyone who can do a spell check can create an accessible document. Stream our video tutorial in which Alison Walden, senior director of technology at Publicis Sapient, shares how to make everyday documents accessible.


It is common for digital experiences today to be designed and developed with mouse or touchscreen users in mind. Conversely, experiences are likely not tested to make sure they work for someone who needs to zoom into the interface or who navigates with a keyboard or screen reader, so it is common that experiences don’t work as well or at all for these groups.

No digital team plans to make inaccessible experiences. It’s just what accidentally happens when teams are not enabled to make accessible experiences.

Government organizations can enable digital accessibility by providing cross-discipline accessibility training to digital teams, starting with screen reader training. Accessibility should be considered from the beginning and throughout all project phases, from wire frame to design to content to code. Accessibility compliance should be considered one of the steps of doneness for all digital work. Digital teams should be diverse, including people with disabilities who can provide valuable insights for the design process.


Government agencies have the opportunity to build a stronger economy and community to protect their citizens. People in government who design forms and other digital content must consider the accessibility needs of applicants. They can reduce administrative burden across least advantaged demographics so that more people can access vital benefits and services. Doing so will enable a more inclusive experience for people and communities and ensure greater access to spending power, safety and stability.

Learn about Publicis Sapient’s accessibility practice.

Accessibility assessments of content and code: We review designs to detect accessibility issues and provide guidance before development starts. Post-development, we apply manual and automated accessibility tests across a variety of devices. We assess and remediate PDF files for accessibility.

Design and development of accessible experiences: We incorporate accessibility thinking into all phases of design and development to ensure content and functionality of digital experiences are accessible across all devices from the beginning.

Cross-discipline accessibility training: We help teams prevent recurring accessibility issues through education for all team members, including designers, copywriters and developers.

Strategies to implement accessibility governance: We help organizations embed accessibility compliance within their internal processes to create a culture of ongoing accessibility.

Making digital experiences accessible improves them for everyone, including those without disabilities. Accessibility in government could significantly reduce citizen burden across many least-advantaged demographics. This includes making sure that vital benefits services are inclusive and accessible in terms of content and functionality. It also means ensuring digital exclusion does not stop citizens from approaching, accessing and benefiting from government programs. Let’s create a stronger community and economy to protect our citizens.