Following OMB guidance released last fall on implementing the 21st Century IDEA Act, agencies have made mobility and search-ability improvements to hundreds of federal websites.

Following OMB guidance released last fall on implementing the 21st Century IDEA Act, agencies have made mobility and search-ability improvements to hundreds of federal websites. AmnajKhetsamtip/Getty Images

Agencies are on the clock to improve their digital accessibility — here’s how they’re doing so far

Guidance issued last fall set standards and benchmarks for agencies to improve their many public-facing websites.

Oakland, Calif. — The federal government has over 10,000 websites, according to Jonathan Finch, director of digital experience at the Office of Management and Budget. 

Last fall, OMB released long-awaited guidance based on a 2018 law — the 21st Century IDEA Act — meant to set requirements for how agencies interact with the public online through those websites, with to-do items around accessibility, visual design, content and more. It’s a big task. 

Since the memo was released over seven months ago, over 600 websites have made improvements to mobile usability or performance and over 400 have made improvements to search engine optimization. 

Many agencies have also started using several tools offered by the General Services Administration for improving their site operations. Over 500 websites have started using GSA’s Digital Analytics Program, a web analytics shared services tool for public-facing domains, and over 200 websites have started using its U.S. Web Design System, which provides building blocks for crafting federal websites, Finch told Nextgov/FCW on the sidelines of Code for America’s annual conference. 

One big focus in making those improvements has been measurement — including an initial inventory of how many federal websites there even are, Finch said during a presentation at the event. 

OMB has also been creating so-called “indicators” to measure progress across security, accessibility, mobile friendliness, analytics, search optimization, design consistency and feedback, said Andrew Ly, an OMB policy analyst. 

The two agencies have been working together to use an automated site-scanning tool to feed those indicators, according to Finch.

“The beauty of the indicators work is that we’re not asking agencies to send us anything,” Finch told Nextgov/FCW. “This is an attempt on our part to, one, get better data to measure performance and progress, but also just make it easier and make it so it is not an additional burden for [agencies] to get through reporting.”

The idea is also to empower agencies with information about where problems might exist, he said.

Implementation has required sorting through which of those websites to prioritize.

OMB and agencies have funneled that focus down from all websites to those that are public-facing, and then to those that account for the top 80% of traffic, which narrows the pool to about 300 websites, a “more manageable” lift, said Ly. 

But a major challenge has been “demystifying this question of who owns digital experience,” said Finch, noting that the interaction someone has with a government agency on the Internet might involve technology, communications, operations and customer experience teams.

OMB debuted a new DX Council earlier this year with over 40 members across those various functions, said Abby Bowman, agency web modernization lead at NASA and co-chair of that council. Agencies have also had to tap DX leads under the guidance. 

Finch told Nextgov/FCW that government agencies have been testing commonly asked questions about their agency and its work against search engines to see what the public sees when they try to find answers, a project that’s proven useful in finding opportunities to fix outdated content, improve search engine optimization and more.

As far as how agencies might make room in their budgets to do this work amidst competing priorities, Finch pointed to the use of shared services and prioritization, noting that accessibility is easier to build in from the start, as opposed to remedying problems later on. 

Bowman said that NASA, which is currently drafting agency-wide web policy, is making a big central investment out of the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

“We're going to invest in this once and we're going to do it for the flagship platforms. We're going to build these incredible, world class flagship platforms, and then folks can… use those as their baseline and then … they can build just that little layer on top that is unique to their mission,” she said, noting that this approach has helped get agency buy-in.

“Within our part of the org, it’s not cheaper… but it’s going to be cheaper for the agency overall as we cut down on all these overhead costs,” she said.

There are still some to-do items coming from the guidance, including forthcoming updates to federal website standards that were due from GSA at the 180 day mark in March of this year, as well as a “federal services index” on agencies from GSA that is offered to the public and was also due at that 180 day mark.

The guidance additionally tasks agencies with assessing public services they should digitize. 

As for the impact, “most of the public interacts with their government digitally by default – and they expect their online experience to be consistent with their favorite consumer website and mobile app,” Clare Martorana, federal chief information officer, wrote in a blog post about the guidance in April. “More than ever, digital experience is central to federal agencies’ mission delivery and our government’s ability to serve the American people.”

NEXT STORY: IRS makes Direct File permanent