Staffing shortages hinder government accessibility efforts

By: Sarah Roberts

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A recent report uncovered severe web accessibility issues for most government agencies. Despite facing more stringent requirements than the private sector, government organizations aren’t proving capable of creating online content that adheres to laws like the Rehabilitation Act. According to some, the problem might be linked to another challenge currently impacting these agencies: staffing shortages.

With too few hands on deck with the time and skills to improve online accessibility, best practices and requirements are falling through the cracks. Remedying the issues is only possible if the government prioritizes accessibility and inclusivity for its staff and the public it serves.

government employees in an office

The Scope of the Problem

The General Services Administration (GSA) found that fewer than 30% of popular online government content meets the online accessibility standards required by Section 508. The areas covered include electronic documents, websites, hardware, software, kiosks, videos and mobile apps. Inadequate accessibility in all of these areas creates a serious problem for everyone within the agency as well as those who need to reach out for services.

Even more frustrating is the fact that accessibility requirements for government agencies’ information and communication technology (ICT) date back more than 20 years. Agencies have had more than enough time to put programs in place that help them meet current guidelines.

Uncovering the Cause of Persistent Accessibility Barriers

Even if agencies have had decades to organize processes, making online content more accessible can be challenging. Technology changes quickly, and so do the standards for accessibility. Not everyone working in an organization can keep up to date with the requirements and put in the time to fix every problem that becomes a barrier.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that organizations that don’t have employees whose primary role is staying on top of web accessibility issues have more violations of laws like Section 508. What is disconcerting is that few agencies even have mature Section 508 programs in place to address these complex issues.

In fact, 76% fall into the low-maturity category when it comes to developing programs to conform with Section 508. Out of 249 organizations that the GSA assessed, 36 didn’t have any staff members focusing on Section 508 and 93 had fewer than one full-time member of their staff working on meeting the law’s requirements.

Unsurprisingly, agencies with less developed Section 508 programs are less likely to have accessible online content. Lacking resources to address accessibility inevitably makes it more challenging to address existing and future barriers.

Just before the release of the GSA’s report, a Section 508 memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget stated that agencies need to be building Section 508 programs. The memo directs agencies to provide the necessary resources, including technology, tools and staff, to make their ICT accessible. Also, according to the memo, if achieving the goals of the directive will require greater budgets, agencies should request the appropriate funds.

Staffing is a Problem in Accessibility and Beyond

The recent reports expose the reality — without the proper personnel in government agencies, accessibility concerns will fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, a shortage of skilled labor in the public sector is setting back any type of progress.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while the private sector labor force bounced back following the pandemic, the public sector still had 450,000 fewer employees in 2023 than in 2020. Also, a study by the MissionSquare Research Institute found that more than half of government employees are considering leaving their positions. Dissatisfaction among government employees could be preventing agencies from reaching the level of staffing they need to effectively perform their duties.

The labor shortage in government could be making it more difficult for organizations to address their poor online accessibility and lack of Section 508 compliance. However, while the problems related to accessibility are significant, they aren’t the only setback the lack of personnel is causing. Critical services like emergency response programs, law enforcement, public transit and more are not able to operate as effectively because they simply don’t have enough people.

woman working on a computer

Ways to Bring in More Staff and Improve Accessibility

There are several ways that the public sector could attract more employees and, in turn, perform better when it comes to online accessibility and everything else. Some possibilities include:

Improve pay where appropriate

One of the potential problems facing the public sector is the pay. If people can earn more even in jobs that require less skill, they aren’t going to flock toward careers in government. However, government agencies could also do a better job of highlighting all of the compensation available, such as pensions or loan forgiveness, that might make these positions more appealing.

Make the hiring process less burdensome

It takes a long time to get a job with a government agency. With an average time of 119 days — nearly four months — many qualified candidates find other jobs before they get an offer from the government. Additionally, the application and interview process are notoriously confusing and burdensome. Taking steps to streamline hiring could help agencies attract more talent.

people in a meeting sitting at a table

Actively hiring people with disabilities

The Bureau of Labour Statistics found that 37.1% of people with disabilities were employed in 2023, compared with 75% of those without a disability. Some government agencies are actively recruiting people with disabilities to fill gaps with qualified candidates.

Remove unnecessary requirements

Strict requirements for degrees or work experience may not be the best predictors of success in a given role. Skills-based hiring might attract more candidates and help agencies find people to fill important roles.

Prioritizing Accessibility Inside Agencies and for the Public

Whether for employees or the public, improving online accessibility should be a top concern for all government agencies. Critical solutions like captions, transcriptions and audio description are integral to these objectives.

As a GSA-schedule vendor, Verbit works with many government agencies to provide accessibility solutions that support legal requirements like Section 508. Reach out for more information about how Verbit can support your organization.