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What standards and legal requirements do government websites need to take account of?

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As well as the questions on social media that Neil asked of his recent interviewees, he also grilled them on some of the practical issues of being a jobbing government webby (something he has also covered brilliantly recently).

One particular question – to which we didn’t really hear a corking answer from any of the otherwise excellent candidates – was along the lines of “What standards and legal requirements do government websites need to take account of?“. Now, this is rather important stuff – get it wrong and you risk being sued, or at least a stern telling off from the Doctor.

You’ll find most of the answers on COI’s excellent guidance pages and in particular their section on legal issues. But as a primer for the lazy, here’s a top ten list as it occured to me:

1. Accessibility: virtually anyone working on the web knows that there are some standards around making websites usable by disabled users. One point for being able to talk knowledgably about WCAG Levels and geek points for saying that automated testing is not really enough. Bonus point for mentioning that the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 imposes a duty on public sector organisations to promote the equality of disabled people, including online.

2. Data Protection: the 1988 Act defines personal data (which could include comments on websites) and eight principles for how data is obtained, processed and stored. Potentially (to my non-legal mind) this has some implications for data held on social media services outside the EU, and affects how long database-driven, interactive sites should be retained.

3. Privacy: the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations is a Directive in place since 2003 (doesn’t seem to be in the COI guidance) but which BusinessLink helpfully describes. In a nutshell: identify yourself in marketing emails, give people a clear route to opt out, and only use lists people have opted-in to join or which you have collated from your genuine customers.

4. Welsh: the Welsh Language Act 1993 puts a duty on public sector organisations to treat Welsh and English on an equal basis when providing services to citizens in Wales. In practice, organisations need to have defined a language scheme, which describes how much of their published output will be translated.

5. Freedom of Information: the 2000 Act doesn’t strictly impose any new responsibilities on government websites, but in practical terms a wise government webby will aim to publish FOI responses, ensure any FOI requests which come through the website are routed quickly and appropriately to the FOI officer/team, and will keep good and easily published records of web traffic, since a lot of FOI requesters like to ask for them.

6. Archiving & sitemaps: more recent guidance from COI covers policies for archiving and indexing government websites, presumably with the Public Records Act 1958 in mind.

7. URLs, naming and Transformational Government:
it’s surprising how often people ask for them, but in principle, there should be no new government websites without very, very good reasons – that’s what the Transformational Government strategy lays out. If there are any new sites, they need to comply with these rules on naming.

8. Copyright & Information: As a general rule, most material written for government websites will be Crown Copyright. The Power of Information Review and the recent government response ask webbies to ensure that this isn’t a barrier to reuse – through encouraging more permissive reuse licensing, for example. More details on the legal issues over at COI.

9. Auditing/analytics: hot off the press from COI are two documents in response to a recommendation from the Public Accounts Committee for guidance on how web traffic and costs should be reported. These have implications for your choice of web analytics provider (in my understanding, they have to be on ABCe’s approved list) and involve a bit of careful record-keeping, so definitely worth a read.

10. Moderation policy for comments: special bonus points for pointing out that a smart government webby will make sure there’s a good set of house rules or moderation policy in place to ensure user-submitted comments on social media channels are processed fairly but in keeping with civil service impartiality and the law.

Not much to ask now, is it?

Photo credit:  Vicki & Chuck Rogers

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  1. Yep, that’s the ones we were looking for.

    How amazing would it have been for someone to rattle them all off so succinctly?

    It really is a lot to ask, and more grist to Paul’s mill so far as professional accreditation goes.

  2. Ironically, Pullinger’s website appears in frames on the BlackBerry, and its navigation cannot be accessed. #fail

    BTW, any chance of putting the tab order of the “Notify me of followup comments…” tick-box after the “Submit Comment” button. Or better still, put it visually and logically immediately before “Submit Comment”?

  3. Really valuable collation of info Steph. I wonder how much this may apply to NDPBs? I suspect as much as other departments but I wonder if you’ve seen anything specific?