I’ve been lax in writing about the recent UK Government’s Central Office of Information (COI) public consultation on browser standards for public websites partly because my location in the colonies is way across the planet, but also because I’ve been a bit close to public sector web development recently and am a little jaded by that experience. So, this post is about the COI Guideance on web browser support, but will flow into some comment about the Tasmanian State Government policies versus realities of web publishing.
The Expense of Widely Supporting Browsers
The premise of the COI guidance in the UK is that apparently it’s very expensive and time consuming to test websites across all browsers and on all operating systems, therefore they recommend only providing full support to browsers above a certain threshold appearing in their visitor logs. That’s one tick for big browsers and one flick for all those minor annoying little upstarts that tend to get under everyone’s feet. Lesser supported browsers just get the guarantee of a working navigation but the site may not display as intended. That’s just bollocks (in UK terms).
WaSP Speak Out
It was only a short time and the WaSP (Web Standards Project) published an article titled UK government draft browser guidance is daft browser guidance explaining why the COI have it so bloody wrong. The WaSP ask a critical question – when the COI write,
may not display as intended, by whom? Who decides what the cut-off level might be, or what the intended display should be?
After all, the COI guidelines include this snippet of bollocks (grabbed from the WaSP article):
These guidelines do not advocate specific development methodologies, for example graceful degradation or progressive enhancement. However, it is widely accepted that sites conforming to open web standards such as XHTML and CSS are more likely to work well across a wide range of browsers.
Several Facts about Public Sector Websites
Unfortunately, the UK government has lost sight of several facts about web development and their own responsibilities. First, web standards methodologies should make it easier and cheaper to support those minor browsers (as mentioned by WaSP). Second, most government sites are information sites and are obligated to provide that information and relevant services to the general public (to taxpayers who have paid for that service) so there should be no skimping in this area. And these websites should be information focused consistent design – not design portfolios in the making! Third, sniffing out browsers and making users do the work is a pathetic way to approach web development – creating experiences is our end of the deal, it’s not the user’s issue. Yes, recommend better browsers, but don’t do that just as an easy out from testing.
What if someone just needs to find out something in a hurry? Just a minute. “Shit! WTF? Now I have to install a friggen browser?!”
Tasmanian Government Policies and Practices
Which brings me to Tasmanian (Australia) State Government web development. I’ve done several contracts and recently resigned from a government web team (full disclosure). While the Tasmanian Government Web Publishing Guidelines advocate supporting as many browsers as possible, the team I resigned from just supports Internet Explorer 6 / 7, Google Chrome, the latest Firefox and Safari on Windows XP and the version of Mac OS X they happen to be running (we need external entities like WaSP to raise this issue – because currently nobody influential enough will push that boat in our end of the world).
While some Tasmanian government departments actually work towards a web standards approach (a few and in varying degrees), concepts like accessibility and usability are largely ignored. This, despite being present and then updated in our web publishing guidelines as recently as April 2008. All departments simply act upon these guidelines and policies in different ways – we’ll just do it wrong and get a smack on the wrist if we’re caught. It’s the say sorry later policy. Several departments I’ve worked with have never even heard of the Tasmanian Government Web Publishing Guidelines, and I’ve been told by some managers they are too busy to bother reading them.
Making my Point to Government
My point is simple. This should never be about the difficulty of public sector web teams to find time to read or understand what is required of them. It should never be a case where limited browser support is widely advocated to save resources, the flow-on of which is a practice of under-support to the general public. The public sector are charged with supplying the taxpayer and all others in society with the information and services they are legally entitled to obtain.
I think both in the UK and here society deserves a lot more from public sector web services. They provide a far more important role than merely being online brochures. Guidelines need to say the right things, and departments need to read them and do their best to meet them.
The current UK COI guidance is just bollocks!