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IDEA Act Compliance: Is Your Agency Ready?

The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) is a new law that requires all new and existing government websites to meet standards on accessibility, searchability and security. It also requires agencies to adopt web analytics tools to produce data on how well their web properties are being used. As you enter the new fiscal year, is your government agency set up to meet these new standards? Forum One has extensive experience helping government agencies make digital platforms and documents accessible to people with disabilities. In July, our accessibility experts spoke about the importance of digital accessibility at DrupalGovCon, the annual gathering of government technology managers, Drupalists, and open source evangelists (Forum One always feels right at home at GovCon!). Our talks generated a lot of interest in finding solutions and setting up processes for increasing the accessibility of digital products.  Designing for accessibility is something all digital products should follow; however, for government web properties, accessibility requirements are now part of a new law called the 21st Century IDEA Act. As we’ve written previously, government modernization efforts take a number of different forms: replacing legacy systems and software, improving business processes, making sites more secure, and moving data to the cloud. They use innovative program models like GSA’s Centers of Excellence, which is an implementation model to overhaul priority agency-wide systems. All of this is, or should be, aimed at making public-facing websites, online forms, and tools more useful to their primary target audiences.

Accessibility and the IDEA Act

The standards and best practices outlined in the IDEA Act have been around for a while, but the key difference is that these standards are now law for government platforms. Federal agencies must comply with these new standards, and report to Congress on how they are progressing.  But that’s not all. The full list includes the following for websites. They must : 
  1. Be accessible to individuals with disabilities in accordance with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794d)
  2. Have a consistent appearance, i.e., use a brand system use it consistently
  3. Not overlap with or duplicate any legacy websites and, if applicable, ensure that legacy websites are regularly reviewed, eliminated, and consolidated
  4. Contain a search function that allows users to easily search content intended for public use
  5. Be provided through a secure connection
  6. Be designed around user needs and collect data showing how and how well the web property is being used 
  7. Provide users with the option for a more customized digital experience that allows users to complete digital transactions in an efficient and accurate manner
  8. Be mobile-friendly 
  9. Use electronic signatures on web-based forms 
More on online accessibility:

Meeting the IDEA Act compliance deadlines

As the new act was signed into law in December 2018, the timeline for meeting its standards span across 2019 and 2020, which full compliance required by December 2020.  The first deadline was back in June 2019 and required that: 
  • Any new or redesigned website must meet the standards “to the greatest extent practicable.” (aka, this is the warm-up phase!) 
  • All paper-based forms and non-digital services an agency currently offers be compiled and listed with a cost estimate for digitizing them.
  • A plan to accelerate the use of electronic signatures for docs be signed. 
Looking ahead to this fall, by December 2019 agencies are required to:
  • Share a list of public-facing websites that are most-viewed by the public or most important for public engagement
  • Among those, identify which are most important with respect to modernization
  • Estimate the cost to modernize those that are of highest priority
  • Report on progress towards modernization in a publicly-available report, each year going forward, by December of the current year. This report is expected to be informative about modernization efforts being made. 
And looking into next year, by December 2020 all government forms must be available digitally!

Where to focus your IDEA Act compliance efforts

If you work at a federal agency, knowing where to begin to be fully compliant may not be an easy nut to crack. At Forum One, we spend a lot of time thinking about what steps will have the largest positive impact for end users. Here are some ideas for actions that we recommend you take to prepare.

Start with accessibility

For many agencies, accessibility may be the most time consuming and complex element to comply with, since it spans visuals, website design, and document configuration. It involves audio and video and touch. Many agencies have huge repositories of content that have been produced over the years, and legacy sites use old and unsupported platforms and software packages.  Another reason to start here is that it’s the right thing to do. You are likely missing out on thousands of users in this country who could otherwise benefit from the content and services you provide. Among the IDEA act areas, surely accessibility is that one.  Get comfortable with accessibility lingo such as WCAG, AA, AAA, 508. These standards are here to stay. As a friend at HHS’s communications office said, while urging me to promote AAA standards even though AA is the minimum level acceptable, “today’s AAA are tomorrow’s AA.” So agencies may as well invest in the AAA standards now! 

Perform a content audit

Conduct a formal scan of your content for accessibility requirements, usability, and even look at use statistics to see where your users are falling off. Forum One has done this for GSA, EPA and many other federal agencies. The content audit is more than a report; you end up with a prioritized category of content and uncover areas that you can sunset or invest in upgrading/elevating, and making accessible. 

Review your design system

Review your website pages for consistency and its ability to meet design standards. We ourselves take a modular approach to website design work, creating not just pages, but a cohesive design system of flexible, reusable elements we can adapt and apply to pages and components across the site. With Drupal as the platform, which many agencies have adopted as the required content management system, we work with tools like Pattern Lab to collect these “atomic” design components to make the sites across an agency or department consistent in format and functionality.  Some agencies still update page by page, but this can be extremely time intensive. A design system streamlines content updates and also future development upgrades to keep new site pages, sections, and features consistent. This has the added benefit of creating a more efficient experience for your content managers who update the site on a regular basis. Forum One’s work with EPA helped set the first round of the U.S. Web Design Standards, and features our work as a best practice in design and development of government websites. 

Revisit your brand guidelines

And speaking of design, it’s worth revisiting your agency’s brand system and see how consistently it is being applied across your websites and other digital platforms. A brand system is so much more than a logo; it’s a set of guidelines your agency can follow to be clear and consistent in the way that you are seen and understood by your audience.  You can go a long way to meet the IDEA Act requirements by ensuring the look and feel of your entire digital ecosystem is using the brand guidelines. Forum One’s has helped many agencies update and refine they way that they present themselves across mediums.

Looking ahead

There is a lot you may need to do, but these recommendations, and many others, can help you on your journey to IDEA Act compliance. As you look to your calendar for the beginning of FY2020, be sure to schedule in these reviews so you’re prepared for the December deadline.

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