Surveys show the Australian federal government's ICT accessibility and telework policies are not up to scratch, potentially alienating significant numbers of public service workers. So what is the Department of Family and Community Services doing to fix the situation?
Government CIOs will face increasing pressure to ensure their departments' information systems are accessible to disabled and teleworking employees, if an emerging initiative backed by the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) delivers its intended results.
A team led by Tony Mee, CIO at FaCS, began studying the issue of supporting workers with special accessibility requirements in earnest after the organization's own efforts were recognized with a win in the Large Business category of the 2002 ACCI National Work and Family Awards.
That award - given for FaCS initiatives including its Strategic Statement, Certified Agreement and Diversity Plan - validated the department's concerted effort to recognize the changing needs of a workforce that is becoming increasingly technology-dependent and mobile.
Family-friendly policies, which include the need to provide ICT tools for supporting remote work, have long been discussed in general terms, but progress to date has varied widely given the lack of consistent standards addressing these areas.
Equally problematic, the design of ICT applications has often disenfranchised remote and disabled workers from conventional desktop-based work. This problem has forced workers with disabilities or those who need to balance heavy working and life commitments either to make individual arrangements for access or to be marginalized within their workplaces.
Lack of access potentially stretches the equal-access mandate of legislation such as the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992. In theory, applications should be designed to support human resources policies that were long ago modified to support - in principle at least - the special needs of disabled employees.
Whether due to restrictive information security policies or the design limitations of specific applications, inequity of access had become an area of concern for FaCS. These concerns were reflected in the State of the Service Report 2002-03's assertion that "the overall picture is not positive" with respect to provision of accessibility technologies within government.
"Despite the strategies agencies report having in place, the representation of people with a disability is continuing to decline," the report stated. "Significant numbers of employees with a disability disagree their agency is providing support, and they are more dissatisfied in their jobs."
Studies suggest the problem is much larger than many departments realize. In a 2003 Forrester Research survey of more than 15,000 adults in the US, 27 percent reported having a visual difficulty or impairment, while 26 percent had a dexterity difficulty or impairment, 21 percent had a hearing difficulty or impairment, 20 percent had cognitive difficulties and 4 percent had a speech difficulty or impairment. Although figures in Australia might vary slightly from these results, the point remains: a significant proportion of the general population is dealing with one or more impairments that can curtail their ability to access information systems. Statistically speaking, this would mean that an 1800-strong organization like FaCS would have nearly 500 employees with dexterity impairments, and still more with other handicaps. However, Mee says, the department has only 40 people that require "significant assistive technology support".
The problem is self-feeding, concedes Michael Hemsley, assistant director of strategy and architecture with FaCS.
"As we become more mechanized and dependent on ICT, we can get a blind spot as organizations to the point where we're not even considering people who may need assistive technology in our job recruitment and processes. It's not a conscious thing - but it's just not a proactive thing, especially where ICT is constrained by budgets. They just slip below the radar."
Visual, dexterity, hearing and cognitive difficulties can all affect a worker's ability to access key information systems, and in many cases appropriately designed ICT can be a helper for them: 38 percent of mildly impaired respondents and 22 percent of severely impaired respondents would be likely to benefit from accessible technology, according to Forrester, with visually-impaired and dexterity-impaired users the most likely to benefit.
Righting the Scales
The FaCS award recognized the department's past efforts to implement workplace policies that would keep minorities with special working needs from becoming further marginalized. Recognizing that government organizations still had considerable room to improve their independently derived flexible work practices, Mee led a team of FaCS workers that canvassed other departments' interest in banding together to develop more consistent policies.
Their goal was to develop a formal project plan, assess existing flexible work practices and policies, assess existing and necessary forms of ICT support for those practices, and ultimately to guide creation of a set of whole-of-government policies that would make it easier for departments to address inequities in systems access.
Response was enthusiastic, with 22 of 24 top-level Commonwealth departments committing to involvement in the process. In September 2003, a survey distributed to those agencies identified a range of accessibility issues that were clustered into three overriding themes: assistive technologies for people with disabilities, policies to enable flexible work such as telecommuting, and technologies to support teleworking.
Recognizing that the large number of organizations could slow progress, the team - known as the ICT Support for Flexible Work Practices (ISFWP) Inter-departmental Committee - split into the Assistive Technology Working Group (ATWG) and ICT Support for Telework Working Group (ISTWG). Among their immediate goals: to identify key characteristics of successful FWP policies, and to develop a pair of best practice checklists to be published on the Australian Government Information Management Office's (AGIMO's) Web site.
Drafts of the checklists, along with the overall project plan and objectives, were presented at the 30 June meeting of the national CIO Council (which has broad oversight of government information management processes), receiving unanimous approval in principle. The checklists, which were still being finalized at press time, will be presented alongside more specific recommendations at the next Information Management Strategy Committee (IMSC) meeting later this year.
CIO Government was given draft versions of the checklists - entitled "Assistive Technology for Employees of the Australian Government and ICT Support for Telework" - while they were being prepared. Each includes both a statement of the extent of the access problems it addresses, along with a number of recommendations for resolving those problems.
Recommendations, which reflect technical, funding and policy issues, range along a broad spectrum. For example, the assistive technology checklist suggests that CIOs: implement a basic level of assistive technologies by including suitable tools in desktop standard operating environments; manage lists of commonly available assistive technology products to facilitate acquisition; consider establishing centralized funding for assistive technologies; and establish user groups to formalize relationships between business managers and users requiring assistive technologies.
The teleworking checklist included recommendations: that CIOs consider the whole cost of teleworking technologies, including support and upfront technologies; that security requirements be paired with business requirements; that teleworking strategies factor in the limitations of communications technologies; that equipment be paired with user requirements; and that agencies with similar business drivers communicate regularly with each other to share best practices.
Although they are the first deliverables from the ISFWP, the checklists are only the beginning of a cultural change that Mee hopes will eventually improve accommodations for flexible work practices across the entire Commonwealth government (state and local governments can also use these recommendations, although they are not specifically addressed by this initiative).
Although the group does not carry legislative or enforcement powers, its broad support should give it the weight and credibility to at least get government CIOs reassessing their obligations under existing laws - and their ability to meet those obligations utilizing appropriate ICT investments.
It is not the first time multi-departmental efforts have tried to set common process goals for government departments; similar efforts have resulted in regular collaboration about areas such as human resources, workforce planning and workplace agreements.
As the first ICT-related tasks have been the target of such an effort, it is not clear just how far ISFWP will take the Commonwealth agencies it has enlisted. How far each agency goes will depend largely on their own cultures and policies, says Mike Jones, group manager for corporate strategy with the Australian Public Service Commission, one of the three core agencies (AGIMO and DEWR are the other two) on a steering committee initially created by FaCS to give ISFWP its whole-of-government credentials.
"We have shied away from [public] service-wide guidelines on things like this because agencies' circumstances and needs are a bit different," Jones explains. "This kind of community interest approach is seen quite commonly in management of other areas, and we will look to benefit from each others' experiences and also to recognize that our needs aren't exactly the same. It doesn't provide guidelines as much as it provides resources; it will be a continuing exchange on initiatives within agencies, and how they develop over time."
Recommendations so far completed will be enough to get government CIOs thinking in the right direction, however. Assistive technology, for example, is available in basic form through the use of tools such as the Magnifying Glass or larger font sizes built into Microsoft Windows XP, while numerous third-party add-ons - both commercial and freeware - are tailor-made to suit the needs of people with specific disabilities.
In many cases, providing these tools is as simple as adding them to a standard operating environment and reaching out to educate employees that can potentially benefit from their use. More complex applications, such as speech recognition tools, can be trickier to deploy given their inherent complexity and need for training, but these obstacles can be readily identified and addressed through a concerted migration program.
Accommodations for accessibility extend far beyond desktop applications, however. Conformance to simple design guidelines when producing Web sites, however, is essential to support many forms of disabilities: many text-to-speech tools, for example, allow sight-impaired users to navigate Web sites by reading the alternate text attribute of pictures and buttons on the screen. Ensuring that these attributes are set appropriately - a simple task for Web designers - can ensure accessibility for sight-impaired users.
For many organizations, addressing these issues is largely a question of finding out what rules to follow. In this case, it is invaluable to consult documents such as the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (www.w3.org/TR/2004/WD-WCAG20-2040311).
Releasing telework's promise
While improving application and content accessibility is largely an issue of implementing appropriate design responsibilities, support for teleworkers introduces technical issues that can be more complicated to resolve.
That reality has kept many departments falling short of telework best practice - something noted by a 2003 report by the Australian Public Service Management Advisory Committee, which pointed out that "increased flexibility in working patterns and arrangements will be an important part of the response to demographic changes, recognizing life stage dynamics influencing workforce participation".
In many cases, the obstacles are purely technical. For example, strict security requirements in government organizations mean that technologies commonly used to support remote workers - such as wireless LANs and virtual private networks (VPNs) - must be measured against already well-defined requirements for protection of sensitive government information.
And while the Defence Signals Directorate provides security-related guidance through knowledge bases such as the Evaluated Product List, Australian Government Information Technology Security Manual (ACSI33) and Australian Government Protective Security Manual, some organizations err on the side of caution by either failing to implement the technologies, or implementing them in a decentralized manner that does not allow for consistent enforcement of policies.
In other cases, layer upon layer of security technology is implemented, stunting the user experience to the point that teleworking becomes more of a hassle than a help. "Whether you can deploy the sort of wireless networks you read about in magazines, in a government context, is problematic," says Mee.
"We have significant levels of accountability and concern around the protection of information, and we need to apply significantly higher standards than are applied in other contexts. Sometimes that gets in the way of responding with technology solutions: by the time you load up a computer with personal firewalls, virus scanning, hard drive encryption and so on, the user experience may not be brilliant."
Despite these complexities, discussions among ISFWP organizations have revealed four critical action points that Mee says will guide the group's efforts after completion of the group's first goal (publication of the checklists on the AGIMO site).
These critical action points are: the establishment of a permanent Community of Practice aimed at sharing information across government agencies; development of further best practice checklists on additional issues to be identified; reviewing endorsed supplier arrangements in the context of accessibility and mobility requirements; and spurring AGIMO to work with the telecommunications sector to produce broadband offerings suitable to support large numbers of teleworkers.
These last two issues will potentially be the most disruptive results of the ISFWP process. A review of endorsed supplier arrangements would cast an eye over existing supply arrangements to make sure that products on offer provide adequate options to meet accessibility standards. There is no indication of whether suppliers could be dropped from registers if their products are not compliant - Mee says only that the action would entail "stronger wording around compliance with a set of standards and specifications" for suppliers to meet - but such a move would certainly force vendors to revisit their government strategies, and potentially to improve both security and accessibility within their products.
Discussions about broadband could be somewhat easier to implement. The problem with current broadband offerings, says Mee, is that they are typically focused on single users operating from single premises. Support, performance monitoring and other aspects of service are handled independently of the department in question, forcing users to take on a management burden that should not necessarily be theirs.
By working with the telecommunications industry, Mee says government departments could move to work out a more acceptable solution for government organizations, where sheer size means that a single contract could result in hundreds of broadband connections. Carriers bidding for such contracts, however, would potentially need to offer pricing that reflects economies of scale, and to commit to service standards more reflective of government requirements.
Charting the way forward
The ISFWP effort grew out of a simple idea and has taken on a life of its own. By combining discussions about accessibility-related technical issues and policy-related teleworking issues, the project has forced most Commonwealth departments to at least consider - if not move to remedy - deficiencies in their current policies.
Efforts to standardize accessibility requirements are not unprecedented. In 1998, amendments to the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973, included in S794(d)(a)(1), imposed accessibility guidelines that forced US government agencies to "ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology . . . individuals with disabilities who are Federal employees to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities".
Departments face similar requirements to provide public information services in an accessible manner; in both cases, where doing so would impose an "undue burden", the department must provide an alternative means of access. Whether similar legislation is passed in Australia will remain to be seen. In the short term, however, efforts such as ISFWP will push departments towards voluntary compliance in these areas.
Massive policy changes aside, ISFWP has also delivered benefits by opening new channels of dialogue between departments. Through this process alone, FaCS has identified seven principles that can improve the process of managing dialogues between departments (see "Rules of Engagement", below). Regardless of issues raised about telework and accessibility, these principles offer guidance for CIOs who may want to initiate similar discussions in the future.
Just how much change ISFWP is able to promulgate across government will become clear in the long run; whole-of-government efforts are notoriously difficult to maintain. If new communications channels are maintained and the effort's momentum is preserved, the end result could well be a fundamental change in the way accessibility and telework are viewed and managed within the public sector. Employee participation, regular reviews of policies and technologies, and ongoing discourse at senior management levels will all be critical to making this happen.
"Some government agencies have gotten a fair way through this stuff, and others have not," says Mee. "This is all about how we can benefit from the experiences of other agencies, and perhaps look for broader solutions. Communities of Practice often have variable outcomes that depend on the enthusiasm of participants. But if we can make that work well, we will create a forum in which we can drive debate about flexible work practices forward."