Thursday, October 26, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Auditors say city’s website needs improvement

The Office of the City Auditor has found that although the city’s website, AustinTexas.gov, offers residents numerous online services, the website does not meet accessibility guidelines, so it is difficult for people with certain disabilities to find and use those services.

The audit findings were released and accepted at Wednesday’s City Council Audit and Finance Committee meeting.

In the audit, auditors cited four principles used in promoting accessibility for people with disabilities. To meet federal law, they said, websites must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. Auditors tested how difficult it might be to register for a Parks and Recreation Department activity, pay a utility bill and submit a 311 request, among other things, for a person with a disability.

The auditors found that the city’s website does not have sufficient contrast between the text and the background, making it difficult for users with limited or no vision to interact with the website even if they are using adaptive technology. They also found that “images containing cues or instructions viewable by sighted users may be unreadable by a screen reader.”

Auditors also found that four of the web pages they tested contained text above a middle school reading level, which is a violation of the guidelines.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said at the meeting that some of the Americans with Disabilities Act issues highlighted by the audit were not new ones. “They’re pretty standard,” she said, wondering why they had not been addressed.

The response came from corporate IT manager Matt Esquibel, who said it was basically a matter of resources over time. “We do have an automated system that evaluates our website based on ADA requirements. Over time, a large matter of the content on the city’s website is considered ADA compliant. And the things that are identified … we tried to work with the departments on those on a case-by-case basis.”

Then Esquibel got to the real problem, pointing out that the city had lost the one employee in the Communications and Public Information Office who knew the most about making the website ADA compliant. In response to a question from the Austin Monitor, Esquibel said the city had hired another employee into that position but the new employee lacked the expertise of the employee who retired.

He also pointed out that departments sometimes upload content that does not get reviewed.

In addition, auditors found that although Austin residents can perform the same basic online transactions as residents of other cities, finding those services on Austin’s website can be tedious and require extra steps.

The city offers online services to save both time and money for the city and its residents. For example, Austinites can pay their utility bills, make online payments for traffic tickets, and pay library fines and fees for permits for alarm systems, the audit notes. But eight departments told the auditors that although they would like to offer transactional services online, they have found barriers to doing that.

Those barriers include insufficient resources, restrictive policies, security concerns and lack of a strategy, according to the report. There are only six departments that want to offer online payment services in addition to the services they currently provide.

Those include the Austin Animal Center, which would like to take donations for the shelter using credit cards; Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, which would like to take payments for services billed online; and Austin Code, which would like to take payments for short-term rentals, licenses and registrations.

“There is no citywide strategy or plan for offering city services online. Departments select the services and information they offer online through several different methods. … There is no central authority in the city to coordinate these efforts,” the audit notes.

“According to the Chief Communications Director, the city does not have a program for redesigning and updating the city’s website on an ongoing basis. For example, there is no central position or group to coordinate the city’s website and department web pages. Instead, several projects have brought teams together for website redesigns and then disbanded. There is also no recurring funding for this function,” it continues.

Auditors compared online transaction services provided by Austin and five other Texas cities plus Chattanooga, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; New York and Denver. Of those, auditors found that Denver’s site was the easiest to navigate on the greatest number of services.

Auditors found that it was necessary to go through extensive navigation or found broken links that did not lead to the service they were seeking at AustinTexas.gov when they tried to register for parks and recreation activities, pay parking tickets or apply for a building permit. It was just slightly less difficult, they said, to apply for a city job or make a Municipal Court payment.

Auditors said they easily found all of those things on the Denver website. On the other hand, they found it was easy to make a public information request or file a complaint with 311 in Austin, but not that easy in Denver. They also found that it was easy to pay an Austin utility bill online, but Denver’s website does not offer that service. (The city of Denver does not provide electric utility service.)

Back in 2013, auditors called on the city manager to “ensure that a complete web governance structure was developed, documented, implemented and monitored to address gaps” auditors had identified. That has not happened, and auditors noted the responsibility for that lies with the city manager. For example, they said the city manager “has not promulgated a directive to city departments” to make sure that noncompliant websites are replaced or brought into compliance. In addition, the city manager’s office has not developed “an administrative bulletin to set in place standing controls for websites implemented for city business.”

In their response to the audit, the chief information officer and chief communications director promised to work with the city manager to create a new leadership position and team “to develop a strategic plan for offering online services across departments and initiatives.”

The audit can be found here.

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