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Bringing accessibility audits in-house

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Moving audits in-house at HMRC

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) runs the biggest digital operation in government, which means a lot of services that require auditing to ensure they meet the accessibility needs of our users. At the start of 2020 we began moving from mainly outsourced audits to an in-house team.

Initially our audit process was like that of external audit companies. A service would approach us just before they went into Public Beta. Audit findings would be compiled into a report and sent to the team.

We wanted to improve both service team accessibility knowledge and lessen the pressure to fix issues against a Public Beta deadline by having those issues identified earlier.

An earlier accessibility conversation

We already ran team training sessions in our accessibility lab, but with the size of HMRC this could only reach so many people, especially with teams across multiple delivery centres.

We introduced a set of pre-audit activities designed to help teams increase their own knowledge and awareness of accessibility. The aim was to have teams perform their own assessments to make sure they were ready for an audit.

Then we created a list of the most common issues found during previous audits to help new services avoid the same. Alongside this was the ability for easily implemented service-wide automated accessibility and HTML validation checks to be run throughout development. We now ask services to provide the report generated from this as part of their audit request.

Next, we began to perform a pre-audit review of each service. This happens a full sprint before the main audit and is designed to flag any of the more common issues the team may have missed. It also allows teams additional time to resolve more complex issues.

The needs of COVID-19 teams

When it came to COVID-19 services, such as the Job Retention Scheme, or the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme, we faced a different need - services still in development needing an audit a matter of days before launch.

Due to lockdown, service teams now no longer sat together in digital delivery centres. They were working from home, adapting to a new way of working just like everyone else. Working longer hours than normal, under massive pressure to deliver, they needed immediate detailed feedback on what was wrong and how to fix it. They couldn’t wait for a full audit to be conducted before starting to implement changes.

How we changed our processes to meet their needs

To cope with the condensed timeframe we decided constant communication with the service teams was necessary. We set up private Slack accessibility channels with each service team where we recorded any issues we found along with solutions. Each issue was then tagged by the service team as they fixed them, which meant we could easily retest and verify fixes as we went.

"Engagement from the team was outstanding, prep in advance was great and the team was aware of everything that was going on"
Product Manager, Eat Out to Help Out

The HMRC accessibility audit team has experienced front-end developers who have been on service teams themselves previously. This meant that we were able to step in to help teams out directly, acting as additional service team members. We could find the accessibility issues, develop solutions and then push code directly to the code repository to fix them, taking some of the pressure off the delivery team.

The advantage of constant communication

As the Slack channels enabled us to invite everyone from the team, we had access to the BA, PM, QA, developers, UX and content designers. This meant that we could approach the exact person we needed to ask about an issue, raise a concern, find a solution which everyone was happy with and then validate the eventual fix right there. This discussion is one of the most valuable things to have come out of this change in process.

"Unbelievable response time"
Product Manager, Eat Out to Help Out

For the later COVID-19 services, services also used video calls to share early designs and workflows and allowed us to advise on any design considerations or things to watch out for. This was especially important as accessibility issues caused by the way a page is designed are often the most difficult and time-consuming to alter once they have reached the code stage.

How we continued to adapt our normal processes

During the first 6 months of lockdown the HMRC accessibility team carried out 18 audits of COVID-19 services - both public-facing and internal. As this was in addition to most of our normal workload we also looked at streamlining our standard audits, both to help find efficiencies and to improve our interactions with non-COVID-19 teams.

We added more training resources to help teams when we were busy with COVID-19 services. This included publishing some of our internal audit task processes so teams who wanted to upskill could see how we would audit their service and replicate some of it themselves. We also began creating self-guided learning modules on using assistive technology to test government services.

Long-term changes

The success of the Slack channels led us to adopt this approach for all of our service audits. Besides the time benefits we saw with COVID-19 teams this also means accessibility becomes more of a whole team conversation rather than a checkpoint at the end of delivery.

Our end-of-audit report to teams changed too, becoming a technical summary. Teams were getting detailed issue reports during the audit and, by the time the report was sent, most of the issues were fixed, so long reports were unnecessary.
We started to evolve our internal audit processes when COVID-19 and the lockdown began. The increased time pressures and needs of the service teams certainly shaped how this developed but in the end has benefited all of our service teams in creating a more responsive audit process which we will continue to improve upon.

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