Access to Government On-line

By Tom Worthington FACS HLM


The views expressed here are those of the author 1 and not necessarily those of the ANU, the ACS or other bodies the author is associated with.


These speaking notes are for an appearance before the the Inquiry into Electronic Democracy2 by the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, Parliament of Victoria. As requested by the committee, this concentrates on technical requirements for access to online content on mobile devices and other devices with unusual screen sizes. As requested it looks at the submission made to the committee, rather than providing an extensive submission of its own. It also looks at ways for the government (including Parliament) to facilitate the syndication of on-line content.

The terms of reference3 of the inquiry were to consider:

  1. netcasting of Parliamentary proceedings;

  2. online interactive and collaborative approaches to policy discussion, including citizen email and online forums; and

  3. other technology solutions to promote access and participation.

This document concentrates on references: 2) online policy discussion and 3) technology for access and participation. It is limited to a discussion of the technology used to provide written information, particularly web based documents.

Make the Electronic Machinery of Government Accessible

In order for citizens to take part in a discussion of government policy, they first need access to information prepared by government. This is typically parliamentary and departmental reports. They also need information about what policies are under consideration and what forums are available for their discussion. This involves announcements of inquiries and invitations for submissions. This information can be made more accessible to the public by making it freely available via the web in an accessible format.

Inquiry Submissions on the Issues

The Inquiry background paper 4 mentions mobile telephones and digital television as applications for e-democracy:

Mobile telephones, the Internet, digital television and fax machines have all made it easier to communicate with government and each other.

The Institute of Public Administration Australia, ACT Division and the National Office of the Information Economy5 point out that using the web makes interfacing applications easier:

In general it is easier to make a web interface accessible than it is make native application interfaces accessible. Away from web languages, there is less standardisation and fewer well developed techniques for addressing accessibility issues. Nevertheless there is a raft of accessibility guidelines and techniques for both web languages and software languages.

They also make the point:

For mobiles devices and PDAs, software is now available that will render a web page that web pages can be made usable on mobile devices and PDAs: ...but only if it has been designed with accessibility in mind ...

In their submission Chimonyo and O'Loughlin6 use mobile phones as an example of a technology which has been embraced by people of all ages.

The National Information and Library Service7 provide an overview of issues with print disability and a detailed description of the design and presentation of information on the Internet. The most important guidance in this area is described, which is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)8. Blind Citizens Australia also endorse the W3C guidelines in their submission9. In its submission the Equal Opportunity Commission Victoria10 quotes the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) decision in Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games:

In the Commission's view, the respondent has discriminated against the complainant in breach of section 24 of the DDA in that the web site does not include alt text on all images and image maps links, the Index to Sports cannot be accessed from the Schedule page and the Results Tables provided during the Games on the web site will remain inaccessible.

Discussion of Inquiry Submissions

As the submissions mentioned above state, the web based format already used by government can be enhanced to allow easier access by citizens. The use of accessibility guidelines allows disabled citizens to read documents on-line. Failure to use these guidelines may be unlawful discrimination against the disabled. The author was one of the experts at the Human Rights Olympic case and has detailed the issues at the request of the Beijing 2008 Olympics11.

As well as providing access for the disabled, accessible web pages provide quicker service for those with low speed dial-up links. It can also provide for future access via wireless hand held devices and digital television. These are not accidental benefits, as the W3C guidelines were specifically developed with these uses in mind:

For those unfamiliar with accessibility issues pertaining to Web page design, consider that many users may be operating in contexts very different from your own:

New web technology makes the creation of accessible and efficient web sites very much easier. Using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) web documents can be designed so they will automatically reformat for the chosen display device: displayed on a computer screen, in a compact for a hand held PDA, or printed as traditional paper document. At the same time these documents have the necessary structure for a accessibility devices for the disabled to be able to use them.

How to use web technology to create accessible and flexible documents is now within the state of the art. The author teaches these technologies to undergraduate university students12. At present this takes some additional work to avoid using undesirable features built into common web tools and to work around incompatibilities with web browsers.

Newer tools are in development which will make producing flexible documents automatic13. However, governments need not wait and should implement a policy of accessible web sites now.

Government web sites should now:

Other Limits to Access


In addition to documents being formatted for easy reading, another limit to access is document size. This problem commonly happens when word processing document are converted to PDF format. PDF documents can be ten times larger than the original document, making them difficult to download over a slow dialup link or wireless connection14. CSS 3 may allow web pages to be designed which look as good as PDF documents, removing the need for using PDF at all. However, it may be several years before this is available.

The PDF document size can be reduced by using image in resolutions designed for display on-screen, rather than high quality printing and omitting font data from the PDF file. These are options available in many PDF generating programs.

Recent versions of PDF have options to make the more accessible to the disabled. The free OpenOffice.Org word processor include tagging and reflow options for PDF. These allow PDF documents which can be more easily enlarged on screen for those with limited vision and structural content to aid other devices for the disabled. However, older PDF readers can not read the files generated.

It is recommended that:

  1. PDF only be used where its features are required. For most documents web (HTML) pages should be used.

  2. Where a PDF document is provided an accessible web version of the information should also be provided for those who cannot read the PDF.

  3. PDF software be set to create screen resolution images and no embedded fonts.


Finding a government document or following policy developments on-line can be difficult. The electronic document management systems15traditionally used by government agencies to track documents could be interfaced to the web to allow faster access to detailed government information. Formats such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS16) could be used to offer the public regular updates on government policy developments without the need to register their details with the agency.

Other Issues

Netcasting Parliament

One of the terms of reference of the inquiry was Netcasting of Parliamentary proceedings. The author has this service at home via the Transact fiber optic service in Canberra17. Transact provide three channels of TV from Federal parliament. However, this is only live coverage and so doesn't make for interesting television, nor is of much practical value. This service could be made useful by providing metadata18 to allow searching of previous debates. Federal parliament have recently installed the Electronic Media Monitoring Service to index TV news items19 for Parliamentarians to search and view. A similar system could be used to provide an index of the video of Parliamentary debates.

Electronic voting

The author successfully used electronic voting to cast a ballot in the last two ACT elections and reported about this on ABC Radio20. The Australian developed system used in Canberra avoids many of the problems of overseas e-voting systems by not using the Internet and by using well engineered software. This system could be made more cost effective by removing the legal restriction on pre-poll voting21.

About the Author

Tom Worthington is an independent consultant, providing advice on information technology strategies, the design of web sites and use of e-commerce systems. Clients include major government agencies, companies and research organisations.

Tom is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University, where he teaches the design of web sites and use of e-commerce systems. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. He is author of the book Net Traveller and information technology professional, with 22 years experience. Tom is a past president, Fellow and Honourary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

1 Tomw Communications Pty Ltd, PO Box 13, Belconnen ACT 2617, Australia. ACN: 088 714 309 Email: Web:

2 Victorian Electronic democracy Portal, Parliament of Victoria (undated), URL:

3 About the Enquiry, Victorian Electronic democracy Portal, Parliament of Victoria (undated), URL:

4 Victorian Electronic Democracy - Your Say in the future, November 2004, Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, URL:

5 eGovernment: Accessible to All, Institute of Public Administration Australia, Andrew Arch and Brian Hardy, ACT Division and the National Office of the Information Economy, March 2004, URL:

6 Submission from Janet Chimonyo and Brendan O'Loughlin, URL:

7 E DEMOCRACY REVIEW, National Information and Library Service, December 2004, URL:

8 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, W3C Recommendation 5-May-1999, W3C URL:

9 Submission to the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry into Electronic Democracy, 13 January 2005, BLIND CITIZENS AUSTRALIA, URL:

10 Submission, Equal Opportunity Commission Victoria, 19 January 2005, URL:

11 Making an Accessible and Functional Website for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tom Worthington, Beijing, November 2003, URL:

12 Extreme web design, Tom Worthington, Notes for ANU course "Networked Information Systems" COMP2410/COMP3400/COMP634), URL:

13 Electronic Publishing Options for the Australian Computer Society, Tom Worthington, 2004, URL:

14 Technology for Competition in Broadband Services, Submission to the Australian Senate Inquiry into competition in broadband services, Tom Worthington, November 2003, URL:

15 Electronic Document Management, Notes for ANU course "Information Technology in Electronic Commerce" (COMP3410/COMP6341), Tom Worthington, 2004, URL:

16 See RSS in "Project Masticate: Capturing Australia's Scholarly Output", Tom Worthington, URL:

17 First Impressions of Transact, Tom Worthington, 1 May 2002, for ABC Radio, URL:

18 Metadata: the `killer application' for digital broadcasting?, Tom Worthington , April 2002, URL:

19 Digital Media Monitoring for Parliament, Catherine Gilbert, URL:

20 Electronic Voting in the ACT, Tom Worthington, on ABC Radio, 22 October 2001, URL:

21 Remove restriction on pre-poll votes? In Electronic Voting in the ACT, Tom Worthington, on ABC Radio, 22 October 2001, URL: