4 steps to accessible websites

Trouble-free websites with Federalist

Federal agencies frequently redesign or update their websites to better serve the public. And to make it easier for agencies to make those changes, the General Services Administration's 18F group created the Federalist program, which this week launched its 100th static website through cloud.gov.

The Federalist open source publishing system was announced in September 2015 and came out of beta in June 2017 with a full suite of tools to help agencies with authorization, login, audit trails, database management and vulnerability scanning. The platform's backend is accessible only to 18F employees who maintain the system.

Federalist is built on cloud.gov’s Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program-authorized platform.  The FedRAMP authorization makes website development and management easier and provides a level of “universal trust,” Will Slack, who runs the Federalist program, told GCN. 

18F also manages the voluntary  U.S. Web Design Standards, which provide page templates and user interface guides to help agencies build accessible, responsive and consistent websites. Federalist websites are automatically configured to comply with the standards, and agencies can test prototypes before making new versions of their sites available to the public.

Once agencies sign up with Federalist, the team works with them on website design based on templates that are already in use.  Sites can be up and running in as little as 22 days, but paperwork often delays the process.

“Most people at agencies are not technically capable, so they need to experiment … with the front-end design,” Slack said.  “Once they get live on the [Federalist] platform, they are able to do some experimentation and iterate through different possibilities.”

Websites can be designed through HTML code or with Jekyll and Hugo website generators that help coders design the content of a website and assemble it as part of the building process.

“Instead of managing complex HTML files, it is much simpler to write up the content in a language called Markdown to manage it,” Slack said.  “We’ve heard horror stories of people who are not able to manage their websites, and [Federalist] allows federal employees to make changes on their own timetable.”

Federalist simplifies a process that sometimes forced agencies to reach out to contractors to modify their websites or upload reports, changes that could take up to a month to process.  The program allows agencies to make changes directly to their sites without help from the 18F team.

Slack’s team is available to help with site updates, but it doesn't spend much time troubleshooting because of the functionality programmed into the platform, he said.  When Federalist builds multiple codes for a site, users can make changes through a pull request and get a warning if there is something wrong with the code.

“The users are changing something in how their website appears and presents, noting doing anything that impacts the operating system of the web hosting, how the website looks, audit trails, authentication or authorization,” Slack said.  “They don’t have to worry about server acquisition, facility management or utility management because all of those things are abstracted away from them.”

Federalist stores the information on all of its websites in Amazon Web Services Simple Storage Service, and the code is maintained on GitHub.

In November, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a report benchmarking federal government websites based on page-load speed, mobile friendliness, security and accessibility. The Federalist-designed vote.gov had the highest overall score based on the metrics.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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