GSA launches citizen information service

FirstGov

Confused citizens no longer need to know how to contact the right office within the right agency to get a question about the federal government answered. The General Services Administration last week launched USA Services, a one-step process for people to get information via the telephone, e-mail or regular mail.

The service, accessible through the FirstGov Web site, connects citizens to the government's National Contact Center in Pueblo, Colo. Staff there can answer many questions within hours and almost all within two days, said M.J. Jameson, associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

The service also reroutes misdirected calls and e-mail messages to the right place, she said.

"It's going to save agencies money," Jameson said. "Why should they build their own systems when they can use ours?"

The service is one of the e-government initiatives on the President's Management Agenda and one of the most useful to citizens, said Mark Forman, administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of E-Government and Information Technology. "It's just too complicated to know who to contact within the government," he said.

"One thing the federal government does a lot of is answer citizen questions," said Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director of management. "They have questions; we're supposed to have answers."

Citizens' use of the Internet has risen sharply since agencies began work on the e-government initiatives, he said. In 2001, 6.7 million used the FirstGov site. By 2002, that number rose to 33 million, and 60 million are expected to visit this year.

To test USA Services, GSA set up a pilot with the Interior Department, said Theresa Nasif, director of the Federal Citizen Information Center. After training some members of the call center staff to answer Fish and Wildlife Service questions, the center began routing citizen inquiries there. The staff received about 300 e-mail messages and 50 phone calls a day and were able to answer about 95 percent of the questions themselves, she said. They referred the rest to Fish and Wildlife.

Funds for USA Services come from the center — about $11.5 million for 2003 — Nasif said. Jameson said the service will reroute misdirected e-mail messages for free, but will charge its partner agencies a "cost recovery" fee for answering questions on their behalf.

Meanwhile, citizens can continue to call agencies directly, Jameson said. The idea is not to cut off any lines of communication, but to provide one simple method to ensure everybody can find a way in to the government.

"They can contact anyone they want," she said. "We just want to make sure there's only one door."

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A quick start

Departments already signed up to use USA Services include:

* Agriculture.

* Energy.

* Health and Human Services.

* Interior.

* Labor.

* Justice.

* State.

* General Services Administration.

* Treasury.

* Small Business Administration.

* Housing and Urban Development.

* Social Security Administration.

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