Portal would customize federal info

Federal officials are hoping that the new FirstGov Internet portal, designed to provide citizens with a one-stop shop for all government information, will also push agencies to work together on related public services.

"This is the first time that the government is really taking a serious step forward in breaking down the stovepipes," said George Molaski, co-chairman of the CIO Council's E-Government Committee. "This is just a huge step forward in doing what we're all talking about" — organizing government by services rather than by agencies.

A key portion of the FirstGov project is a branding campaign, in which private-sector organizations, called FirstGov Certified Partners, will organize and present federal information for specific users. Partners could include businesses, universities or individuals.

The branding will allow the private sector to present federal information from any agency, regardless of which agency produces it. By doing so, the private sector could find ways to add extra value to that information, said Bill Piatt, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Enterprise Interoperability and Emerging IT Committee.

For example, a Web site for farmers could collect from a single area on the FirstGov Web site information on seed prices from the Commerce Department, tractor emissions testing from the Environmental Protection Agency, weather reports from the National Weather Service and tips on hiring soil conservationists from the Labor Department.

Marty Wagner, associate administrator for governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration, said the public should have a better way to access government services, and the way the site is organized will encourage agencies to improve the way they manage services.

"If this works well, this has a chemical reaction," Wagner said. To become a FirstGov Certified Partner, an organization must meet a series of conditions to guarantee that it will provide the same privacy protections as if the information came directly from the government. The FirstGov board of directors will check to make sure companies are complying with the standards, which are out for comment.

"The citizens have a right to — and do expect from the government — certain things in terms of privacy and accessibility," said Roger Baker, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Security, Privacy and Critical Infrastructure Committee and CIO at the Commerce Department.

The board of directors, made up of eight members of the President's Management Council and three federal chief information officers, will develop and manage the FirstGov portal. Working with a $3 million to $5 million budget donated by agencies, the portal will provide basic information from federal Web sites. Web site architects also plan to provide a search engine that will pull from a database of all federal Web pages, indexed and maintained by a not-for-profit organization created by Inktomi Corp. co-founder Eric Brewer.

Brewer, using the "spidering" technology he developed at Berkeley to find and index Web sites, will keep track of all 25,000 federal Web sites, which include more than 100 million pages, in a database that users can search.

The GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy has been working on FirstGov's predecessor, WebGov, for almost four years. With Brewer's contribution, the development of the portal should move more quickly, and it should be running within the next four months, said Dave Barram, GSA administrator. "We don't have all the answers to this, but we're moving forward in Internet time more than Washington time," he said.

By providing easier access to government information, FirstGov developers hope that agencies will pay more attention to their Web sites and how citizens use them, Barram said.

"The more visible [the sites] are and the more easy they are to get to...the natural, powerful drive will be to make them better, higher quality," he said. "This is going to shine a light — and a good light."

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