The end of government as we know it
- By William Matthews
- Sep 18, 2000
If all it does is make possible instantaneous searches of the 40 million
pages the federal government has posted on the Internet, FirstGov would
be a useful tool and a rather remarkable achievement. But Bill Piatt, the
godfather of FirstGov, is convinced that the impact of the governmentwide
portal is going to be much more profound.
The portal has the potential to transform the very structure and operation
of the vast federal bureaucracy, contends Piatt, chief information officer
at the General Services Administration. And the changes won't be long in
coming.As soon as the portal goes online, for example, it will force federal agencies
to be more open by making their online information far easier for the public
to find. It also will direct the public to agency sites where online transactions
can be carried out, helping to lay the foundation for electronic government.
But the portal's more significant impact will be seen when agencies
begin to understand how they can use the site to develop better ways to
serve the public, said Piatt, who plans to leave GSA this month to be director
of e-government strategy at Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc.
a new generation of multiagency Internet sites focused on the services the
government provides rather than on the offerings of specific agencies. He
anticipates greater agency responsiveness to what the public wants on the
Internet because, for the first time, agencies will have a means to measure
the public's interest as they tally the number of visitors to government
The portal is even likely to promote some streamlining of the bureaucracy,
Piatt said. If two agencies discover that they duplicate each other's efforts,
one is likely to eliminate that part of its operation and simply link to
the other agency. Tight budgets and the opportunity to save money will prevail
over traditional turf claims, he said.
All this from an Internet site?
"The power of this idea is going to reveal itself to the government
community and the dot-com community over the months to come," Piatt predicted.
"I'm not that concerned that everybody doesn't intuitively get it at this
Doing it All in One Place
FirstGov.gov looks like a relatively simple Internet site maintained
by GSA. A prototype of the site features links to other government Web sites,
highlights interesting government information and includes a box for sending
comments to government agencies. The site's most important element, however,
is a search box that will link viewers to every page the U.S. government
President Clinton described FirstGov in June, when construction began
on the site, as the "single point of entry to one of the largest — perhaps
the most useful — collection of Web pages in the entire world. Whether you
want crucial information in starting a small business, or you want to track
your Social Security benefits, you can do it all in one place, 24 hours
a day, seven days a week."
But that only describes part of the power of the portal.
Behind the FirstGov facade resides a huge database/index containing
the full text of every government Web page. There is also a search engine
that can scan the database for key words. When it finds them, it returns
a short summary of the pages and their Web addresses to the searcher.
The search engine runs almost incomprehensibly fast. It can search half
a billion documents in less than a quarter of a second and is designed to
capably manage 200,000 simultaneous searches.
The index is a gift to the nation from Eric Brewer, a University of
California computer science professor and co-founder of the search engine
company Inktomi Inc. Brewer created the nonprofit Fed-Search Foundation
to compile and operate the database for two years. The database employs
Inktomi search engine technology. To explain how FirstGov works, Piatt offered an example involving an individual searching for information on environmental cleanup sites on the government's
Superfund list. The searcher begins by typing "Superfund" into the search
box at the FirstGov site. In a fraction of a second, the search engine streaks
through the index, pulling out a brief summary and the Web address of each
government document that contains the word Superfund.
The result is likely to be a list of thousands of documents produced
by dozens of agencies, Piatt said. The search can be narrowed by including
other words, such as the location of a specific Superfund site or the name
of a particular agency.
But with FirstGov, for the first time, anyone searching for government
information can be assured that if it has been placed on the Internet, it
can be found, Piatt said. A search with other engines available on the Internet,
such as Yahoo, Google, Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves, will comb through only
about 20 to 25 percent of the government's Web pages, he said.
Function Over Fiefdom
FirstGov serves a potentially more significant purpose. By making it
possible to find information by keywords, the portal emphasizes function
It is no longer necessary to know whether the International Trade Commission,
the Agriculture Department or some other agency controls particular agricultural
export activities. FirstGov should make it possible to find needed information
or services related to exports wherever they reside.
Faster, easier access to government information and services is the
promise information technology brings to government — and to the governed.
"The average citizen has no clue what most of the 70 federal agencies
do," said Janet Caldow, director of IBM's Institute for Electronic Government.
That services are delivered is far more important than which agencies they
come from, she said.
That is the reason Internet portals hold a prominent place in most plans
for e-government at the state and local levels and at the national level
abroad. They make it possible for citizens to obtain the information and
services they need without having to ponder which agency controls which
Many states and some foreign governments are already far ahead of the
U.S. government in providing easy-to-use online services. Government portals
now make it possible to renew a driver's license in Virginia, pay a water
bill in Texas, and renew a business license and apply for health benefits
When compared with those capabilities, the FirstGov portal "is kind
of a yawn," Caldow said. The federal government has far to go to fully tap
the potential of the Internet, she said.
"The private sector is moving so fast and government is being left behind,"
Caldow said. "We need to start closing the gap."
The portal has the potential to do that, said John Leahy, group manager
for government affairs at Sun Microsystems Inc. Portals pull related functions
from different agencies together. It should be possible for an individual
to file a tax return, receive a refund and have it deposited electronically
in one transaction, he said.
"Once this thing gets started, my opinion is that it will grow rapidly,"
he said. "This may be the first step toward organizing government by services
rather than by agencies." Sun is supplying the servers that will operate
the portal software.
More Popular Than Disney — Sometimes
The private sector has already begun to capitalize on consumers' demand
for easy-to-use online government information and services.
Search engine operator Google Inc. launched a federal information finder
(google.com/unclesam), and a plethora of politically oriented dot-coms set
up shop in time to capitalize on presidential, congressional and local election
And Internet giant America Online started its government portal in December.
"From our view, it has been extremely successful," said Kathleen DeLaski,
AOL's group director for editorial products, government and politics. "Traffic
has doubled every quarter."
The portal, called Government Guide, directs users to a smorgasbord
of government services, from how to apply for senior citizen benefits and
student loans to how to start a small business. AOL's portal offers access
to government tax forms and up-to-date weather reports. The site shows you
who your representatives are in Congress and how to contact them, as well
as what's for sale at government auctions.
The demand for such information became obvious in last spring, when
AOL Web monitors watched as April 15 — tax day — approached and the number
of people clicking on the Internal Revenue Service Web site surpassed the
number of visitors to Disney's site, DeLaski said.
"We thought we should find a way to serve that up," she said.
"AOL's mission is to make it easier to get information," and the Government
Guide portal does that by organizing government by the services it offers,
"not the alphabet soup of government agencies," DeLaski said.
Earlier this year, AOL began adding links to state and local services
to Government Guide, providing its 24 million subscribers with easy access
to services from driver's license renewals to state and local consumer affairs
"We get terrific, positive e-mail about putting stuff together" that
makes dealing with government easier, DeLaski said.
Ed DeSeve, a senior government official turned technology consultant,
said the portal is a technological and cultural leap that will prove as
important as the one made by the advent of TV.
"It's almost as if today is radio and the portal is a step into TV,"
said Deseve, who was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget
until 1999, when he joined the consulting firm KPMG.
"What we really want is interactive TV," but "we're just getting started,"
he said. "The portal is an essential piece of the infrastructure of electronic
Not everyone in the portal business is as positive, however.
The Software Information Industry Association worries that FirstGov,
with its free, comprehensive access to government information, may prove
to be tough competition for Internet companies scrambling to make money
by selling access to information.
GSA has encouraged such businesses to sign up as "licensed partners"
that would serve as additional access points to FirstGov, but some businesses
have bridled at the terms of the proposed partnerships.
Two conditions in particular have rankled Internet companies: Partners
would not be allowed to track FirstGov users' movements through the site,
and they would not be allowed to post advertisements on FirstGov pages.
Tracking Internet users is a lucrative business for many Internet companies,
which sell information about Web surfing habits to marketers. Advertisements
are another revenue source.
For-profit Internet companies also would be charged a $25,000 sign-up
fee, $2,000 a month and a small fee for each search performed, according
The fees are intended to cover the cost of providing the partners with
"their own private doorway" into FirstGov, Piatt said. Commercial Internet
companies have enough users to generate "industrial-strength queries," and
"there are some costs associated with that," he said.
FirstGov managers plan to let nonprofit organizations and government
agencies create access points to the portal for free. And GSA has made it
clear that any Web site may, without cost, post a link to FirstGov. But
most Internet companies are reluctant to do so because it would direct traffic
away from their sites.
In an attempt to address that concern, Piatt said FirstGov plans to
offer Internet companies the option of placing on their Web pages a FirstGov
search box that will open FirstGov as a separate page on the user's screen
without closing the original page.
It is unclear whether that alternative will satisfy Internet companies.
They would prefer to integrate FirstGov into their own products and formats,
said David LeDuc, legislative policy manager for the Software Information
Industry Association. But for many, FirstGov's ban on advertising and user
tracking appears to preclude that.
"In concept, FirstGov is a tremendous service to people, but when you
get farther into it, the way it's structured is a little alarming," LeDuc
"Who owns the Fed-Search database/index?" asks Gary Bass, director of
OMB Watch, a government watchdog organization. Bass said it is unclear whether
the index will be public property or be owned and controlled by the Fed-Search
If it is public information, it should be available for use without
such restrictions as the partnership conditions, he said.
If companies don't like FirstGov's partnership conditions, they are
free to create their own indexes of government Web pages and create their
own portals, Piatt counters. "As long as they are serious about it, we would
work with them," he said.
But the cost and technical challenge of duplicating FirstGov probably
would prevent many from accepting that offer.
Meantime, FirstGov is ready to debut. What happens next, Piatt hopes,
will be determined mainly by FirstGov users.
"The next step is really going to be to unleash innovation," he said.
Piatt foresees the emergence of "cross-departmental Web sites" organized
not by agency but by the kind of service or type of information users are
seeking. They would bring a consumer service orientation to government.
"The agencies want to do this; they just don't know how to get started,"
Piatt said. "I honestly believe innovation will come from places we least