Senate offices set to offer Web access to employees

The Senate has given its employees access to the World Wide Web, its latest effort to keep pace with technology being used by the private sector.

Each Senate office will determine which staff members in Washington, D.C., and offices throughout the country will be linked to this expanding section of the Internet, but the Senate's fiber-optic network can support access by everyone, a Senate Rules and Administration Committee aide said.

In testing its network capacity, the Senate previously had allowed only six members of each committee staff and three members of each personal office staff to use the Web, the aide said.

"We have seen we can definitely handle the demand with the fiber backbone we have in place," he added.

In expanding Web access, the Senate appears to have pulled ahead of many executive branch agencies. While it is difficult to determine precisely how many federal employees have full Internet access, only a few agencies—mainly those involved in scientific research—report connections for most or all of their workers.

The House Information Services has also provided Web access to employees there at least since the beginning of the year, and each individual office decides who gets access.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Rules panel that oversees Senate operations, said at a hearing earlier this month that lawmakers do not want to fall behind their constituents as electronic mail, video and Internet services become ubiquitous. A study of the Senate's information technology resources completed late last month by Performance Engineering Corp. (PEC) concluded that the Senate's systems are "on a par with the best in the federal government" and use standards "that are squarely in the mainstream of the industry."

But the study also noted a "lack of emphasis on conducting a requirements analysis and including users in selecting, prioritizing and planning the introduction of new technologies."

PEC recommended that the Senate reorganize its computing and telecommunications management offices so that they are better coordinated as well as develop a strategic plan linked to its budget, including an information systems architecture.

That advice echoes guidance the General Accounting Office has given executive branch agencies for managing their information resources.

In addition, PEC said the Senate needs to establish a security policy and train users how to protect their systems. "Lack of security awareness and guidelines within the Senate offices is a weak link in the chain," the firm said.

At its Dec. 7 hearing, the Rules committee asked GAO and private-sector experts how it should go about managing and upgrading its technology. Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ken.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, questioned how the Senate could keep its members supplied with the latest systems when technology is advancing so rapidly.

Kimberly Jenkins, chairwoman of Highway 1, a group of vendors who are advising Congress on ways to use new communications technologies, said lawmakers do not always need to buy "the latest gizmo" to do their work. Meanwhile, Carl Patch, manager of strategic supplier programs with Mobil Oil, suggested the Senate establish a life-cycle plan for its equipment so that desktop systems are periodically updated.

When Jenkins suggested that new communications technology could help lawmakers in their re-election efforts, Warner quickly rejoined that the Senate has to be sure lawmakers do not use their office systems for campaign purposes.

"We've instituted within our committee structure a watchdog system," Warner said, adding that the panel would also monitor lawmakers' communications to be sure they do not post information that the public might find "distasteful and offensive."

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