Webmasters endorse council

The Federal Webmasters Forum, a loose confederation of federal employees who work to advance the role of the Internet in government, last week voted to establish a new council that would attempt to develop policies for the increasing number of issues evolving from the rapid growth of digital government.

Tentatively called the ELeadership Web Council, the group would help train the next generation of Internet standard-bearers in government, who are being called on to tackle increasingly complex projects as federal World Wide Web organizations take on more responsibility.

The Internet, Webmasters say, is evolving from a mere posting board of government information to a way to participate in government programs and check on public services. For example, the public can go online to apply for a federal job, find out about projected Social Security benefits or bid on a wild horse in an online auction through the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The vote marks an acknowledgment by the Federal Webmasters Forum that the role of the Internet within agencies is changing swiftly, and that more focus needs to be drawn to the growing importance of virtual interaction between the public and government.

Federal Webmasters predict that as the government offers more services online, Americans will become more dependent on a virtual link to federal agencies.

"I see all of this as very evolutionary," said Roger Baker, chief information officer for the Commerce Department. When Baker arrived at Commerce, he said, the department's Web site was a "storefront," meaning it did nothing more than post information about the department.

Now, the public can use the Commerce site to file for trademark applications and order maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and during Census 2000, many Americans will be able to file census forms online, Baker said.

However, much of what federal employees need to know to run a successful Web project has not been part of their government training, said Charles "Chuck" Payne, chief of the Electronic Products and Services Division of the U.S. Mint.

"A lot of people doing Web work in the government are rookies, and they don't have the business side and the strategic side of the equation," he said. "They aren't exposed to do this on a day-to-day basis."

The Mint this year launched a Web site devoted to selling new coins. The site collects about $200,000 in revenue each day, Payne said during a demonstration at the forum.

The ELeadership Web Council may hold its first meeting as early as October, said Rich Kellett, a General Services Administration official and co-founder of the Federal Webmasters Forum. "With the Internet, you've got to move with speed," Kellett said.

Most of the roughly 40 people who attended last week's quarterly meeting of the forum endorsed the idea for the council. "If we share our experiences and help one another through the learning curve, that's the benefit," said Carolyn Offutt, Webmaster for the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program.

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