E-news hits citizens' desktops

Uncle Sam wants to e-mail you. With an increasing number of Americans

and businesses using the Internet to spread information, more government

agencies have begun to tap cyberspace to communicate with the public.

Until recently, information was available online, but only if an Internet

user knew how to find an agency's World Wide Web site. Now, the government

is reaching out to citizens in new ways, and it doesn't cost a penny to

subscribe.

On March 1, the Social Security Administration inaugurated an electronic

newsletter designed for older American citizens. The monthly newsletter

could reach as many as 9 million older Americans who have computers in their

homes.

The idea is not new.

Online shopping is growing by leaps and bounds, and along with it, online

advertising targeted at consumers who order goods over the Internet. Bookstores,

catalog stores and other consumer outlets regularly share their online newsletters

with customers who have signed up for the service.

Internet users have even found themselves the target of unsolicited

advertising, or "spam," after visiting sites or placing orders on the Web.

But now it is the government's turn to create an interactive model for

sending information. By registering at SSA's Web site, subscribers to SSA's

newsletter will be able to tailor the newsletter to receive information

about specific issues that interest them.

Other federal agencies, including the White House, are e-mailing information

to subscribers. The Defense Department makes its automated e-mail notification

service available to anyone who wants to receive its press releases, events

and reports.

The Air Force news service does the same thing, as do many defense-related

Internet-based businesses.

The State Department has a service where it makes its publications available.

Users need only to sign up and submit their e-mail address.

By doing so, they can then receive an automatic e-mail message about

the situation in Kosovo or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's latest

congressional testimony. They can also receive e-mail updates of the daily

press briefings, a list of travel hot spots and the government's per diem

rates for its traveling workers.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is developing an e-mail

system to notify the public when new Webcasts are available on its Web site.

But the ultimate test of the virtual government will not occur until

2003 when the Paperwork Reduction Act mandates that all forms and applications

be online. "That's what people want from their government, and it will accelerate,"

said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions

Division of the Information Technology Association of America.

William Halter, SSA's chief operating officer, predicted that more federal

agencies will turn to e-mail as a quick and efficient way to communicate

with the public.

And it is not expected to cost the government much.

SSA is expected to spend $12,500 for the General Services Administration

to e-mail an unlimited number of newsletters to subscribers. SSA is also

expected to employ fewer than 10 workers to produce the newsletter.

But there is more to come. In the not-too-distant future, government

plans to become more interactive, and consumers will be able to e-mail an

agency and get answers to their questions without waiting on hold.

There is one distinct advantage. When you get tired of the e-mail traffic

and want to unsubscribe, just click your mouse.

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