Services with a smile

Federal agencies obviously are thinking "e."

That's "e" as in "electronic" but also as in "efficient."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the National Institutes of Health last week unveiled programs designed to ease the connection between people and government services. Such programs are debuting with increasing regularity.

* The INS has expanded its toll-free telephone service for immigrants. People interested in becoming a citizen can call using a touch-tone phone to ask a computer questions. The system, which relies on interactive voice response technology from Sprint, previously had been available only in a few states, mainly on the East Coast.

With the nationwide service, INS hopes to increase immigrants' access to information and reduce the number of call-in queries that involve live operators.

* NIH launched ClinicalTrials.gov, an online resource where people can access information on more than 4,000 federal and private clinical trials. Previously, people suffering from diseases with no known cure did not have a clearinghouse where they could look for studies that could possibly help them.

The NIH World Wide Web site is the first phase of a federally mandated program to broaden the public's access to information on clinical trials.

It's not only the federal government that's in this service-oriented state of mind. States, including Washington and Connecticut, are using the Web to reach out to residents.

* Washington travelers can check road and weather conditions at the state's new Web site, called rWeather. The state Department of Transportation created the site (test.wsdot.wa.gov/rwis) to help people make informed travel decisions. It includes real-time data from about 350 weather stations, traffic cameras and pass reports across the state, including warnings from the National Weather Service. It's being beta tested and is scheduled for an April launch.

* Connecticut has developed a Web site to give taxpayers and policy-makers unprecedented information about how the state spends the money it borrows through bonds. The new site (www.osc.state.ct.us/finance) provides a searchable database of every bond dollar the state has spent in the past five years. It will be updated each month.

The federal government is considering a similar proposal in the 2001 budget that would create an Internet site where taxpayers could get an itemized receipt of how their tax dollars are spent.

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