Online but off-target

Last December, President Clinton wrote in his Memorandum on Electronic Government that "as public awareness and Internet usage increase, the demand for online government interaction and simplified, standardized ways to access government information and services becomes increasingly important."

It is clear many agencies are making strides in providing online interaction with the public, but they may get the details right and fail to meet the spirit of online interaction.

Recently a public dispute has emerged over the willingness of the Department of Health and Human Services to accept comments via fax. The agency contends that the public can send comments via the agency's World Wide Web site and via traditional mail (three copies required). HHS officials say they are not equipped to handle faxed comments. In the case that caused the dispute, the agency reportedly failed to receive about 2,300 comments from the public on proposed medical privacy regulations because the fax machine jammed after the first 100 comments.

Why is the agency unwilling to receive faxed comments? It cannot be that these comments are not electronic; they accept mailed comments. It cannot be that they do not have a legally recognized signature; neither do the comments submitted online. Why is the agency imposing a higher standard — such as requiring three copies of comments if sent by mail — on those segments of the public who do not have easy access to the Web?

The story hit the papers after the American Civil Liberties Union helped send faxes to HHS from the ACLU's Web site, which raises a subsequent question. Obviously, the folks who sent faxes through the ACLU have Web access. So why did the ACLU not just link them to HHS' comment submission site? The ACLU should have done so. The HHS site is well-designed and clearly written.

It is also, however, impossible to find on the agency's home page. Although I had the less-than-intuitive Web address (aspe.hhs.gov/admnsimp), I decided to try to find the site the way a member of the general public might. HHS did not provide a mention of the rule on its home page, and the Web site for comments did not come up when I conducted a search under the terms "medical," "privacy," "rule" and "comment on rule."

So what happens if people coming from outside Web sites get disconnected? Do they have to retrace their steps through the outside site or search through the Federal Register to find the URL? This is not user-friendly.

Clinton is right that the public is going to demand more online interaction with its government. The attempts of 2,400 people to send comments to HHS is certainly evidence of this. But not all of the public is online yet. Agencies must accommodate the participation of those who are not fully interactive, without imposing extra burdens on them. And agencies need to get with the program and make the opportunities to participate easily identifiable and accessible. The temptation to let efficiency trump equity and the maximization of public participation must be resisted.

McDermott is an information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

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