The Circuit

Sawing Away on the Internet

Members of Congress are still having trouble using the Internet, no

matter how hard they are pushing the digital revolution.

During a recent House Small Business Subcommittee hearing on the implications

of electronic commerce, it became apparent that subcommittee chairman Rep.

Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) was not as Internet-savvy as perhaps he should be — after all, his subcommittee is one of the first stops these days for the

e-commerce train. But Bartlett told of his efforts to find a 16-inch saw

to build a log cabin.

Unable to find the item in a store, Bartlett asked his son, an "Internet

expert," to search the World Wide Web. Bartlett never quite explained why

he didn't do it himself. But his son found the saw, purchased it, and Bartlett

was able to continue laboring on his Lincoln Logs.

Uncle Sam Online for You

Got a question for the government but don't know who to ask? Soon you

will be able to e-mail Uncle Sam. That's the vision the CIO Council, the

President's Management Council, the National Partnership for Reinventing

Government and other government organizations have for a future portal to

the federal government.

Modeled after AskJeeves.com, the commercial Web site that answers questions

from A to Z, the AskUncleSam.gov site will be a central point of entrance

to federal government information. The site is secured, but a company already

owns the AskUncleSam.com domain and that could spell trouble down the line

for consumers trying to find answers and confusing dot-gov with dot-com.

It's Not All Work and No Play

Peter Thorp, Netscape Communications Corp.'s vice president for federal

business, isn't a champ just on the Internet battlefield. He's a soccer

coach, too, with a world-class team from Potomac, Md. The U-14 boys' team,

which includes his son Eric, is the Maryland state champion and will be

competing in the Nike Cup World Championship. Just how much time does Thorp

spend on the team? About two nights a week, he says. "The Web enabled us

to communicate," he said.

Meanwhile, word on the soccer field is that another well-known Internet

executive wrote a not-so-puny check to help his child's travel soccer team

stay competitive on and off the field. The team is thinking about going

to Europe to play, too. Needless to say, doing high-tech business with the

federal government is very, very profitable these days.

Crying Wolf?

IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti is singing the blues to Congress about

how much money the agency needs to modernize its computer systems and keep

doing audits. In the last three years, the number of audits performed has

dropped by one-third because of the lack of money to hire staff to scrutinize

taxpayer returns for errors or fraud, he said.

That's hardly any comfort to Pacific Bell, which is facing a complaint

by New Networks Institute. NNI has accused Pacific Bell of taking tax deductions

totaling $3.4 billion for replacing copper wiring with fiber optics, costing

$250 to every residential customer.

But according to NNI, the work was never done. The IRS has confirmed that

it will evaluate NNI's claims against Pacific Bell's write-offs. The institute,

a New York-based consumer group for telecommunications issues, has filed

similar complaints against the other Baby Bells.

The Old-Fashioned Way

Meanwhile, Tim Schmidt, director of end-user computing support at the

IRS, addressed a knowledge management conference April 11 in Washington,

D.C., and proved that old habits die hard.

"You've heard of the kinder, gentler IRS? You have a week left to file,"

he joked. The IRS has spent billions of dollars on computers and software

to improve performance and better satisfy its "customers," who are still

under the gun to file by April 17.

Cheaper to Outsource

The Transportation Administrative Service Center Computer Center, which

offers data processing and data storage services to government agencies

on a fee-for-service basis, is slated to close this summer in favor of procuring

the services from industry.

The Transportation Department's inspector general recommended closing

the center in a report last March because it charged twice as much for processing

and six times as much for storage compared with other federal centers. Although

it won't meet the May 1 deadline imposed by Congress, DOT expects to shut

down the Washington-based center by summer.

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