10 sites to watch

The Internet was born in the federal government. But you wouldn't know it

by looking at most federal World Wide Web sites.

Many agencies have used the Internet for not much more than "brochureware,"

posting cold, bureaucratic explanations of agency missions. However, some

agencies have aggressively moved to tear down the bureaucratic walls that

have isolated the government from the public.

Like commercial Web sites, these sites offer e-commerce applications,

chances for interactive discussions and portals that bring order to mountains

of public information. In doing so, they give people the information or

services they need to make better decisions and improve their lives.

To find these sites, Federal Computer Week interviewed Internet experts

in and out of government to seek opinions on which sites rise above the

ordinary.

The resulting sites may not be as well known as those created by larger

agencies such as NASA or the Internal Revenue Service. But they have one

thing in common: They've broken ground by bringing the federal government

closer to the public by making it easier to work with agencies and to access

hard-to-get information.

"[The Web] saves the citizen time and money," said Ari Schwartz, a policy

analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology who follows how the government

uses the Internet. "They don't have to wait in line to get a government

form. That particularly benefits those in rural areas, the disabled...the

citizens that need it the most. It allows for greater government accountability.

That provides a much greater sense of democratic involvement, of accountability

from where the taxpayer dollars are going to."

Most of all, these Web services have the power to improve government's

connection with the public. "Most of us, before the Web, didn't talk to

citizens," said Candi Harrison, Web manager at the Department of Housing

and Urban Development. "The Web did that; it brought them right to our faces.

I think it makes the government responsive to citizens, as it should be."

Despite the success these agencies have had online, government still

can do more to develop better interactive relations with the public, said

French Caldwell, research director for knowledge management and e-government

at Gartner Group Inc., an IT consulting group.

"There is some capability for people to be able to access government

information — some ability for people to download forms. But there are not

many places where you can go and fill out a form and submit that" electronically

to a government office or agency, he said. "I think most government agencies

are still in a place where they see providing information as their primary

Web strategy."

To fully realize the Web's capabilities, government is going to have

to change the role of the Web in its relationship to people, Caldwell said.

That will mean developing the "rules and regulations for making interactive

relationships with government agencies," he said. "But that's the future,

and I don't think anyone is there yet."

Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C. Hayes is a freelance writer

based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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