New wave of Web sites

The World Wide Web has had a dramatic impact on government's ability to communicate with the general public. Just watch what happens as federal agencies really begin to work at it.

Information portals, interactive services, e-commerce — the possibilities seem endless for those and other applications to transform nearly every segment of the federal government.

A few major agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and NASA, have made a name for themselves by using the Web to share news and information with the public. We now see a new wave of agencies across government that are looking for ways to apply e-business applications and create e-government.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are taking bids online. The Federal Aviation Administration has created a Web site that provides up-to-the-minute information on airport delays.

Those applications, although somewhat isolated, are a sign of things to come. Agencies truly are beginning to realize that the Web can play a central role in how they deliver services.

This is a radical change, but that's easy to forget. For most of this country's history, people outside the Washington, D.C., vicinity have not had easy access to even "boilerplate" information about federal agencies, such as its key programs and contact information.

In fact, most people rarely think about federal agencies, except when it comes time to file taxes or for Social Security benefits. The government, otherwise, has remained a shadowy presence — impersonal and out of reach.

The Web has changed this. Federal agencies have a readily accessible venue through which they can provide information as fast as their IT staff members can write HTML code. From that perspective, even online agency "boilerplate" information is a significant change.

Agencies can take it further by building interactive applications to improve services or by creating new services. True e-government is still a long way off, but the 10 site featured in the cover story are showing us how we might get there.

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