AOL: Leave e-gov to the pros

When it comes to building electronic government, federal agencies should leave the tough technical details to the pros, an America Online official has advised.

"The mistake I've seen is that government agencies are trying to be AOL or Yahoo," Kathleen deLaski told a congressional subcommittee Monday. Ambitious agencies have wasted time and money trying to create their own Internet portals, only to learn what many unfortunate dot-com companies have already discovered: "You can build it, but they won't necessarily come," said deLaski, AOL's group director for editorial products, government and politics.

Concerned that federal agencies have fallen behind states, localities and businesses at using the Internet, the House Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee turned to deLaski and other Internet experts for advice.

"Government agencies should specialize in what they do best — delivering service," deLaski said. Creating successful Internet portals requires expertise far beyond the capabilities of most federal agencies, and therefore government should leave it to industry, she recommended.

Agencies should digitize their information and arrange it in such a way that it can be used by the public, deLaski said. "If the applications are good, we — the commercial portals — will promote them and send you traffic," she said.

Less than six months ago, America Online opened a government portal (www.governmentguide.com) that organizes federal agency World Wide Web sites by what "consumers" want rather than by what agencies are offering.

The site guides viewers to information such as how to file taxes electronically, where to apply for student loans and how to get a passport. By April, the site was attracting 13 million viewers a month, deLaski said. "We're starting to drive traffic to government information and applications."

But simply providing citizens with information, conducting transactions such as accepting tax returns or receiving electronic applications for services is not enough. Those "are no-brainers," said George Molaksi, chief information officer at the Transportation Department.

E-government offers the opportunity to let people participate in government, he said. "We need to make them partners in the deliberations on issues we are wrestling with," and be responsive to citizens' suggestions for change, he told the subcommittee.

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