A tall order for FirstGov

Everyone is talking about e-government. That's puzzling because no one can say what e-government really is and so no one really knows what's being talked about. Perhaps e-government is like the weather — everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

If e-government means agencies doing business electronically, then we are a long, long way from getting there.

The United States is in the 10th year of technology-driven economic expansion with no end in sight, and yet more than two-thirds of American manufacturers do not conduct business electronically. And government business is still heavily paper-captive and manually performed.

You can talk all you want about office automation and enterprise resource planning for the digital future, but the fact is that cyber-whiz information technology will not of itself change the way government does business.

Changing technology is quick and easy. However, changing business processes is slow and often painful, especially in government. Unless the technology and business processes fit hand in glove, the technology cannot fulfill its promise.

That's why I am distinctly underwhelmed by the announcement of the new government World Wide Web portal, FirstGov.

First, one-stop shopping sites on the Internet are not new, and I don't see why FirstGov will be any different. The Federal Web Locator (www.infoctr.edu/fwl) was launched in 1994 and has been joined by InfoMine, Gov-Bot, SearchGov and others.

One-stop subject-matter sites such as FedStats for federal statistics represent another valuable approach and have also been around for awhile.

Second, what happens all too routinely with bold new initiatives such as FirstGov is that they start off with a bang, aided by a big helping of public relations, and then fizzle further down the road.

The enthusiastic techies behind the launch move on to other challenges. Initial fervor cools. Agencies get distracted. Today's bold departure becomes yesterday's news, shrivels and dies, unless its founders establish an enduring structure to ensure continuity.

Third, the quality of Web portals, one-stop sites and even individual agency Web sites depends on content that is current, accurate and well organized.

That means someone must spend time and effort to keep up with the sites, adding fresh content and removing stale postings, monitoring quality standards and keeping tabs on user preferences.

When we're talking about the entire federal establishment, no one is so foolish as to assert that all the Web sites are current, accurate and well organized. Quality ranges from outstanding to abysmal, but far too many sites fall at the abysmal end.

FirstGov may do a superb job of accessing all those sites. But when you access garbage at nanospeed, it's still garbage. And FirstGov won't bring e-government any closer, whatever it may be.

—Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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