FirstGov: All bark, no bite
- By Patrice McDermott
- Aug 14, 2000
First there was the flurry around President Clinton's Dec. 17 memo about
strengthening public access to federal government information and services.
We were hopeful about the plan that set out to develop a World Wide Web
service to "promote access to government information organized not by agency,
but by the type of service or information that people may be seeking."
And now there is FirstGov. What a letdown!
As envisioned in the mock-up presented on the firstgov.gov site, FirstGov
is not a portal or a Web service; it is at best a click-through. That would
only be a disappointment and not a big deal except that a number of agencies
are being asked to cough up real money (in the millions of dollars) to support
Identifying and organizing information, as the president said, "in a
way that makes it easier for the public to find the information it seeks,"
would be worth some real money. And it takes real money to do it. General
Services Administration officials say that when the site rolls out, it will
have some topics. But it also appears that they plan to punt most of the
intellectual and monetary costs to agencies.
Some agencies have begun this task — the Environmental Protection Agency
and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are two examples. But
GSA and the Office of Management and Budget have given no indication of
plans to support or nurture this work. They also have not indicated any
clear plan to tie all those efforts together at the FirstGov site.
They hope that agencies with like concerns, such as the EPA and the
Energy Department, will develop some joint taxonomies. But it is a hope
that, apparently, is up to the agencies to fulfill. It seems that agencies
will have to build the crosswalks between the stove-pipes of agency information.
Even worse, the public might be misled into thinking that the information
FirstGov displays is everything the government has to show on a given topic
(assuming, of course, that the topic is listed or that users can guess what
topic words agencies used in creating their documents).
Because there is no meaningful government information locator service,
the public will likely not learn about anything that is not on an agency
Web site. And the information standard under-lying the federal, state and
international locator service may not be incorporated by the FirstGov search
engine developer. OMB's failures in information policy leadership will limit
the completeness of the information the public will receive from their searches.
The FirstGov board is working at great speed on this and with clearly
good intentions. But just as clearly, public and agency comment should
be actively sought on this initiative now, while it is still in development,
because it needs some serious re-envisioning. Otherwise, the president's
legacy will be a multimillion-dollar Web page, not real access to the information
the public wants, needs and has a right to know.
—McDermott is an information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government
watchdog group in Washington, D.C.