FirstGov: All bark, no bite

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

this. Why?

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.

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