FirstGov gets juiced up

A day ahead of the three-month schedule President Clinton set for launching a governmentwide Internet portal, FirstGov flickered to life Sept. 22 on computer screens nationwide.

The portal, which bills itself as "Your first click to the U.S. government," provides easy access to government information and transactions online.

Through FirstGov (firstgov.gov), it is possible to apply for a job online, buy stamps from the Postal Service or shop from the Smithsonian Institution's online catalog. The portal provides links to topics ranging from agriculture and food to arts and culture. However, the central feature is a search engine with instantaneous access to 27 million federal Web pages.

President Clinton declared the portal "a breakthrough in one-stop shopping for government services."

"This isn't about the search engine, it's about having a government that understands electronic government," said Eric Brewer, co-founder of Inktomi Corp., which developed the search engine for the portal.

The portal is an essential steppingstone to e-government, said Brewer, speaking at the Sept. 22 news conference where the portal was unveiled. "It's a prerequisite for the kind of personalized services people want from government."

The idea behind the portal is to make it easy to search for government information and services by topic rather than by agency. Because FirstGov has access to all government Web pages, it is no longer necessary to know which agency holds what information or offers which services. If it is on the Internet, FirstGov will retrieve it regardless of where it is stored.

Federal information technology officials hope that the portal's ability to easily cross agency boundaries to locate information and services will be a first step toward building an electronic government that is user-friendly for citizens rather than agency-oriented.

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