No weak links for FirstGov

The square blue and white, dishwasher-safe Cantonese porcelain serving dish: $25. The 1995 Bell 206L IV Helicopter: minimum bid, $805,000.

Information on health subjects ranging from Alzheimer's disease to vaccinations: priceless.

From the Smithsonian Institution online gift shop to the U.S. Marshals Service seized-property auction to the National Institutes of Health, the governmentwide Internet portal FirstGov is striving to provide the public easier access to more government services and benefits.

"Each day we are adding new sites and new services," said Deborah Diaz, who oversees the four-month-old portal from her post in the Office of Govern-ment-wide Policy at the General Services Administration.

In appearance, the FirstGov portal (www.firstgov.gov) hasn't changed substantially since it was launched Sept. 22. But in substance, the portal has bulked up.

One of the newest features is a page full of hot links to sites where viewers can conduct transactions online with government agencies—whether it is shopping at the Smithsonian, submitting a trademark application, obtaining a passport or comparing the quality of nursing home services.

Another new page whisks viewers to "a governmentwide compendium" of federal grants, loans and other forms of assistance. Financial assistance is offered for rural economic development, for promoting the arts, for temporarily helping needy families, for business development and for scores of other causes.

The page includes a search function to help grant seekers find grant providers.

There are also new links to federal business opportunities, a long list of links to state and local government resources and more extensive links to congressional sites and the federal courts.

As a portal, FirstGov does not contain much information itself, but serves as an online index to thousands of other government Web sites that offer information and services.

As expected, most FirstGov visitors use the portal to navigate to other government sites that provide benefits as varied as education loans, Social security payments, job listings and patent applications, said Diaz, who is deputy associate administrator of FirstGov. But FirstGov is also "acting as a window" that provides a glimpse of other government services.

"People come here looking for one thing and see other stuff that's interesting, too," she said.

GSA had been planning to "relaunch" the site with improvements in late December, but abandoned that idea in favor of adding new content and improved Web pages as they became available, Diaz said.

FirstGov has also upgraded its search engine, which is linked to more than 27 million pages the federal government has put on the Internet. Early criticism of the search engine was that it returned too many pages. A search for "oil," for example, turned up 302,251 Web pages. Even a more specific search for "strategic oil reserve" turned up 8,424 pages; critics claimed they were drowning in the deluge of information.

A new advanced search function helps fine-tune searches further, and an "exact phrase" search for "strategic oil reserve" turned up a more manageable 66 matches.

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