FirstGov ready for next page

Federal agencies have been adding more than a million Web pages a month to the vast collection of pages available to the public through FirstGov, the governmentwide Web portal. The latest tally of government pages is 35 million, according to Tom Freebairn, a senior official in the FirstGov office at the General Services Administration. That's up from 27 million pages when FirstGov went online Sept. 25.

The pages are counted by FirstGov's search engine, which was designed to track down and retrieve all nonclassified federal government pages on the Internet.

Not all of the additional pages are new, according to another GSA official. Some are pages initially withheld from the FirstGov search engine by agencies that did not want to make them widely available.

FirstGov is the government's first step toward "Web-enabled government," said Roger Baker, chief information officer at the Commerce Department. However, the government lacks a plan for taking additional steps, he said.

Baker and Freebairn spoke Thursday during a conference on Web-enabled government.

During its first six months in operation, FirstGov has steadily increased its offering of links to government information and services, and its search engine has been fine-tuned to conduct more specific searches. Next, GSA wants to make the site "more dynamic," Freebairn said.

Site designers want to make it easier to change links in the Interesting Topics and Featured Subjects sections of the portal. "We want to be able to change topics daily or even hourly" to keep up with events, Freebairn said.

He said FirstGov operators also want to improve the portal's feedback feature, which is intended to direct comments to the appropriate federal agencies.

How much improvement will be possible remains a question, however, because many federal agencies have not embraced the portal, Baker said.

For example, FirstGov's multimillion-dollar budget is funded by "passing the hat," Baker said. "It's very difficult—no, it's impossible—to get 40 agencies to put together the money for a site they don't control."

Each agency has its own budget and focuses on its own sites. And agency employees typically must get approval from senior agency officials to cooperate with FirstGov, he said.

Baker said the next step for the Commerce Department will be to develop "customer-centric portals" similar to FirstGov within the agency. One such portal would enable exporters to go to one place on the Internet and conduct all of the transactions needed to apply for export licenses, he said.

The goal of Web-enabled government is to develop such portals to pull together similar services from a number of agencies. So far, the agency-centric structure of government is fighting that, Baker said.

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