FirstGov on the front lines

FirstGov Web site

Staff members at the Office of Human Services in Palo Alto, Calif., generally do not have a lot of time to surf the Web.

People who come into the human services office usually need immediate attention. They need to find child care services available in their neighborhoods and government subsidies for child care. Or they have lost their homes and need a quick lesson on public housing.

In theory, FirstGov should be of assistance because it pulls together information from federal, state and even municipal agencies (in the case of California and a few other states), any of which might offer services or funding information.

But it does not work very well in practice, said Sharon Murphy, manager of Child and Family Resources, which maintains the Family Resources online and print directories of human services available in the Palo Alto area.

A FirstGov search on public housing in California turned up a lot of interesting documents, but not the kind of practical information that a staff member would be looking for, Murphy said.

"It's information about these rental assistance programs, but it's not helpful," she said. "It looks like interesting information you could get lost in, but if there is someone who is sitting there and wants help, they don't want you to get lost in information."

She had a similar re.action when she did a search for child care centers in California. A lot of reports and city council minutes came up, but only spotty listings of actual centers, although Palo Alto topped the list.

Yahoo, searching for the terms "child care centers California," did a little better, finding a Web site called Care.finder.com, a national listing of child care centers. But neither search engine came across childcarenet.com, an online directory for the Silicon Valley area.

Palo Alto created the Family Resources database so that people in need of help would not have to sort through a lot of listings, whether online or in the phone book, to pinpoint what they need. It was a feasible project because it's only a local listing, Murphy said. "Because we are finite in size, it's not like doing a national one."

FirstGov, on the other hand, is probably more useful to policy-makers, lobbyists or researchers because it provides "lots of numbers that can prove points," Murphy said. "They are going to pore through it because they've got the time."

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