FirstGov worth the wait

FirstGov Web site

Think back nine years to Windows 3.1. Microsoft Corp. was catching it from users on all sides for the bugs in its PC operating system. Yet it was abundantly clear that the software was here to stay because, buggy as it was, Windows provided an interface intuitive enough to appeal to a broad audience. You might say FirstGov, the 10-month-old government portal, is in Release 3.1.

Federal Computer Week staff recently recruited six people to put the Web site through its paces. We wanted to know if FirstGov—with the addition last month of a better search engine and links to agencies in all 50 states — could live up to its billing as a one-stop shopping site for government information and services.

The results were mixed. The current search engine, though better than the original, still bombards users with too much information of questionable relevance. Several Web-savvy volunteers were adept at trying different combinations of search terms until they got an appropriate Web page or document. But less experienced users tended to lose interest after one or two tries.

Several volunteers suggested that FirstGov was probably best suited for researchers or policy-makers, who have the time, interest and expertise to dig through data. But they also noted that FirstGov often turned up documents too old to be worthwhile to anyone.

Still, in quite a few tests, FirstGov did turn up the right results with incredible ease. It proved especially useful in cases where it wasn't obvious which agency, at which level of government, held the information. FirstGov sometimes appears to do a better job searching a state's Web site than that state's own search engine.

The portal has improved so much that it's easy to forget it's barely 10 months old. And FirstGov managers at the General Services Administration promise a steady stream of new features and better technology in the months ahead. Indeed, you might say FirstGov is evolving at Internet speed.

It might take several iterations before FirstGov lives up to expectations. But as with Windows (love it or hate it), the basic concept of FirstGov—making information accessible to the broadest possible audience—ought to make it worth the wait.

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