Keep the public posted

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has had an opportunity to re-examine its business operations in many areas. The debates over what worked and what didn't, including how information technology can or cannot help, will continue.

One area that worked for some agencies is e-government—specifically, federal Web sites. Within hours of the airliners crashing into the World Trade Center towers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency posted an announcement that it was working with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top government officials to respond to the apparent terrorist attacks.

FirstGov employees worked from home to post up-to-date information, and the Federal Aviation Administration later used its site to collect employment applications for federal air marshals. Many federal sites received record amounts of traffic, as the public turned to its government for answers. This clamor for information showed just how much people have come to depend on e-government.

But many agencies were slow to react, or did not post any relevant information for days. That is regrettable. Congress and the White House should take notice that part of a comprehensive response to a homeland security initiative is quick and direct communication with the public, and e-government is the way to do it. That means more money and manpower for agency Web sites. It also means agencies must bring Web site publishing into the daily top management ranks. It's that important and that serious. Agencies must begin to understand how to communicate. As Ann Steward, e-government director in the United Kingdom's Office of the e-Envoy, told federal government IT managers this summer, not only is accurate and pertinent information a must, how that information is packaged, organized and displayed is crucial to good communication. And, she said, that takes resources, including talent. The time to act is now. As the White House pushes onward in the war on terrorism, Americans' thirst for timely and in-depth information will only increase. It is government's responsibility to give them what they want.

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