FirstGov to undergo overhaul

The General Services Administration is planning a major makeover for FirstGov, the government's data-endowed but bureaucratic-bland Web portal.

The new FirstGov will be eye-catching and customer-friendly, according to GSA plans outlined in a notice Dec. 6.

The portal will feature federal information arranged in three "customer channels," and it will highlight consumer-oriented "government shopping," news-oriented information and online transactions with federal agencies, according to GSA officials.

The customer channels will organize information and services according to user type — citizen-to-government, government-to-government and business-to- government.

The site's new look will be based on input from FirstGov users. GSA plans call for conducting usability tests and quizzing focus groups to develop a design that works best for users.

A top priority is making the site look better. "Conduct graphical improvements, improve current look and feel," according to the GSA notice. Develop "a graphical image that is on a par with, for example, the California state portal site."

California's colorful portal (www.ca. gov) features a bright photo collage across the top, a winning photo from the California snapshot contest halfway down the home page, a small photo of the governor and nine logos that accent featured information items.

The home page also features dozens of hot links that lead to other state sites, where Californians can register vehicles, track tax refunds or learn how to play the state lottery.

FirstGov (www.firstgov.gov) provides more information than California's site, but in a much less attractive format. There are no photos, just a flag logo and text in red, white and two shades of blue.

The overhaul would be the most dramatic alteration to FirstGov since the portal went online Sept. 22, 2000. GSA rebuffed repeated requests for more detailed information about the redesign. Developed in 90 days, FirstGov was intentionally made plain and utilitarian. It was to be an Internet information booth that efficiently shunted visitors to data hidden among the thousands of federal Web sites.

During the past 16 months, the portal has grown increasingly complex — not becoming fancy, but adding depth. For example, its search engine has been upgraded more than once, 15 million state and local Web pages were added to the index of 30 million federal pages, and new links highlight online transactions.

A major overhaul is probably due, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

"One of the long-standing truths of the Internet age is you have to innovate or die," he said. Although that rule hardly applies to government agencies, "it's nice that they're embracing the notion that everything can be improved. They deserve applause for their entrepreneurial approach."

GSA's decision to base FirstGov's redesign on usability tests and input from focus groups "is smart," Rainie said. The agency is likely to learn, however, that most people have dial-up access to the Internet and do not want access time to be slowed by elaborate graphics, he said.

Since FirstGov went online, Web users have come to expect much more from government sites. States and cities offer an increasing menu of services online, and expectations are rising for federal agencies to do so. And the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made government Web sites sought-after sources for official information.

As the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon burned, and then as anthrax contaminated the postal system, anxious Internet users became "incredibly aggressive" in their search for official information on government sites, said Web site designer Pam Fielding.

"I was concerned that FirstGov was really not responsive to what cyber.citizens were looking for," said Fielding, who operates the electronic lobbying firm e-advocates in Washington, D.C.

However, within days of the attacks, FirstGov's team created a Web section devoted to links for government information and assistance related to the crisis — from learning about anthrax, to reporting civil rights violations, to applying for a job as a federal air marshal.

"I think we will look back at Sept. 11 and see that it monumentally shifted the use of the Internet for civic participation," Fielding said.

A redesign based on usability testing and feedback from focus groups is just part of what GSA has in store for FirstGov. The agency also plans to reconfigure the site's information architecture and deploy a management system, according to the notice.

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