GSA debuts friendlier FirstGov

It's more colorful, more concise and a lot quicker. The overhauled FirstGov Web portal appeared online Feb. 27 as a visible sign of the Bush administration's efforts to make government more productive and effective by using the Internet.

It's "an important step to make the people's government more people friendly," said Stephen Perry, chief of the General Services Administration, which operates FirstGov (www.firstgov.gov).

Launched 18 months ago as a portal to all of the federal government's online information, FirstGov has been redesigned to highlight online government services. The new portal is divided into three main sections: online services for citizens, for businesses and for other governments.

Where the old FirstGov served mainly as a table of contents to government information, the new one stresses interaction with government and attempts to be a directory to online transactions.

And FirstGov tries to make dealing with the government quicker and easier. It takes just three mouse clicks to get to most of the portal's services and transactions.

Bugged by telemarketers? FirstGov helps by providing a link to a Federal Trade Commission site seeking consumer comments on a proposal to create a "national do not call registry" that would place individuals off-limits to telemarketers.

Need stamps? Three clicks lead to the online Postal Store.

The same goes for e-filing taxes, searching for a government job and applying for a student loan or Social Security.

The business section offers access to online business solicitations from federal agencies, legal and regulatory information for small businesses and assistance with searching and filing patents and trademarks.

The government section offers useful links for government employees, such as per diem charts and a site where federal employees can make changes in their personnel and payroll information.

The redesigned portal "is an important tool for making transactions and services more accessible," said Vice President Dick Cheney in a brief appearance to inaugurate the new site. The overhaul is an attempt to remedy the problem of slow and ineffective responsiveness of government, he said.

Making better use of electronic government is one of President Bush's five key management improvement initiatives. The portal redesign "is but one of many e-government initiatives we will be launching over the next 18 to 24 months," Perry said.

Reactions to the new FirstGov were generally favorable.

"One thing they have done that is really important is identify the fact that needs of different audiences are different. Citizens have different needs than businesses," said Pam Fielding, chief of the Web site design company e-advocates.

Polls show that the most important thing citizens want from e-government is an easier way to communicate with elected officials. A section of FirstGov labeled "comment to government" provides links to government contacts arranged by topic and by agency, links to House and Senate members, links to governors and telephone and e-mail directories.

Fielding said the mixing of typefaces on the FirstGov home page is a bit inelegant, but overall, "it seems to me, truly, that it works better than it did before."

The next improvement for FirstGov is expected to be a new search engine. The GSA announced in January it hopes to buy and install a better search engine by the end of March.

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