Rethinking citizen services

It's being billed as the "nation's new front door to the information and services of the federal government," but some of those inside the Office of Citizen Services and Communications describe a department adrift, sources say.

The General Services Administration formed the new office by merging its FirstGov Web portal office with its toll-free telephone information line, its consumer information-publishing department and its public relations office in an effort, the agency says, to streamline the way citizens access information about government services.

But a source inside the agency described the result so far as "organizational chaos," and agency officials seem unable to explain in detail how they intend to improve public access to government information and services.

In an online chat July 31, GSA Administrator Stephen Perry said he expects the new office to improve "agency responsiveness to citizen inquiries" through a "modernized and streamlined process [that] will remove some of the barriers that currently impede responsiveness."

But Perry offered no explanation of what process is being modernized and streamlined or what barriers are to be breached.

In an interview, the office's chief technology officer, Casey Coleman, offered few additional details, but simply reiterated "the commitment by the Bush administration to citizen-centric government."

Other employees inside GSA, though, say the concept is sound.

"Creation of the office makes very strong logical sense," said an office staff member who requested anonymity. The office pulls together multiple providers of government information. "This is how Canada does it," he said. "They have a call center, a publications center and a portal" all managed by the same office.

In part, the new "front door" to government replaced FirstGov.

"There is no more FirstGov," said another GSA employee. "Only FirstGov doesn't get it yet." Part of the FirstGov staff has been absorbed by an office called E-Gov Solution Support within the citizen services branch of the new office. FirstGov itself is being managed by the Federal Citizen Information Center.

Instead of focusing on the portal, the FirstGov staff now "is supposed to think creatively about the infrastructure needed to help with e-government initiatives," the employee said.

If the new office can get organized, it could play a key role in the emerging e-government, he said. The department "could become the business structure for e-government initiatives" being promoted by the Office of Management and Budget, he said.

Coleman said she hopes "to bring a new level of professionalism and editorial control to the look and feel" of federal agency Web sites.

GSA can advise agencies on how to improve their Web sites, but it cannot force them to make changes. Instead, the new office will try to succeed by "building relationships," she said.

Succeeding at what, however, remains vague.

Perry said the new office can "assist agencies with regard to standards and best practices for developing and managing their Web sites; however, we do not manage other agency Web sites directly."

The shortage of useful information from GSA is not surprising, said Gary Bass, executive director of the public interest organization OMB Watch.

GSA's now-dissolved FirstGov office, for example, "was anything but interactive with the public," Bass said. "FirstGov wouldn't provide us with basic information about usage" or usefulness of the FirstGov portal. "It has been impossible to get people to respond to you — and we were in favor of FirstGov," he said.

The new department "sounds more like a doormat" than a doorway to government information, Bass said.

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Building a service center

The General Services Administration's new Office of Citizen Services and Communications plans to use two divisions, one of which houses three offices, to keep the public better informed.

The communications branch will handle the agency's public relations, while the citizen services branch will focus on e-government through three offices:

* E-Gov Solution Support, which will use innovative technologies to improve the delivery of government information and services.

* Intergovernmental Solutions, which will manage federal, state, local and international e-government projects.

* Federal Citizen Information Center, which will maintain and provide content for Web sites, a toll-free information line, e-mail and print publications.

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