Agencies look to improve Web sites

Now that the E-Government Act of 2002 has passed, federal Webmasters have their work cut out for them trying to meet the bill's requirements to upgrade and standardize agency Web sites. But just how fast and far they will go remains uncertain.

The legislation, which President Bush is expected to sign before the end of the year, calls on the Office of Management and Budget to set uniform Web standards. Furthermore, it requires agencies to create a process for deciding what information gets posted online.

Some agencies are miles ahead of the new requirements, planning for a future that will include e-government that is citizen-friendly. Others are waiting for direction — not to mention money — because they have no resources to redesign their sites.

OMB is expected to take some time to write the Web site standards or even a transitional plan for agencies to follow while formal guidelines are put in place.

"It would be helpful if OMB works with agencies to ensure that improvements they make over the next two years do not have to be undone when OMB promulgates its Web site standards," said Kevin Landy, an aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), author of the e-gov bill.

Despite the confusion about what to do, many agencies are already revising and redesigning their Web sites, developing a common look and feel on each page and making sites easier to search.

Agriculture Department Webmaster Vic Powell said that the USDA is compiling information on how organizations in government and the private sector present information on their Web sites.

"We've found that standards vary enormously, not just in the federal government, but across states and governments of other countries," Powell said. "So what we're trying to do is come up with standards that will guide our agencies in a common look and feel but still allow flexibility for the agency to provide information to people."

Powell plans to compile the information and produce a guidebook — and eventually a template — for the USDA's 29 organizations.

But some agencies are taking a wait-and-see attitude on the e-gov act requirements, according to Cathy Flickinger, chief information officer of the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We don't know what the impact will be," Flickinger said. "What's the priority? Where are the resources going to come from? It's a balancing act. It's all a good thing, but we need to get the resources to do it right."

Although the e-gov act has authorized $345 million during five years for cross-agency initiatives, the money has yet to be appropriated by Congress. And so far, there appears to be no extra money to help agencies meet the guidelines the bill will establish.

"People have to be trained on standards," said one government official who asked not to be identified. "It is not enough to write it and put it on the Web and say, 'Use it.' "

The bill's requirements will make Webmasters refocus their attention on communicating with the public, not just themselves, according to several experts.

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