Feds launch USA Services

FirstGov

Citizens seeking information from government agencies now have a central point of contact to use.

The General Services Administration launched USA Services today, an e-mail and phone system that taps 12 agencies to provide answers to questions. The service, accessible through the FirstGov Web site, connects citizens to the government's call center in Pueblo, Colo. The staff can answer many questions within hours and almost all within two days, said M. J. Jameson, associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Communications, at a news conference today.

The service also takes misdirected calls and e-mails and transfers them to the right place, she said.

"It's going to save agencies money," she said. "Why should they build their own systems when they can use ours?"

The service is one of the e-gov initiatives and one of the most useful to citizens, said Mark Forman, administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of E-Government and Information Technology. "It's just too complicated to know who to contact within the government," he said.

Departments and agencies already signed up to use USA Services include: Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, Justice, Treasury, State, Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Social Security Administration.

"One thing the federal government does a lot of is answer citizen questions," said Clay Johnson, deputy director of management at OMB. "They have questions; we're supposed to have answers."

Citizen use of the site has risen sharply since agencies began working on the e-gov initiatives, he said. In 2001, 6.7 million people used the burgeoning FirstGov site. By 2002 the number had risen to 33 million, and 60 million visitors are expected this year.

E-gov funding has not matched the apparent demand, however. Although the Bush administration requested $45 million this year, the House Appropriations Committee recently slashed funding to $1 million. For the past three years, Congress has appropriated only $5 million, far below the amounts the administration has requested.

USA Services was tested through a pilot with the Interior Department, said Teresa Nasif, director of the Federal Citizen Information Center. After training the call center staff to answer Fish and Wildlife Service questions, the center began routing citizen calls there. Staff were able to answer about 95 percent of questions and referred the rest.

USA Services will cost about $11.5 million for fiscal 2003 with money coming from the citizen information center, Nasif said. The service will reroute misdirected e-mails for free but will charge its partner agencies for answering questions on their behalf, Jameson said.

Meanwhile, citizens are free to call agencies directly as they always were, Jameson said. "They can contact anyone they want," she said. "We just want to make sure there's only one door."

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