A work in progress

FirstGov Web site

Dirk Moeller uses the Internet a lot. "It's the first place I look for information," the Salem, Ore., business owner said. But he has never used FirstGov, the federal government's Web portal—or, for that matter, most other government Web sites.

If he needs a business loan, Moeller said he'll go to a commercial bank. He has never considered the Small Business Administration, which devotes a labyrinth of Web pages to the subject. Nor has Moeller visited the Internal Revenue Service online. Taxes are so complicated that "I know I will just get buried with so much information," he said.

It seems government Web pages just don't offer much to Moeller's com.pany, Business Connections Inc., which his parents bought in 1980 and which he now runs with his brother. "Now, if I could figure out a way to increase my sales or save money" by using the Internet, Moeller says he would be more enthusiastic.

Consider the West Coast's high cost of electricity—could government Web sites be helpful here? Moeller was skeptical, but when Federal Computer Week asked him to visit firstgov.gov, he gave it a try.

Starting from the FirstGov home page, he typed "energy credits" into the search engine, and in an instant, the search engine had found more than 1,000 government Web sites related to energy tax credits. The second site on the list was the Oregon Office of Energy. In three mouse clicks, the Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit Program was displayed on Moeller's computer screen. He learned he can claim a 35 percent tax credit if his company makes energy-saving investments.

Getting to the Business of Government

Moeller's experience is the sort that FirstGov managers would like to see more often. Since FirstGov went online last September, its search engine has been upgraded repeatedly and its topic fields refined. In June, the General Services Administration, which runs FirstGov, added links to a wealth of Web offerings from all 50 states.

But at 10 months of age—not a newcomer in Internet time—the portal remains underused, and many who have used it say the results often are not particularly helpful.

"It works OK, but more often than not, it doesn't quite get you what you want, and it doesn't quite get you where you want to go," said Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a leading advocate of e-government.

Atkinson demonstrated: A senior citizen in search of tax information might click on the Seniors topic button on the FirstGov home page. That brings up www.seniors.gov, a portal featuring information helpful to senior citizens, including a link to Tax Assistance.

"Click on Tax Assistance, and the very first thing you get is a press release saying the IRS is going to get rid of form 1040PC," a computer-generated tax return that shows only the lines used by taxpayers, Atkinson said.

"What does that have to do with taxes and the elderly?" he asked.

He clicked back to FirstGov and selected Agriculture and Food, the first item under Browse Government by Topic. A long list of agriculture-related links appeared in alphabetical order, and Atkinson skipped down to Rural Development.

Up popped the Agriculture Department's Rural Development Online page, the dominant item a 2-week old photo and press release celebrating 75 years of Cooperative Services programs. Atkinson sighed.

"Often the first thing you see on a government Web site is a press release that means a lot to them, but not a lot to us," he said. "It's as if you went to Amazon.com and the first thing you saw was a picture of [Amazon president] Jeff Bezos."

Instead, Amazon gets right to the business of selling books, and government Web pages should get to the business of assisting citizens, Atkinson said.

But the shortcomings of federal Web sites are not FirstGov's fault, said Bill Piatt, who oversaw the development of FirstGov last summer when he was chief information officer at GSA.

"It's not FirstGov's role to tell [agency] people how to do their Web sites," he said. FirstGov's job is to make it easy for the public to get to the Web sites. Then, FirstGov architects are hopeful that public feedback will prompt agencies to make their sites more useful, he said.

Version 6.0

As for performing "its stated mission of being a portal for the federal government," FirstGov is doing a good job, said Darrell West, a political science and public policy professor at Brown University. "You can reach any federal agency or branch of the government through that Web site. We didn't have that before," said West, who has studied more than 1,800 federal, state and local government Web sites.

FirstGov faces an enormous challenge, he said. Finding just the right information "would be a problem for any portal trying to organize the federal government" because there are so many Web sites and their content is so diverse. FirstGov may not be perfect, but it's certainly superior to searching through individual agency sites for information, West said.

FirstGov chief Deborah Diaz says the portal's ability to find the information people want is already good—and is getting better. In tests against other search engines conducted by the Government Printing Office, FirstGov achieved "the highest relevancy of any on the market now," Diaz said.

Federal agencies are working now to improve their Web sites to "serve up information in more useful ways," she said. "I would love to ask people who saw us early on, "Have you seen us lately?'"

The current search engine running on FirstGov is the sixth version — and far more sophisticated than the original. "And it's going to get much better over the summer," Diaz said.

FirstGov was designed during the Clinton administration to provide a single Web site that would lead quickly and easily to all government information and services on the Internet. At the federal level, there are some 22,000 federal Web sites containing 31 million pages. The state pages added last month brought another 16 million pages into FirstGov's digital inventory.

FirstGov's managers tout the portal as a convenient "one-stop shop" for government information and services. But many users say FirstGov remains more of a jumbled digital flea market.

Gary Bass would like nothing better than a one-stop Web site that grants access to vast stores of public records online. But for now, no one-stop shop exists, he said.

"There is no way to properly integrate information across agencies. If you want to know if Dow Chemical Corp. is complying with federal regulations, there is no way to get at that," said Bass, executive director of the public interest organization OMB Watch.

Companies such as Dow must file numerous compliance reports and submit to inspections by varied federal, state and local agencies. Much of that data is available to the public, but it's widely scattered and there is no way online to easily find and compile it, Bass said.

Similarly, "there's no easy way to check the quality of nursing homes in your neighborhood" even though they are closely regulated. FirstGov should be making that possible, Bass said.

But that's not just a failing of FirstGov, Diaz said. "No one right now has accomplished that," she said. "We have made a step in the right direction, but there are many more steps to go. We always envisioned that we would be improving."

It's important to remember that FirstGov started from nothing less than a year ago. And, Diaz said, "it's going to be completely different a year from now."

The portal is constantly evolving. Recent additions include links to at least 500 e-government forms that can be used in place of paper versions. There are also links to government sites that permit online transactions, such as sales, and permit online applications for services. FirstGov is, indeed, "a one-stop shop for what is currently available" in online government transactions, Diaz said.

Opportunities to do business with government agencies online increase almost daily. It's possible now to order items from the Smithsonian Institution's online store, or buy Treasury bonds, pay taxes or renew a driver's license.

Getting into Government Business

Web-savvy Internet giant America Online has capitalized on this trend.

Government Web sites that permit transactions—especially those that sell things—are among the most popular destinations for users of AOL's government portal, Government Guide (www.governmentguide.com). Sites that auction homes are among the most popular, said Government Guide manager James Vaughn. Online stores run by the U.S. Postal Service and the Treasury Department are also favorite destinations, he said.

America Online has done a substantial analysis of Government Guide's users, Vaughn said. Among its findings: The largest group of users is women aged 35 to 44. They're interested in services such as applying for passports; they want information such as city crime statistics; and they want to shop.

With corporate goals aimed at attracting and retaining paying customers, AOL puts a premium on giving its customers what they want. Government Guide, which is not limited to AOL members, helps people send e-mail messages to their representatives in Congress and assists them with applying for driver's licenses and obtaining vehicle registrations at the state level. During tax time, Government Guide provides easy links to the IRS and state tax agencies.

To make information even more relevant to Government Guide users, the site is "geocoded" so users receive information screened by their ZIP code, county or state, Vaughn said.

FirstGov links to all government information online, but AOL selects only information that its research shows most interests its users. Government Guide has links to 60,000 federal and state Web pages, compared to FirstGov's 47 million. Thus, a query using Government Guide's search engine may turn up 50 to 100 Web pages, while the same search on FirstGov might return an unwieldy 20,000, Vaughn said. "It's a different approach," he said. "With Government Guide, we're trying to limit the amount of information available by being selective."

To Diaz, FirstGov's vast comprehensiveness is a virtue. FirstGov is the only site that provides all government information, she said. And it provides "official government information that has not been tampered with."

FirstGov "is very comprehensive," Vaughn agrees. "But it's not so user-friendly."

The public seems to agree with Vaughn. Government Guide receives about seven times as much traffic each month as FirstGov. The AOL site attracted more than 2.4 million visits in April, Vaughn said. FirstGov attracted 362,000 individual users in June, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, which monitors Web traffic.

In June, FirstGov ranked 61 on a list of the 94 most popular government Web sites, Jupiter reports. That puts it well behind sites run by the IRS, the National Institutes of Health, the states of California and Texas, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Weather Service.

FirstGov may have difficulty attracting more people as long as it continues linking users to poorly produced agency Web sites, said Internet consultant Pam Fielding.

"To a certain extent, a portal is only going to be as good as its lowest-quality site," said Fielding, principal at e-advocates, which designs Web sites and conducts Internet lobbying campaigns. "It comes down to dollars and commitment," and the federal government is not devoting enough of either to producing user-friendly Web sites.

There are signs that this may be changing. The 2002 federal budget contains, for the first time, a line item for FirstGov. The Bush administration proposes spending $3 million to operate and improve the portal during the next year.

Stay tuned, urges Diaz. FirstGov plans to unveil significant portal improvements in the months ahead.

The FirstGov staff has been working with librarians and GPO to develop a governmentwide taxonomy to improve FirstGov's ability to find and retrieve government information, she said. "With the search engine, things pop up; when you browse, you drill down. This will create a path" that guides users to the information they seek.

FirstGov also plans to improve its ability to enable user feedback to agencies and increase citizens' ability to conduct transactions with government, she said.

FirstGov is evolving fast, she added. It's like a Palm Inc. computer. "When we opened last September, we were like a Palm I. Now we're up to a Palm VII, and we've got five more to roll out before the end of the year."

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