By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; B03
The USA.gov Web site, which serves as a virtual front door for thousands of citizens accessing government services, is undergoing a comprehensive redesign to encourage more public interaction.
The General Services Administration, which runs the site, has already installed new search tools that are 10 times as fast as the old ones and that suggest popular phrases as users type in keywords, said Dave McClure, associate administrator of the GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications. He added that searches have increased on the site since the new tools were implemented.
The challenge of finding things on the sprawling site, which links to more than 10,000 federal, state and local government pages, was a recurring point of public comments during a recent month-long online campaign. McClure said that the agency received about 290 comments and that more than 10,000 people visited the site during the "Your Voice Matters" campaign.
"It's a cornerstone of making the government more transparent and participatory," he said. "It's just an active way of getting the public engaged in the public-policy process."
McClure said his 120-member staff is considering the requests and plans to unveil the redesigned site within a few months.
The agency is also considering adding mobile applications to its site, although McClure stressed that they remain in development. But he said he envisioned applications that would alert users to food and product recalls or wait times at airport security lines.
The redesign project is in line with President Obama's open-government directive to make government more accessible to the public. The Web site was launched in 2000 as FirstGov.gov and underwent minor renovations in 2002 and 2007. The name was changed in 2007, and the site now receives 4 million hits a month.
"This is going to be a more major redesign," McClure said. "We're trying to bring the site up to the look and feel of the Web today."
The GSA recently helped other agencies find an online program that can handle public comments on their sites. The program lets employees pose questions to the public, and citizens can vote comments up or down. The GSA also held training workshops for employees charged with monitoring the forums.
"The GSA has been a pretty proactive player as far as looking at technology as it becomes relevant," said John Wonderlich, policy director for Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group for more transparent government.
Another aspect of the open-government initiative encourages agencies to hold contests and award prizes to find new ideas and to stimulate competition. To that end, the GSA wrapped up a contest last week that asked citizens to submit videos of themselves describing how USA.gov had affected their lives.
About 30 videos were entered, and the winner was Peter Sullivan, a father of two from Nashville who has won five other online video contests. He received $2,500 for his video, which showed him singing -- or sometimes, nearly shouting -- a rock song about using USA.gov after moving to a new town. The video featured cameos by friends and family, including his two children playing guitar and drums.
"For those who love their moms and apple pie/Or pledge allegiance to the prairie sky/Let's run this government from the inside/Right here at USA.gov," he sang.