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Government Expands Its Claim on the Web

By Barbara J. Saffir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 1997; Page A15

In the brave new world imagined by the visionaries on Vice President Gore's "Reinventing Government" team, one day students will apply for and receive college loans online, police officers at crime scenes will tap into computerized fingerprint files and travelers will submit passport applications from the comfort of their living rooms.

That day appears to be growing closer as the federal government expands its claim on the World Wide Web. Agencies are cramming more information on the Internet and at the same time cranking up the quality of their sites.

Only two years ago, most of the government's Web sites served up little more than news releases and bureaucrats' biographies. But today many have become reliable high-tech tools that are user-friendly. "Federal Web sites have changed drastically," said Tracy McLoone, editor of "The Federal Internet Source," published by the National Journal.

They now feature information and services the public, government contractors and federal workers can use.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration recently began posting airline safety records on its site. Last year taxpayers plucked 3 million forms and publications off the Internal Revenue Service's site. Thousands are using the Social Security Administration's home page to request Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimates and the Postal Service's site to look up Zip codes. And each shuttle mission attracts about 2 million visitors to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Web site, where online users can watch NASA TV and e-mail the astronauts.

Not only are agencies "getting much better at designing sites . . . they are becoming more sophisticated . . . [and there is] tremendous growth in area offices and district offices going online," said Bruce Maxwell, author of Congressional Quarterly's "How to Access the Federal Government on the Internet."

As the number of sites has gone up, so has the praise -- and the criticism.

Government Executive magazine has touted the home pages of the White House, General Services Administration and the Housing and Urban Development Department on its list of "Best Feds on the Web." Government Computer News has trumpeted Federal Webmaster Workshop award-winners, such as the Energy Department. The Great American Web Site has hyped the National Park Service and Census Bureau sites. PC Computing magazine has praised the Customs Service as one of its 1,001 best destinations.

Postal Service Web site
The Census site offers scads of demographic information as well as the latest population count (266,894,632 as of yesterday). Bargain-hunters can learn how to buy seized property -- including Jeeps, a Cigarette race boat and a Cessna Citation 500 jet -- on the Customs Service home page. The Postal Service is attempting to put all electronic services under one umbrella, on a site called WINGS (Web Interactive Network of Government Services).

Along with the technological advances have come several avenues to help federal employees and government contractors keep pace with state-of-the art information technology. The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, for example, last month sponsored a "Virtual Government '97" conference, where Web site specialists were able to swap notes.

The National Science Foundation promotes Internet development and hosts "webmaster workshops." Federal employees from 20 agencies meet bimonthly at the GSA-sponsored Federal Webmasters Group, and GSA employees also discuss the Web at their in-house Webmasters Council.

NASA employees hold monthly video-conferences and communicate through their webmasters' home page. Intranets -- internal computer networks -- have also become popular vehicles for networking. At the Government Printing Office, the Electronic Transition Staff solicits advice from librarians and other "information professionals" on its Pathway Services home page. The IRS Web site asks users to "Just Tell Us What Else You Need."

"If someone doesn't complain or compliment you, you don't know if you're meeting their needs," said GSA webmaster Mark Kaprow. He has seen the number of "hits" from people visiting his three sites double from 22,000 to 44,000 between June 1996 and January 1997. Many were repeat customers. "If you have a candy store and people keep coming back, that tells you something. If they don't come back, that tells you something, too," he said.

But even the repeat users voice a list of gripes. Delays in reaching the main sites or sub-sites, especially at the IRS during tax time, have been particularly noticeable. Government-wide standardization of agency addresses (URLs) and employees' e-mail addresses remains elusive, and the approval process for posting material varies from agency to agency.

Few federal sites offer much live video, sound or two-way communication. Announcements often lack dates, making it impossible to know how current material is. Judicial branch representation is skeletal. Finding the treasures buried under deep layers of information continues to be a chief frustration because the main home page and search mechanisms inadequately indicate what goodies are on the menu.

"[Agencies] need a very good top-level page that gives a good description of what you'll find underneath. . . . There really could be a better way for agencies to organize themselves," said Kenneth P. Mortenson, director of Villanova University's Federal Web Locator home page, which links users to federal Internet sites.

Like the Blue Pages in a phone book, most sites are organized by agencies' names rather than the services they perform, making it necessary to know in advance which agency provides the information being sought. But the White House and other sites have started listing services along with agencies' names, so a citizen can find information on passports without having to know that the State Department issues them.

While users cope with their frustrations, site developers face their own struggles, including privacy concerns, infrastructure capacity, break-ins and computer viruses. And Congress is scrutinizing the cost of the government's online endeavors.

Last year Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chaired the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, ordered the General Accounting Office to survey executive branch expenditures on Web sites, computer bulletin boards and Internet access for employees.

The report, due next month, will detail for the first time the number of Web sites at 44 federal departments and agencies and the number of employees and contractors setting up and servicing the sites.

But even a barbed GAO report may not dampen the Clinton Administration's commitment to the cause. Vice President Gore recently endorsed a host of pilot projects over the next few years, including "electronic bookmobiles."

"We have come a long way in a couple of years," said GSA webmaster Kaprow. "But in 20 years, we'll look back and we'll probably laugh."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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