Servicing Citizens With the Internet
By Gabriel Margasak
One thing emerged clearly from a federal webmaster conference Northern Virginia this year: World Wide Web sites are becoming an important part of the government's strategy to shed its bureacratic image and provide faster public service.
The road toward the much vaunted "service to the citizen" is paved with electronic circuits and the latest technology. It only takes a few hours of surfing the federal Internet to get a glimpse of how cyberspace is reshaping the ways government is relaying information to the people it serves.
The Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Defense, the Social Security Administration and almost every other federal agency are offering services on the Web these days.
"The Internet is driving our thinking," said John D. Erwin, an electronic service delivery manager at the Social Security Administration. The agency is trying to "provide opportunity for customers to serve themselves," he said.
At the Virtual Government '97 conference in February in McLean, panelists from government agencies discussed where they were headed in terms of providing information for their "customers," the citizens.
Using information technology to create a self-service information market for the public is the goal, Erwin told the audience of civil servants. Instead of traveling to the agency's office locations, the public can do the business of government online, he said.
Robert Reisner, vice president of strategic planning for the U.S. Postal Service said his agency is having the "humbling experience of our customers driving the wagon train." The public wants easy access to information, he said.
Many postal services are currently available through the WINGS project, an online multi-agency effort to simplify public access to popular services from different parts of the federal bureaucratic maze.
Jerry Mechling of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University said, "Much of what we [government agencies] have done could be called a pilot." Demonstrating to the public that the pilot will work is the key, he said.
And the proof is on the Internet.
Social Security Administration Out Front
Just being on the Internet isn't enough for Erwin. "The real challenge is," he said, "we want to be able to provide that self-service."
There are 48 million people who receive Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits, according to the administration. The rules and regulations, the sheer amount of information, can be staggering.
The Web site can provide quick answers to information seekers wanting to know, "How often should I check my Social Security earnings record?" or "How do I have my retirement check sent to my bank?"
The key, but controversial, online initiative of the administration is the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement—a Social Security earnings history and report of how much Social Security taxes a person has paid into the program.
The way it is supposed to work is simple. You connects to the Internet through a service provider and, using a browser such as Netscape or Explorer, types in http://www.ssa.gov. That takes you directly to the SSA. From there, it should be three clicks to a form that prompts for information such as your name and Social Security number and even your expected future income.
This month, the Social Security Administration suspended the online service in response to concerns about the security of the salary and benefit information being transmitted over the Internet. SSA officials said they would study the security issues before re-launching the popular service.
Those who tried the service discovered the response time could be disappointing. After sending the form, users received the message, "Social Security has received and is processing your information. You will receive a PEBES by mail in about 4 weeks."
Not exactly the speed of Internet e-mail.
One stumbling block to the information smorgasbord is limited consumer knowledge. Erwin said that some people may not know their mother's maiden name or their expected future earnings so the form may not be able to be processed.
The forms that are successfully filled out, processed and returned are a boon to taxpayer savings. Erwin estimated that an average call to the SSA costs the administration about $5. He also said that in a week, the Web site gets about 15,000 to 20,000 hits, the number of files people call up from the site. "I look at every one of those hits as a taxpayer savings," Erwin said.
Doing business online can save agencies the cost of processing forms by hand.
But what did the technological effort cost the taxpayer-funded administration? Erwin estimated that the six-month Web site project cost less than $100,000, given that some of the computer and Internet systems were already in place.
And in five years, he estimates, "people are going to demand those services."
WINGS: One-Stop Shopping Online
One major problem of the government bureaucracy is that each of its agencies serves specific populations, runs its offices differently and has different rules and regulations.
That's why linking agencies together to form an open resource for information is a key to the future plan of service.
"That's the only way this is going to happen," said Susan L. Smoter, program manager for WINGS, the Web Interactive Network of Government Services.
The pilot program is a pet of the U.S. Postal Service and is an effort to link the web of government agencies with the Web. "I think . . . doing it from individual agencies isn't the way to get it done," she said.
The WINGS site provides a convenient starting point for anyone looking for information from different agencies. For example, WINGS will connect someone looking for employment services to the Department of Labor and someone wanting to travel to help from the USDA Forest Service home page.
"The response has been fantastic," Smoter said. The site received 400,000 page views in January alone.
IRS Offers Forms Online
While the Internal Revenue Service was not part of the panel discussion, its Internet site runs the interactive gamut of services. From a list of important tax dates to tax forms online, the site is molded for the Web user.
There are so many tax forms it is easy to get confused, as many Americans realize during tax season. The IRS site puts many of these forms online: The 1040 individual income tax return form and its directions, the W-2 wage and tax statement, and the W-4 employee's withholding allowance certificate are just a few.
The Future: More Cyber-Services
Panel members at Virtual Government '97 discussed the state of information technology today, but it's clear the the future holds the possibility of even better government access. Social Security's Erwin said the administration is planning to provide replacement 1099 forms online, along with a district office locator, map and directions.
The WINGS program may be able to handle driver's license and vehicle registration renewals, passport applications and copies of birth certificates.
While the services available now may not always work perfectly, government agencies are increasingly committed to tapping the Internet to reach citizens.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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