U.S. Unveils FirstGov Portal

The U.S. government launched its FirstGov Web site Friday, providing a single point of entry to its more than 20,000 Web sites.

“It’s just the beginning,” said David J. Barram, administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), adding that FirstGov is a place where you can “plan your vacation or plan your life.”

Wide Range

Although FirstGov is being touted as “one-stop shopping” for a variety of services — including draft registration, purchasing federal bonds, and making reservations at federal parks — it is actually an index to the government’s various Web sites.

Visitors to the site can either take advantage of its search capability to scan the government’s 27 million online pages in less than a second, or they can browse through a selection of topics and find information about offered government services.

The listed topics include “Agriculture and Food,” “Healthy People,” and “Money and Taxes.”

The FirstGov site only provides information and links. Consumers who want to avail themselves of the government’s online services and file their taxes, check their Social Security benefits, or purchase federal stamps have to leave the FirstGov site for other government sites that vary greatly in quality and design.

The government has not made getting back to the FirstGov site easy. Once visitors leave the site, they have to use the back button multiple times to return. Many government sites do not yet provide links to the FirstGov site.

Barrum said that as the project evolves, the government will take a hard look at making it easier for people to navigate back and forth between FirstGov and other government sites.

Donated Services

Unlike other government projects, FirstGov did not cost millions of tax dollars (US$) to complete. The site was created with little in the way of direct costs to the government by Inktomi chief scientist Eric Brewer. Brewer estimated that the total value of his donation is in the $5 million to $10 million range.

Although Brewer donated the development costs of the site, the government has a two-year, $165,000 per month contract with the non-profit Federal Search Foundation, which was established by Brewer to maintain the site.

In addition to the standard FirstGov site, customized versions of the site are in the works for private companies, such as America Online and Yahoo!. Users of those portals will see slightly different versions of FirstGov and the site’s search engine, dubbed “Fedsearch.”

E-Government Woes

Originally announced on June 26th, President Bill Clinton had promised that the site would be up and running within 90 days, and that goal was met with a few days to spare. Brewer said it was completed in 86 days, “for people who are counting.”

According to Barram, FirstGov is a work in progress, but a good first step toward overcoming some of the problems addressed in a recent report by Brown University, which concluded that “government at all levels is not making full and effective use of commonly available information technology.”

In addition to the Brown University report, the federal government has been embarrassed in recent weeks by two reports issued by the General Accounting Office (GAO), which identified overwhelming weaknesses in security and privacy.

The GAO’s review of privacy standards at 65 federal Web sites found that only 3 percent complied with the four privacy standards recommended by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for commercial sites. Among the sites falling below the standards was the FTC’s own site.

Another GAO audit found that security weaknesses existed in all 24 agencies reviewed and that a broad range of critical assets and operations are at risk for fraud, misuse and disruption.

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