Innovation in American E-Government: FirstGov.gov: The Sole Federal Agency Winner of the Prestigious Innovations in American Government Award for 2002 Offers Is an Organizational Model for Individual Federal, State, and Local Web Sites to Learn from and Adopt
McGinnis, Patricia, The Public Manager
Think about it. Until two and a half years ago, Internet users needing to get information from government or do business with it had hundreds of federal Web sites at their disposal. But there was no one-stop way to search all of them. There were millions of federal (and state and local) Web pages out there. But the problem was the same--too much information and no easy way to find it.
Beyond these technical problems, people lacked knowledge of what government offers. The federal establishment was a mass of unconnected stovepipes, not focused on the needs of citizens. Channels for the public's engagement with government were inadequate.
True, some federal government Web portals did exist. But none of them organized federal Web sites in a user-friendly way. Even the best of them were built on the mind-boggling flow charts of governmental chains of command. None had search engines that reached all of government. None was written in plain English. Alternatively, one could try one of the commercial search engines. But they came nowhere close to being able to search government wall-to-wall.
And then, in September 2000, came FirstGov.gov. Today this official online portal offers entry to all--repeat, all--federal government transactions, services, and information, plus links to state and local governments. It brings the public sector to people's computers--which is not so much a technological as an organizational feat. It is a citizen-centered facility structured by topics and audiences across agency lines and committed to public interaction. It aims to put users where they want to be in just three mouse clicks.
FirstGov, which this year won an Innovations in American Government award, enables people to find their way around online government without having to be familiar with agency functions or plow through layers of bureaucracy. It can search 500 million documents--180 million Web pages on 20,000 sites--in the blink of an eye and handle millions of such searches every day. It offers an always-current directory of reliable government services and information by category with direct links to government agencies where those services can be found. President Bush envisioned it as government's front door.
That's what it has become. Through FirstGov, individual Americans can file their taxes, find jobs, investigate and compare health care options, register new addresses with the post office, read and comment on proposed government regulations, buy coins or savings bonds, and apply for Social Security benefits or a student loan. They can get passport applications or copies of their birth certificates, file patents, find data on hearing aids, and renew their licenses to drive or practice medicine. FirstGov allows them to contact members of Congress, connect with state and local governments, and register ideas and complaints. In short, Americans can inform themselves or transact business in these and a hundred and one other ways important to their businesses, their health, their families, and their lives.
Businesses can use FirstGov to identify the laws and regulations that apply to their activities, learn how to sell their products and services to government, report wage earnings, and file corporate taxes. Federal employees can discover training opportunities, manage payrolls, find agency directories, check civil service rules, and study the Web sites of other agencies they deal with. State and city workers can plug into intergovernmental networks for information about grants, disasters, and health benefits. The same is true for tribal governments concerning land use, education, and housing. Those are just a few examples among thousands. And the range is quite wide.
"What in the world is the federal government doing auctioning banana juice, a bear head, and a baby Jesus figurine?" the Washington Post wondered not long ago. …