Service To The Citizen: Lots of Talk, Some Action

Service To The Citizen: Lots of Talk, Some Action

Kathy Adams

By Nick Wakeman, Staff Writer

The reality of an online government with citizen services comparable to what the private sector provides is at least five to 10 years away, according to a General Services Administration official charged with looking for ways to improve government performance.

"We've been talking about services to the citizen since 1988, and we still don't have much to show for it," said Francis McDonough, deputy associate administrator for GSA's Office of Intergovernmental Solutions.

McDonough, who also serves as chairman of the Intergovernmental Advisory Board of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils, previewed findings from a new study on how governments are integrating services on the Web, at the federation's annual Management of Change Conference in Dallas, held June 21-23. The study by the non-profit organization, which fosters communication among government and industry IT organizations, is set for release in August.

That study found only 32 projects worldwide that met McDonough's criteria of a government Web page that pulls together at least four different services and delivers them over the Web. Most of those projects were outside the United States, with countries such as Australia, Denmark, Finland and Norway leading the way.

In Australia, for example, the government pulled together 25,000 civil servants who worked in eight different programs and created the Web-based CentreLink as a common window to deliver services. The Web page has so-called channels that cover services in different areas. For example, information about retirement benefits can be found on the retired channel. There is also a student channel, a family channel and an employer channel.

"Imagine the U.S. trying to pull together the VA, HUD and IRS into a single agency," McDonough said. "Someday we may get to this point ... but one of the biggest issues is the turf issue" among agencies.

Nonetheless, the U.S. federal government is making strides to deliver more services via the Internet, he said. He noted that both the Agriculture Department and the National Institutes of Health have online systems where people can apply for and receive grants.

"I think we are starting to build a base," McDonough said.

Agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration are working on pilots to deliver more services, government officials said.

People that deal with L.L. Bean or Dell Computer online wonder why they cannot deal with the government that way, said Kathy Adams, associate commissioner of systems design and development at Social Security. That agency is looking at pilots that could provide online access for simple services, such as changing an address to checking on the status of benefits, she said.

The IRS is launching a pilot in January to build a secure extranet that gives access just to tax preparers to file online tax returns and other documents for their customers, said Robert Albicker, deputy chief information officer for the IRS.

One of the first tasks under the agency's Prime Integration contract, won in December 1998 by Computer Sciences Corp., is to Web-enable services, such as requesting forms that IRS provides via an 800 number. The IRS also wants people to be able to see if their tax returns have been received and check the status of refunds via the Web. The agency receives 40 million telephone calls a year about these things, Albicker said.

The savings resulting from a shift in receiving such services via the Web is tremendous, Albicker said. To provide forms via the Web costs the IRS 1 cent per form; providing the same form via an 800 number costs $3, he said.

But security, confidentiality and privacy remain big concerns, Adams said. Citizens have different security and privacy expectations of the government than of the private sector because people can choose not to give information to a private company, she said.

"You don't have to deal with a Dell, but you have to deal with us, so we have to meet a higher standard," she said.

The Social Security Administration learned that lesson the hard way two years ago when it had to pull an online system that distributed information on retirement benefits. While there were no reported security breaches, privacy advocates were incensed that Social Security used information, such as mother's maiden name, Social Security number and date of birth, to authenticate users, Adams said. The fear was that the wrong people would have that information about an individual and could then use it to gain access to a person's Social Security records, she said.

"We want to be [where the private sector is], but we have to go through the knot hole and satisfy the privacy advocates," Adams said.

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