Most Businesses Embrace Proposed Fed Web Portal

Most Businesses Embrace Proposed Fed Web Portal

James Flyzik

By Nick Wakeman, Staff Writer

The U.S. government's plan to launch its own Web portal is being greeted with open arms by many companies that are staking their futures on their own government-related Web sites.

"Any time the government takes the lead in developing online interactions between government and business and government and citizens, it helps us," said Robert Main, president of NIC Commerce, the Reston, Va.-based division of National Information Consortium Inc. of Overland Park, Kan. NIC Commerce develops electronic procurement solutions for federal agencies.

The federal government is working on a new Web site called FirstGov.gov; it will provide links to all government agencies and feature a powerful search engine designed to allow users to search up to 500 million Web pages in a quarter second. The Web site will have a database that will collect all agency-posted pages into an index to provide fast searches and retrieval.

The site is being developed by Eric Brewer, an Internet entrepreneur known for developing search-engine technologies. Brewer is donating his services to the government.

While commercial Web portals focusing on the government have proliferated in recent months, most of those sites are focused on doing business with the government or are focused on creating "community" sites for government employees.

"I really don't see it as competition," said Harold Gracey, vice president of FedBid.com of Germantown, Md., which operates an online auction site for government buyers. "We are focused on transactions, not content."

The target audience of FirstGov.gov is very different than most of the commercial sites, said Fred Whitney, president of FedAmerica.com of
Alexandria, Va. FedAmerica provides information to government employees and retirees on topics such as pay and benefits, retirement, Social Security and insurance.

"Our focus is specifically on federal employees and not the average consumer," Whitney said.

Others in industry are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We aren't going to change any of our plans," said Piper Gioia, director of marketing for Planetgov.com of Fairfax, Va., which provides online services and information to government employees. "We think there is a lot of room in the marketplace."

But the FirstGov.gov site should help the private-sector sites because "it gets people to use the Web to conduct business," Whitney said.

Some government and industry officials see the creation of FirstGov.gov, which should launch in about three months, as a first step toward easier-to-use and more comprehensive government Web sites.

"This is a baby step forward," said Richard Jennings, a vice president and general manager of the western region for Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. "But this Web site is going to highlight where the government needs to improve its processes and be more efficient."

If the FirstGov.gov Web site pushes agencies to develop more online applications, that will create more business opportunities for companies that provide electronic government solutions, said NIC's Main.

"It takes something like this to act as a catalyst to get agencies to act," he said.

James Flyzik, chief information officer for the Treasury Department, said the government is at the beginning of what he sees as a two-phase process for reorganizing itself.

FirstGov.gov should spark agencies to work together to provide better services to citizens and businesses that interact with the government, Flyzik said at a recent conference of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils, an organization that represents government IT professionals.

During the first phase, Flyzik said he sees agencies cooperating to create online applications around functional areas, such as student and entitlement programs. The agencies retain responsibility for operating the individual programs, but use the Internet to share information and provide a single face to citizens, he said.

In phase two, the government will be under pressure from its customers to break down the agency structure and formally realign the government around functions, not agencies, Flyzik said.

State governments are doing some of what Flyzik described, said Janet Caldow, director of IBM Corp.'s Institute for Electronic Government, which provides resources for policy, strategy and development of online government services.

For example, Texas has 13 agencies that businesses must interact with, so the state created a single Web site that businesses can use to deal with all of them, she said.

While the government is often described as being technologically slower than its commercial counterparts, the FirstGov.gov portal should speed up adoption of more electronic government applications, said CSC's Jennings.

As the site is used, it will highlight where agencies need to improve services and that will create a 'pull' for better services, he said.

"When the demand is being pulled from your ultimate customers, organizations tend to move faster," he said.

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