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The Business Impact of Government-wide Portals

Panel at the Information Resources Management Conference
Williamsburg, VA

September 7, 2000

Patricia B. Wood
National Partnership for Reinventing Government


Good morning. I’m really glad to be at this conference — my first time to be a part of IRMCO.

This week a colleague forwarded one of Tom Peters’ electronic newsletters. At the end, Tom said something that expresses exactly what I feel these days. He said how lucky he was:

"Lucky to be around at this magical moment, when all the rules are being changed. We -- those who ply our trades at whatever over the next 20 years -- get to re-invent the world! What an opportunity! What a hoot!"

Just think, in 1992 there were only 50 websites on the World Wide Web. And the people who used them — mainly physicists and other scientists — knew nearly every one of them, just as they mostly knew each other because they communicated by e-mail, which few people had heard of.

What’s a Portal?

The word "portal" to access the Internet was probably not in their vocabulary. It’s very much in use today in the online world, but the definition depends on who’s using it. There are one-stop learning portals in the training world. In business, corporate portals have sophisticated workplace software, sometimes replacing their intranets. For our purposes, I am defining portals as one-stop access to:

  • all government information and services
  • information and services on one topic government-wide.

Portals are important because it’s hard for citizens to find what they need from government online. Here's why:

  • Government has an estimated 20,000 separate homepages and 40 million webpages, with no common look or structure
  • Many are organized according to what the agency thinks is important - its stove pipe organizations, for example, not by topic.
  • Data and activities are duplicated across government agencies. Twelve agencies, for example, oversee food safety under the authority of 35 different laws.
  • Dot-gov isn't keeping pace with dot-com. Citizens can't find what they don't know to look for. And with few exceptions -- the dynamite U.S. Mint comes to mind - government agencies don't market their online services.

Categorizing Web Content

Web pioneers began to organize information. What started as Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web in a trailer at Stanford University became Yahoo.

Likewise, AOL saw the need to package information into manageable chunks by topics of common interest, but available only to subscribers. Just last December, AOL came out with, a portal to government that the company made available to all. Its unique characteristic is that it’s organized by topics that people need, not just the agencies that deliver the service.

Early Portals to Government

The first portals to government, such FedWorld, GPO Access, GILs, and sites set up by universities, were mostly organized in charts reflecting branches of government and agencies. This was logical as a first step, but people don’t think like that when it comes to services. People think Passports, not the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

One of the early portals developed by government about government was designed around a type of information — statistics. The site -- FedStats announced in 1997 -- uses the Internet's powerful link and search capabilities to navigate publicly available statistics from over 70 Federal agencies. Now, Internet users can find the information they need, without having to know in advance which agencies produce the data.

The problem with traditional government in today’s wired world is that hierarchies, stovepipes, and organization charts divide us rather than connect us as we serve the public.

One of the roles of Vice President Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government is to help people connect across agency lines and to help agencies focus on customer service — and serve our customers with the same standards that business uses. We began to think more like customers and companies think.

Web technology gave us more opportunity to cross agency lines to serve customer segments better. For example, many federal agencies partner with or award grants to or have information that is vital to state and local governments. The Internet has no boundaries. It offers a radical new way to present information and to conduct business.

Government Portals for Customer Groups

One of the earliest Internet portals was directed to the 16 million state and local government employees. Led by NPR, 17 agencies created the State&Local Gateway to give state and local government officials and employees easy access to federal information in ways that make sense to them. Administered by Housing and Urban Development, it’s organized by topics — such as health, disasters, housing — as well as by types — such as laws, funding, training. The site links to the agency sites that have information or services in each category. (HUD, by the way, has created special webpages tailored to each of its customers and stakeholders.)

Interagency efforts have also led to the creation of other one-stop portals organized by topic, type, or customer group:



U.S. Business Advisor





21st Century Skills

USA Jobs

The Federal Commons is an effort to provide a common face of the government to organizations that get government grants. These grantees include universities, research groups, small businesses, state and local government.

The Federal White Pages, an ambitious project sponsored by the Federal Council of Chief Information Officers, is trying to provide name, telephone number, e-mail address, and, if available, job title for each federal worker. Agencies often have this information on separate databases, so project leaders started with what was available.

The online Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance is a government-wide compendium of 1,400 federal programs, projects, services, and activities that provide assistance or benefits to the American public.

America’s Job Bank, supported by both the pubic and private organizations, connects job hunters and employers in all sectors.

Treasury’s Financial Management Services plans to launch later this year.

Many Americans go to the Internet for their own local needs and interests. Interagency web portals are found outside the Washington Beltway. For example, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has a portal that offers news, status reports, local travel conditions and other information helpful to residents and firefighters in communities where wild fires are raging.

Government Portals for Internal Customers

Government has set up useful portals for its internal customers as well:

The General Services Administration set up a shopping portal for government shoppers with a credit card. The award-winning GSAAdvantage site now offers more than one million products and services.

The Defense Logistics Agency, which buys supplies for military installations all over the world, is streamlining buying with a shopping portal called Defense Emall. Many companies that sell primarily to government now have a "shop" on Emall. But that’s still $4 billion worth of purchases.

NPR’s Plain Language site is a portal, too. It offers tools and resources for people government-wide who are working at the President’s direction to make federal rules, notices, letters, and forms more understandable.

The Web has shown itself to be a perfect environment for self-generated virtual communities of people who chat with each other and share information on common interests. Government can encourage similar communities by setting up topical, database-driven websites where citizens can work together for the common good. These sites can use geospatial information systems software products that turn raw data about populations, highways, biological resources, disease, the environment, and crime statistics into understandable maps or displays that support community planning. NPR worked with several agencies to develop models, such as Boost4Kids, SafeCities, and AfterSchool Programs.

Access America E-Gov E-Zine

Two years ago, a couple of people — Greg Woods and Jim Flyzik dreamed up a website with IT stories that would cut across government, based on the recommendations in Vice President Gore’s 1997 report, Access America: Reengineering Government Through Information Technology.

Greg Woods was then a deputy at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government and is now the director of the Office of Financial Assistance at the Department of Education. At that time Greg was chair of the then Government Information Technology Services Board and Jim Flyzik, CIO at Treasury, was Vice Chair.

I was lucky that Greg asked me to lead the interagency team that created what we now call Access America E-Gov E-Zine. It’s a small team, but we are passionate about our mission. We tell the stories of how government agencies are using IT to serve their customers faster, cheaper, better and to increase government productivity. GITSB is no more, but one of our original co-sponsors, the Federal Chief Information Officers Council, continues to support us.

Reinventing government has morphed into electronic government and those of you in this room are responsible for making it happen. Access America E-Gov E-Zine is telling your story.

We are a weekly magazine, not a government portal. Even so, we have about 450 stories and links to government services and information. If you print our index, it runs about 25 pages. I did a reverse link check to see what websites link to the e-zine. I found much that I expected — links from libraries, colleges, public schools, embassies, and government agencies.

But I found one that pleased me more than any other. We are linked from a Ham Radio Operators site in Wisconsin. Right in the middle of dozens of topics — radio supplies, associations, amateur weather spotters, local community information — is one link under the heading, "Government." The link read "Access to the Federal Government." It linked to Access America E-Gov E-Zine!

Well, I say if people think it’s a portal, it is.

Transition to the Future

The Biggest Government Portal of All

On the near horizon is a government portal of mammoth proportions. On June 24th, President Clinton announced that this month FirstGov will be launched. FirstGov will be a single, customer-focused website where citizens can find every online resource offered by the federal government. The General Services Administration has the lead on this important initiative.

The star attraction is a powerful search engine donated by Internet entrepreneur Eric Brewer. It will be able to search 35 million dot-gov and dot-mil webpages — with or without metatags -- in a fraction of second.

It will also have links to government services and information by topics. The initial topical interface to all of the federal government will be enhanced and improved in the months to come.

Presidential Directives

The goal is to enable Americans to have access to all government information and be able to conduct all their government business online by 2003. President Clinton created the "e-gov" framework for doing this in a series of directives issued in late 1999.

For example, by December of this year, 500 of the most common government services and forms will be available electronically.

The ultimate goal is to provide:

  • Information, tools, and resources that help individuals and communities make choices and solve problems at all levels of government — federal, state, and local — using multiple forms of technology — the web, telephone, kiosks.
  • Transactions of all kinds — citizen-to-government, business-to-government, government to government.
  • Progress reports of results by all agencies so citizens can see what government has been able to achieve and where we’ve fallen short.
  • Interactions that allow an exchange of information, including feedback by citizens on services and results they care about, and even more — interactions that engage and involve citizens in their government.

Business Impact

Surveys show that a majority of Americans support electronic government. In the first government-wide customer satisfaction survey, IRS found that those who file their tax returns electronically are more satisfied with the agency than those who file with paper.

Government is saving taxpayers money as it reengineers processes and put them on the Web. But we face many challenges as a web-based government extends and expands traditional government.

Portals -- especially FirstGov, which plans a comprehensive marketing effort -- will increase the visibility and accessibility of all government web information and services. People will see services they didn’t know existed.

Dot-com customers are creating a demand for instant information and services 24x7x365 that government must match. It's reasonable to assume that these same Americans will demand to interact with government the same way they do with businesses.

It is especially important that agencies create an electronic infrastructure to support a huge flow of electronic comments, inquiries, and opinions. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is now handling as many complaints via its website as it handles via its telephone hotline, according to a recent story in But the hotline hasn’t seen a drop in usage, suggesting that the web doesn’t mean less work for the agency’s employees. It means more work.

CPSC funnels complaints filed on the Web into the same tracking system the agency uses for telephone complaints. Complaints are assigned a tracking number and stored in a database for analysis. The web team forwards the complaints to the appropriate offices, which have been receiving complaints by other means — hotline, e-mail, snail mail — for some time.

General Accounting Office recently released its study, "Internet: Web-Based Complaint Handling." Of 32 high impact agencies reviewed:

  • 28 agencies had links for emailing web-related questions to webmasters
  • 21 had email links so people could ask questions about actual agency programs
  • 4, including CPSC, had structured web-based complaint forms that people could fill out and submit to the agency.

Many sites also provide an 800 customer service number. Some agencies, however, only provide a mailing address and ask their customers to write, presumably because they have a structure in place to respond to regular mail. That doesn’t fit well in today’s world. We need to supply fast answers to questions and comments.

Portals small and large will face the same issues that agency websites face:

Implementation of Section 508 accessibility provisions

Interoperability and infrastructure issues

Standards for storing and retrieving electronic records

Security and privacy

Staff exodus

Retirement, lure of private sector

Recruitment of senior executives and technical staff

Deployment of staff displaced by technology

Training and re-training

Capital investments/funding for IT

Interagency IT funding

Digital Divide (have and have nots)

24x7 services


Telecommuting and flexible workplaces

Sites in languages other than English

Portals to services

Cross branch collaboration

Interagency partnerships

Intergovernmental partnerships

Corporate roles and partnerships

Transition from e-gov to e-governance


Thank you.

Patricia B. Wood
National Partnership for Reinventing Government
750 17th St, NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 694-0063