Access America Initiatives
IMPROVE THE PUBLIC'S ACCESS TO GOVERNMENT SERVICES
LESS BURDEN, MORE SERVICE
Imagine this: A woman with a serious illness is discharged from the hospital. Her doctor advises her to stop working. To find out what social security disability benefits she could get, she sits at her home computer and requests a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement via the Internet. In seconds, her earnings history and a benefit estimate appear on the screen.
She calls the Social Security Administration's 800 number to schedule an appointment to file a disability claim.
During the claims interview, with her permission, the social security worker verifies her date of birth by searching on-line state vital statistics records and retrieves electronic medical evidence documenting her disability. She does not have to bring her birth certificate to the social security office or contact the hospital for her medical records. After a determination is made that she is disabled, her monthly benefit will be deposited directly into her bank account, giving her access to the money immediately without having to leave home to cash a check. The Social Security Administration takes care of coordinating the direct deposit enrollment with her bank based on information she gave to the social security worker at the time she filed her disability claim.
This kind of story seemed far-fetched just a few years ago. Not so now. Now it is within reach.
In October 1996, President Clinton and Vice President Gore announced a new feature on the White House home page (Commonly Requested Services (http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/Services)). With a couple of clicks, World Wide Web users can find an electronic form and transmit it directly to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to request a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES). A printed statement is mailed back to the user. Passport applications can be downloaded at the same site. Visitors to the site can apply to AmeriCorps and much more.
The Commonly Requested Services feature responds to recurring demands from government's customers -- don't just give us more information; let us carry out transactions electronically, when we want to. The new feature is popular.
Electronic services are getting better all over. The Department of Transportation's Operation Timesaver uses cameras and roadway sensors to collect data about how traffic is moving. The data goes electronically to traffic management centers. These centers advise drivers of road conditions using roadway message boards, radios, and phones. The system first helped move traffic during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Timesaver can cut daily travel times by 15 percent. That means a commuter who travels two hours a day can save the equivalent of a two week vacation each year.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has phone services that set a new standard. The TeleTax system provides information about 148 task-related topics 24 hours a day; nearly nine million taxpayers used the service in 1996. And Telefile lets 1040EZ taxpayers do their filing from a touch tone phone. It takes about eight minutes and there is no paper to mail in. Refunds can be deposited in taxpayers' accounts electronically within three weeks.
Increasing numbers of customers are making personal computers and on-line services another popular way to access government information. Most agencies have responded by establishing electronic Government Information Locator Services (GILS) to help find government information on a timely and equitable basis. Most agencies also have Internet home pages.
To further simplify electronic access, several governmentwide entry points have been created on the Internet. The White House's home page links users to Congress and the federal agencies. The National Technical Information Service's FedWorld is another integrated, electronic source for finding and retrieving information spread across the government (http://www.fedworld.gov). The National Archives and Records Administration has created a virtual exhibit hall on the Internet (http://www.nara.gov) in which citizens can explore documents that are on display in the Archives building in Washington, DC.
Accessibility to information technology for people with disabilities is essential if electronic access to government information is to become a reality. Recent rapid advances in information technology have developed the potential for a level of independence and productivity for persons with disabilities that recently was only a dream. Devices that provide effective assistance enable people without speech to program and use computers to speak for them, and voice-activated computers enable people with limited motor capacity to write books. However, in this area, as well as with all the other issues that will improve electronic assess to government information, there is work left to do.
NEED FOR CHANGE
The sheer volume of rapid technological changes and their effects, coupled with the enormous number of government functions and services, will make it necessary to buy things in a new way. Changes in providing federal government services to the public will need to be based on a "build, test, fix a little" model, where manageable projects are used to validate improved approaches and then the proven improvements are exported throughout the government.
While these electronic advances are showing the payoff in thinking about and delivering government services in brand new ways, most services are still delivered the old ways. You can request your personal benefit statement from SSA via the Internet, but the statement is still mailed later. You can download a passport application, but you cannot fill it out on-line. These things are changing, but transactions are still highly dependent on paper forms to request services and report information; manual movement of paper through processing; and information and products printed on paper and mailed to the public. Handling this paper costs the public and government time and dollars. One solution that will provide citizens with on-line transactions is the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pilot project that enables bidders for HUD-controlled single family homes in the San Antonio, Texas area to offer bids electronically using the Internet.
There is a lot at stake for the public. According to the number given in their Accountability Report, 65,000 SSA workers issue social security numbers or replacement cards to almost 16 million people; process wage reports from 6.5 million employers; update earnings histories for 137 million workers; adjudicate claims for 5million retired and disabled workers and their survivors; and answer questions from approximately 48 million calls to their 800 number.1
Government's customers still complain that they have to go door-to-door to complete their business. Even when they find the right agency, they may still be required to contact the agency multiple times, or contact other agencies, to furnish information which is already available in government records someplace else. This costs both the customer and the government time and effort.
There has been huge growth in the number of office and home computers in recent years, and there are more phones than citizens, but that still does not give all Americans the option of electronic access to government. Many Americans live in urban or remote rural areas where distance, location, or poverty reduce access to services available from existing service delivery mechanisms.
Comparing schools shows how different things can be. Most American schools provide our children with lots of ways to learn -- books, periodicals, films, trips to museums, the zoo, and interactions with teachers and students from other cultures. Many classrooms can now log on to the Internet. The President and Vice President have set a goal that every classroom will have Internet access by the year 2000.2
Children living on remote Indian reservations and attending the 187 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools have a very different learning experience. Here there are no opportunities to browse libraries, no day trips because most children already travel hours just to get to school, and no influx of new students bringing new ideas. The Department of Interior's Office of Indian Education is working to bring the information age to reservations. Corporations have already donated hundreds of computers for use in reservation schools through the Four Directions Presidential Challenge Grant initiative.3 But they face an added problem. Right now the new computers are sitting in boxes because most of the schools lack basic electrical and communication hookups.
Leaving many Americans as electronic "have-nots" is unacceptable and unnecessary. Vice President Gore has championed reform in the communications marketplace to bring the benefits of the information revolution to all Americans. Implementing the provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which will broaden access to universal telecommunications services and lower the costs for those services, should make these connections more available and affordable.
Through public and private partnerships and through the innovative use of such familiar delivery mechanisms as existing federal offices and postal vehicles operating like bookmobiles, the federal government can choose to ensure access to electronic services for all Americans that wish to use them. HUD has created the Campus of Learners to bring computer learning centers to 25 public housing projects through the use of public-private partnerships. Similarly, the Neighborhood Networks Initiative is creating centers in insured and assisted housing developments. The potential for improvements in both service delivery and efficiency is so great as to define a new relationship between government and the people it serves.
Persons with disabilities face the same challenges discussed here, as well as several others. Access to the information technology tools that assist them is not always timely or practical. The devices are not always used because there is limited information about them or it is not disseminated in a timely manner. Funding to acquire these devices is not always available. And sometimes the technology can erect new barriers. For example, graphic user interfaces and touch screen kiosks can present barriers to persons who are visually impaired or blind. When they are developing the basic information technology products, vendors need to design these technologies with universal designs that will enable people with a wide range of abilities to use them.
1. Identify a candidate set of government services suitable for electronic self-service.
Enough progress has been made in electronic government to permit identification and widespread deployment of a core set of commonly requested government services that customers can initiate and complete in a single electronic session. Agencies are already working on these transactions.
For example, SSA is testing enhancements to its on-line benefit statement service which will let customers get their statements electronically within seconds of the request. Early pilot results indicate that once the fully electronic service is available, the customer will save up to three weeks in time waiting for a mailed response and SSA will save over $1.00 for every electronic statement issued.4
The IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) also are progressing toward fully electronic services. Both agencies offer numerous electronic forms, which can be requested from their Internet Web sites (http://www.irs.treas.gov and (http://www.va.gov). The IRS home page received 100 million hits in 1996 and taxpayers used it to download over three million forms and publications. Additionally, by working with tax preparers or using commercial software packages, taxpayers can complete and file their tax returns electronically via modem; sending signature documents later by mail.
The San Francisco VA Medical Center is pioneering the development of a Web site that, for the first time, allows veterans to apply on-line for enrollment in the VA health care system. With just a few clicks of the mouse, San Francisco area veterans are able to apply for VA care from home. The form is automatically transmitted to the medical center's business office, where it is processed. After a test period, it is expected that the VA will increase its presence in cyberspace by expanding this program to include the entire Sierra Pacific VA Network and eventually the entire nation.
In addition, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of Education are both developing electronic lending programs. SBA is piloting an electronic loan application and approval process with its largest lenders. The lender can sit with the prospective borrower and complete the entire loan process on-line -- application, review, and approval -- almost instantaneously. Also, electronic communications between the lenders and the loan servicing centers supports "early intervention" for avoiding loan defaults and, consequently, costs to the taxpayer.
The Department of Education has developed FAFSA Express, an electronic Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA Express is an easy, convenient, and, for the most part, paperless way for students to apply for financial aid. An applicant can download the electronic FAFSA and associated software for use on a personal computer (http://www.ed.gov/offices/OPE/express.html). The software will prevent omissions and most common errors. Once completed, the electronic FAFSA is transmitted via modem to the Department of Education for processing. Although a paper signature document is still required, once received, the average processing time for FAFSA Express users is 72 hours. By contrast, it takes 14 days, not including mail time, to process a paper FAFSA. The Department of Education is now expanding the electronic FAFSA to include transmission via the Internet.
By May 1997, the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board should identify a candidate set of commonly requested services using three criteria. First, the more often a service is being requested today, the more likely it is to go on the list. Second, the bigger the improvement in service, the better. And third, the larger the potential savings, the more attractive.
By September 1997, the GITS Board, working with federal agencies, should complete an action plan for developing, testing, and deploying these commonly requested services. Pilot projects where services are delivered to the public should begin no later than January 1998. A core set of commonly requested services -- those most desired by Americans -- should be electronically accessible to all Americans by January 2000.
2. Incorporate technology that will assure the public of security and privacy in their transactions.
The teams developing public access systems should identify their security and privacy requirements to the GITS Board Security and Privacy Champions. The GITS Board should promote the development, testing, and use of methods that will assure the public of the security and privacy of their electronic transactions.
3. Greatly expand the locations where the public can access information technology.
As the number of electronic services increases, the GITS Board needs to sponsor initiatives to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the technology needed to take advantage of electronic self-service. This technology includes touch tone telephones, kiosks, and personal computers. Although access to services improves almost daily, more can be done to reach out to underserved populations. The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey in November 1994 revealed that 6.2 percent of U.S. households do not have telephones.5 In a separate Nielsen study on Internet access and usage, it found that 72 percent of adults aged 16 or older living in the U.S. did not have access to the Internet either at home, work, or school.6 Many people just cannot take advantage of convenient, 24-hour service provided through automated telephone response systems or the Internet.
To broaden access to the underserved, information technology needs to be placed where the public can use it in convenient community locations, such as schools, libraries, senior centers, and local federal and other government offices. Broadening access to information also means ensuring that devices that assist persons with disabilities are developed and provided and that these devices are universally available and affordable. There should be help available for first-time users. The U.S. Postal Service is filling some of the gap with its Web Interactive Network of Government Services (WINGS) project (http://www.wings.gov).In partnership with other government agencies and the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, the U.S. Postal Service is providing Internet access to government information and services using kiosks in libraries, post offices, and other frequently visited locations.
By May 1997, the GITS Board should identify federal locations nationally for WINGS and similar systems delivering the GITS Board set of commonly requested services. The new locations should begin operations services by January 1999.
4. Establish truck-based and other service delivery capabilities to serve remote and underserved areas.
Existing outreach programs need to be expanded since some categories of Americans are otherwise likely to remain underserved. Expansion could come through enlarging partnerships with commercial and public interest organizations or through old and new technologies such as scheduled service to rural American locations using 21st century "bookmobiles" -- featuring personal computers connected to the Internet via cellular phone links.
The U.S. Postal Service has the technical and logistical capability to provide and maintain such a truck-based delivery system. The development of a prototype vehicle, which could then be field-tested and assessed by customers and other stakeholders, should be undertaken as soon as possible.
By April 1997, the GITS Board should identify an interagency working group, led by the U.S. Postal Service and including the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, and other interested parties, which will develop a prototype vehicle, survey customer preferences, and coordinate with appropriate federal, state, and local authorities to test the vehicle by December 1997. By May 1998, the working group should make a recommendation regarding feasibility of developing a regional or national program using a truck-based delivery system.
5. Develop interagency information exchanges to reduce paperwork burden on the public.
Working with the Chief Information Officer (CIO) Council, the GITS Board should support and facilitate agency efforts to reduce the paperwork burden on the public and decrease agency costs due to redundant data and systems. Programs paying retirement, survivors, and disability payments affect the lives of millions of Americans. Based on current demographic data, approximately one out of every six persons in the U.S. receives a social security payment.7 SSA records show that many of those people are entitled to benefits under other programs as well, such as Medicare or pensions payable to eligible veterans, federal civil servants, railroad workers, or coal miners.8
When applying for benefits, people must prove certain facts to show that they are eligible. For example, retirement benefits are based on age and, typically, applicants must submit birth certificates to prove when they were born. For many people, this means they must write to their state of birth to request a certified copy of their birth record, pay a fee, and wait for the copy to be mailed to them. Once received, the applicant must either mail the document or personally present it to the agency, again costing the person time and money. If there is more than one benefit program involved, the applicant may have to repeat the process and mail or personally present the same documentation to other agencies.
There is a better way to prove eligibility. With more and more vital statistics records being automated, agencies can verify dates of birth, marriage, or death by retrieving this information electronically for the applicant.
Several agencies have already initiated efforts to increase data sharing. SSA has been piloting on-line access to state vital statistic records in Tennessee and Wisconsin, where authorized SSA employees now can retrieve state information on-line. As an example of the potential benefits, pilot results have shown that both SSA and state efficiency has improved and customers receive their first benefit payment up to one week earlier.9
Other agencies are reducing the reporting burden on the public. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Railroad Retirement Board both have established direct links between their automated systems and SSA's electronic records to retrieve social security beneficiary information to assure correct payment of veterans and railroad retirement benefits. Coordination of payments is accomplished rapidly, reducing the number of incorrect payments and the resulting inconvenience to recipients.
By May 1997, the GITS Board and CIO Council should identify several pilot projects which demonstrate effective interagency exchange of eligibility information. Potential participants should include SSA, IRS, the Departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, and one or more states. The pilot projects should be conducted between June and December 1997 and evaluation reports should be completed by March 1998.
6. Coordinate and demonstrate direct access to medical records for agency personnel who make medical determination for disability programs.
Development and testing of appropriate safeguards is needed to demonstrate the feasibility of direct access to electronic medical records. To make payments for injury or disability, agencies must verify the claimant's medical condition. The collection of this evidence can take weeks, delaying benefits needed by claimants to replace lost wages and pay for treatment. In an evaluation of their disability claims process, the SSA found that it can take well beyond 100 days from the time a person first contacts SSA about applying for benefits to the time the person is notified of the claim decision.10 Collection of the medical evidence accounts for a considerable portion of that elapsed time. Processing time would be shortened, however, if medical evidence could be retrieved electronically.
As increasing numbers of hospitals and other providers automate their medical records to help control costs, electronic retrieval is becoming more feasible. First, though, the public must be assured that the confidentiality of their medical records will be protected at all times and that their records will be accessed only by those who are authorized. The GITS Board should identify an interagency working group to develop, in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services, a national policy and guideline for ensuring the privacy and security of medical evidence and to develop supporting technical solutions and standards. Once acceptable safeguards are available, electronic medical evidence can be accessed directly by service agencies, with the applicant's permission, reducing the paperwork burden, time, and cost of processing disability claims.
7. Develop partnerships with the private sector to offer related services.
Agencies should seek partnerships with the private sector for integrating related public and private services. Businesses and agencies frequently need the same information about customers to deliver related products and services. To the extent that the customer bases overlap, opportunities may exist to provide one-stop service, reduce paperwork, and share the costs of expensive technology infrastructures.
SSA has established a close working relationship with the financial community. Benefit payments for over 28 million SSA customers are deposited electronically into bank accounts each month.11 Because the customer bases overlap extensively, SSA and the financial community have teamed together to provide improved service to customers using the financial community's electronic funds transfer network -- the Automated Clearing House.
Today, beneficiaries can initiate or change direct deposit of their checks either at their bank or their SSA office, whichever is more convenient. Reports of death also are simplified. Many married beneficiaries using direct deposit have their monthly payments directed into a joint bank account. If a spouse should die, SSA must be notified promptly to stop the deceased person's payment and avoid inconveniencing the survivor by having to return any incorrectly paid amounts. Because SSA and the financial community can electronically exchange this information, deaths reported to banks for direct depositors are also sent to SSA to stop erroneous benefits.
SSA also is working with CommerceNet, a nonprofit consortium of companies promoting commercial uses of the Internet. Through this organization, member agencies can cooperate with the private sector to address barriers limiting the use of the Internet for business in the U.S. and abroad and can find private sector partners for testing domestic and foreign service delivery options.
The National Park Service (NPS) is working in partnership with the National Park Foundation, Target stores, and others to raise awareness and resources to restore the Washington Monument. To help preserve this treasured landmark, Target stores created the Washington Monument Restoration Project Web pages hosted on the NPS's Internet site, which gives electronic visitors a virtual tour of the monument and information about the historic building and its restoration.
As they pursue the goal of a government that works better and costs less, agencies will enter into additional creative partnerships with the public and private sectors and test innovative information technologies to effectively deliver electronic services to the public.
By August 1997, the GITS Board should coordinate with the other federal departments and agencies and identify partnerships similar to those being conducted by SSA and NPS. Programs which use these partnerships should be in operation by January 1998.
8. Create a plan to modernize BIA schools.
By April 1997, the Office of Indian Education Programs at the Department of the Interior should create a plan to modernize the 187 BIA schools with the systems and processes necessary to link to information networks. These systems should be in place in all schools no later than the year 2000.
1.Accountability Report for Fiscal Year 1996, Social Security Administration, November 22, 1996, pp. 9-10.
2. Remarks by Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. to the Superhighway Summit, Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, January 17, 1994.
Remarks by President William J. Clinton to the Democratic Leadership Conference, Washington, DC, December 11, 1996.
3. The Four Directions Presidential Challenge Grant is one of 19 national grants awarded in 1995 out of 200 applicants. The focus is to integrate Native American Culture and technology into education.
4. "Internet PEBES Request Services," Associate Commissioner for Program Support, Social Security Administration, January 22, 1997.
5. Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America, Department of Commerce, July 1995, p. 7.
6. Internet Demographic Recontact Study, Vol. 2, CommerceNet/Nielsen, March/April 1996, p. 1.
7. Derived from the Current U.S. Population Count, U.S. Census Bureau Web page, December 16,1996, and number of OASDI beneficiaries reported in the Social Security Bulletin, Social Security Administration, Summer 1996, p. 96.
8. Accountability Report for Fiscal Year 1996, Social Security Administration, November 22, 1996, pp.4-5.
9. Briefing, Electronic Service Delivery Team, Social Security Administration, November 18, 1996.
10. "Plan for a New Disability Claim Process," Social Security Administration, September 1994, p. 9.
11. Director, Payment and Recovery Policy Staff, Social Security Administration, September 1996.
Access America | Introduction by Vice President Al Gore | Action Plan