GovBenefits to let agencies design their own front pages

GovBenefits.gov is taking a page right from Amazon.com.

Instead of giving agencies one benefits portal, the Labor Department's e-government project will let agencies create their own benefits Web pages and use a search filter to integrate with GovBenefits' back-end database and rules engine.

Jeff Koch, acting GovBenefits project manager, said putting a 'new skin' on the front of Web sites, while using the back-end technology, is commonly done by commercial portal sites.

'While Amazon is selling office supplies or toys, we are basically doing the same thing for the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and others,' Koch said. 'We are letting the agencies brand their sites.'

The GovBenefits governance board and the Office of Management and Budget approved the decision earlier this month after the success of GovLoans.gov, which is part of the GovBenefits initiative.

'This was not an obvious move,' said Harry Feely, deputy CIO for the Federal Student Aid Office in the Education Department and a member of the governance board. 'It is a good idea by a bunch of creative people. It lets agencies package their benefits in a more customer-focused way.'

Koch said the project team used GovLoans, which helps citizens find loans they may be qualified for based on how they answer a set of questions. The GovLoans team designed a front end based on the GovBenefits template and uses GovBenefits' back-end technology, Koch said.

GovBenefits uses a WebLogic Web engine from BEA Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif. The data is stored in an Oracle9i database and is hosted by Firstgov.gov on an Apache server.

When Labor launched GovBenefits three years ago, the project team asked agencies to link to the portal from their home page or other benefits page. But, Koch said, 'we asked ourselves whether we were doing a disservice to send people away from the agency site they had originally visited.

'OMB asked whether we could take the back end of GovBenefits and put a new face on it for each agency,' he added.

Koch said interested agencies will fill out a template and control the content on the site.

While the project team, with help from contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va., still is finalizing the details of the design, the new Web page will feature two search buttons'one for agency-specific benefits and one for all benefits.

Koch said the new setup will improve GovBenefits' data because agencies will have more reason to update links and the names and numbers of contacts.

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