Web interactions are six to 10 years away, feds say

Web interactions are six to 10 years away, feds say

The Net will need solid security before the IRS, SSA can exchange forms and personal data online

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

DALLAS'More data moves electronically than ever before. The federal government has experienced a dramatic shift in the way it presents and collects information. But it is only at the first stage of using the Internet, experts said.

In the next six to 10 years, governments will move beyond static information to interactive, online transactions, experts said.

Kathleen Adams, associate commissioner of systems design and development at the Social Security Administration, said SSA has gone about as far as it can in providing information online'for now.

'If we want to make the next breakthrough, we're going to have to give people direct access,' Adams said, and allow people to perform tasks without entering a government office.

Most agencies have had Web sites for years, but most of those sites provide information that is static and poses little security risk, experts said last month at the Federation of Government Information Processing Council's Management of Change conference.

The sites are popular with citizens and agencies. Both SSA and the IRS post forms online and have seen skyrocketing growth in numbers of users. Adams said that in 1995, SSA's Web site registered less than 1 million hits; last year it racked up more than 12 million hits.

What's a savings

Web sites have also helped the government save money. IRS deputy chief information officer Robert Albicker said taxpayers can download eight years of tax forms, and that has been cost-effective for the tax service. It costs the IRS a penny per 1,000 forms online, but it costs $3 per form if a taxpayer makes a request by phone.

But the goal is to let citizens perform transactions by either coming into an office, phoning or performing the transaction online, Adams said.

But before agencies can provide information about a specific person, they must resolve the significant hurdles of security, privacy and confidentiality.

SSA confronted those concerns when it attempted to make Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statements available electronically, Adams said. Although SSA's PEBES Web site required the same identification techniques a person would use in an SSA office, it alarmed privacy advocates.

Government agencies run up against a high degree of scrutiny about personal data, Adams said. 'If we are going to do more transactions online, we'll have to do it so the privacy advocates are with us,' Adams said.

Many applications await resolution of security and privacy problems, experts said. The IRS is working to let taxpayers file electronically, Albicker said.

But agencies must proceed slowly and methodically, officials said, so people are assured data is protected.

Albicker said the IRS this year will test allowing tax service providers to ask questions electronically. But the IRS must follow the laws that protect taxpayer information, he said.

Citizen service

Francis A. McDonough, deputy associate administrator of intergovernmental solutions in the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy, said many governments are reorganizing their operations to provide better service to the citizen.

The Office of Intergovernmental Solutions is completing a study of such reorganizations. Some countries have organized around specific life events'birth, retirement, death'rather than around arbitrary groups. They offer electronic access to services targeted for that subject.

Other countries are working to provide a multitude of services through one site.

'Today we're just building a base,' McDonough said, and although the work of reinventing government continues, moving to the next phase will require a close examination of government's role in society.

Initial developments will likely come in government-to-government and government-to-business transactions, McDonough said. Already most businesses submit their data to the IRS electronically, Albicker said.

The U.S. federal governmental structure was largely set by the Hoover Commission in 1945, McDonough said, and it would likely have to change.

But although technology is changing quickly, the change for government will likely be more incremental. Agencies are only into the second year of a six- to 10-year reinvention, McDonough said.

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