Go online'slowly

Thomas R. Temin

Now that 2000 has arrived at last, you'd expect to have a clear view of the future.

Many government observers, including myself, have predicted that 2000 will be the year citizen-government transactions go online via the Web.

Yet the path to that end does not seem much clearer than it was at this time last year.

Interactive Web service is a worthy goal, but government folks should pause for a moment and take a look at recent experience in the commercial world. Although I'm a believer in the online revolution, I think the private sector has a long way to go in perfecting electronic commerce at the retail level.

Even before the holiday shopping season ended, a sort of e-commerce hangover had begun to set in.

Dot-com retailers inundated us with TV advertisements hawking their sites. But many sites I popped in on were simply not navigable'even by experienced online mortals.

And some start-ups that managed to sell items did so at a loss, using their venture capital to make up the difference'a business model that only postindustrial America can tolerate even momentarily. Still other vendors were overwhelmed by the cost of building capable, mass-market sites and the logistics of warehousing, wrapping and shipping products.

In the end, according to Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., $4 billion worth of goods was bought online. That's a small fraction of the total seasonal retail sales.

What does this tell government? It's simple. Don't get caught up in the euphoria of the dot-com phenomenon. If it weren't for visions of instant stock wealth and the willingness of venture capitalists to fund seemingly anything with .com in its name, most of these companies would never have seen the light of day.

Agencies must be prudent. Although the political establishment and government careerists agree that online is the way to go for service delivery, that doesn't mean buckets of money will be available for online projects. Plus, the security and privacy requirements for federal applications will be more stringent than those for the latest buystuffhere.com.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

Internet: editor@gcn.com

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