Beyond the fanfare

Thomas R. Temin

It will be a lot of fun watching development of the FirstGov Web portal, for which the General Services Administration awarded a $4.1 million contract last month [GCN, Aug. 21, Page 3].

GRC International Inc. of Vienna, Va., the
prime contractor, has put together what looks like a blue-chip list of subs, companies with proven records in the development of Web components.

If the portal works as advertised and provides competent searches of an estimated 100 million Web pages across 25,000 government sites, it will be a slick piece of technology. If it comes in on budget, it will be a bargain.

FirstGov, at www.firstgov.gov, will probably be as useful to the government itself as to groups and individuals outside of government.

Still, it would be a mistake to expect that this portal'or portal of portals'will make all of the government's information easily accessible to the public. Given the government's online systems and the multiplicity of those systems' formats, FirstGov won't be able to access even all of the electronic data'much less information that still exists only on paper.

Nor can a master portal logically link the thousands of disparate government systems. The technology to do that is only a gleam in some researcher's eyes.

In other words, FirstGov won't be the answer to the oft-cited stovepipe problem. There will still be a lack of integration among federal systems and applications. So while the new portal might increase citizen access to information, it won't absolve agencies from the hard task of building robust and interoperable online systems for electronic service delivery.

Responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, especially requests for electronic information, may or may not be aided by FirstGov because accessibility isn't dependent so much on technology as on the kinds of judgments agencies make about which documents they convert to Hypertext Markup Language and post online.

FirstGov isn't a bad idea, just a modest one in the face of the government's information technology challenges. The fanfare accompanying a presidential announcement of the portal doesn't change that.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: editor@gcn.com

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