Can today's portal answer tomorrow's questions?

Thomas R. Temin

Your colleagues in Washington are involved in a rather epic pursuit: building a single Web portal to the entire federal government.

The General Services Administration last month awarded a $4.1 million, two-year contract to build FirstGov, the Web site of federal Web sites.

But states watching the effort with an eye toward emulating it should do so with a good bit of skepticism.

The federal government has been searching'much longer than the Web has existed'for a way to make all its information in electronic form readily available. But the FirstGov project, touted with much fanfare by the Clinton administration, will in truth do little to unlock the vast stores of government information.

That's because the portal concept itself, as is it currently constituted, is a technological dead-end in the long term. Why? Because an untold amount of electronic information exists that isn't available in Hypertext Markup Language.

The government has focused a lot of research on the problem of getting meaningful results from searches conducted across thousands of disparate databases. But it is a problem that's yet to be solved. Conventional search engines, which rely on keywords, cough up as much chaff as wheat. It remains to be seen whether FirstGov will shatter this technological barrier.

Another problem with portals is that getting information on the Web is very different from getting things done on the Web.

Citizens come to your sites to conduct transactions. Many complicated ones, such as getting the permits necessary to build a house, often require interactions with multiple unconnected systems.

Building a link-rich portal with a basic search engine might yield lots of keyword hits, but it will do nothing to integrate far-flung systems.

In the meantime, few if any portals anywhere attempt to do what governments really need: answer not only simple questions'such as, 'What do I need to do to add on to my house?''but also provide one-stop transaction services.

If a user entered an address and other data just once, a really good site would, for example, know whether the house in question had a septic system or used the city sewer system and which zoning rules applied.

There's nothing wrong with FirstGov in concept. But no one should plan on megaportals, as we know them today, being the long-term answer to government's information dissemination and online service challenge.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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