FirstGov faces 1st birthday short on funds

FirstGov faces 1st birthday short on funds

BY DIPKA BHAMBHANI | GCN STAFF

A year after the government began work on a portal to open a citizen-centric door to 30 million Web pages, FirstGov's idealistic team finds itself scraping up money to prop that door open.

Funds are unlikely to come from the $100 million that President Bush earmarked in his fiscal 2002 budget for electronic-government efforts, according to a highly placed Office of Management and Budget official who asked not to be identified.

'What we're telling [them] is, 'Do not count on the fund,' ' the OMB official said.

The portal, at firstgov.gov, is overseen by the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy, the President's Management Council and the Chief Information Officers Council. The member agencies of the CIO Council donated money to begin work on FirstGov last June, and the nonprofit Federal Search Foundation donated hardware and a search engine.

GSA intends to allot $3 million to FirstGov from its fiscal 2002 budget. But that money alone won't cover the FirstGov team's upgrade strategies.

Plans call for increasing the number of portals, such as adding disability.gov and seniors.gov sites, and making technical improvements. The $3 million is slated to go solely to operating costs.

FirstGov must meet a $4 million operations contract with GRC International Inc. of Vienna, Va., that runs until fiscal 2003.

'We have told Deborah Diaz and Marty Wagner that they are not to depend on the e-gov fund for FirstGov,' the OMB official said.

Diaz, GSA's deputy associate administrator for FirstGov, and G. Martin Wagner, the agency's associate administrator for governmentwide policy, refused to comment.

Drumming up business

Last month, Beverly Godwin, FirstGov's director of content and new product development, told the Bethesda, Md., chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association that at least 20 cross-agency communities have no subsites on FirstGov.

Godwin said uniform resource locators already are reserved for such groups, and she is trying to find agencies willing to create what she called 'the missing portals.'

The Interior Department is spearheading development of volunteers.gov, she said, because many people like to volunteer at national parks and other land-related activities of Interior agencies. Similarly, there is interest at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in developing a disasters.gov site where agencies involved in disaster response could collaborate.

Godwin's office plans several upgrades such as easier navigation to state portals' 20 million additional pages of information, plus a new section focusing on governmental transactions.
Those ideas, however, are not compelling enough to convince OMB.

E-government proposals 'need to be innovative, they need to be new, transformational government projects,' the administration official said.

Projects for the masses

New cross-agency projects are more interesting than automation of forms or continuing projects such as FirstGov, the official said. The Bush administration would prefer to fund projects that will benefit either a large number of people or multiple agencies, the official said.

By fall, OMB will release criteria under which agencies can apply for the e-government money.
It will be distributed over three years and could go either to many agencies or a single agency. In the first year, $10 million will be distributed, the next year $45 million, and the rest in 2004.

David Binetti, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Search Foundation, said it recently improved the FirstGov search engine so users can enter logical or one-word searches.
'It's a continual process,' he said. 'As technology improves, we find better ways of doing things.'

The foundation and an Internet infrastructure company, Inktomi Corp. of Foster City, Calif., both founded by Eric Brewer, have incorporated a new relevancy search engine into the existing FirstGov search tool.

Without disclosing the value of the services to FirstGov, Binetti said, 'Expenses are loaded in hardware. That's nothing that they have to worry about. It will lower costs considerably.' But the foundation will maintain and develop the engine only until 2003, when FirstGov has to assume the costs.

'The bottom line is they're going to have a lot of time to make this decision,' Binetti said. n

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