Fruits of Labor: e-gov portal

Fruits of Labor: e-gov portal

Team leader Laura Callahan says she views Labor as the central nervous system for the project.

SSA's Tony Trenkle says the portal needs to leverage tools already in use at agencies that provide online benefits services to citizens.

Nine agencies team up to create online benefits gateway

This story is part of an occasional series about the 24 projects of the Office of Management and Budget e-government program.

In a bid to make good on its e-government promises, the Bush administration next month expects to open a one-stop, online shop to help citizens find benefits information.

The Eligibility Assistance Online portal is on schedule for limited rollout, said Labor Department deputy CIO Laura Callahan, who is overseeing the effort and described it as one of the more ambitious items on the White House e-government plate.

The carryover project from the Clinton administration will hyperlink federal, state and local Web sites that deal with benefits into one national portal attached to the FirstGov site.

The goal is to help citizens easily find and apply for government benefits. Search logic'yet to be created'will route them to online forms at appropriate agencies' Web sites, where the transactions would occur.

Ninety days after being selected to lead the initiative, Callahan and her colleagues at nine agencies are working to finish the first phase of Eligibility Assistance Online.

'Right now if you go online and type 'government housing' or 'unemployment insurance' into a search engine, there are maybe 1,400 results,' Callahan said.

Neither FirstGov nor Labor's current Web site can target benefits information well, and 'that's not very citizen-friendly,' she said. Labor provides unemployment benefits, while the Health and Human Services Department offers medical benefits, the Agriculture Department food benefits, and the Housing and Urban Development Department housing benefits. 'Some people don't even know the keyword' to start a search, Callahan said.

But tying together multiple sites and forms at multiple levels of government and connecting them to the FirstGov site will take lots of coordination, said Tony Trenkle, deputy associate commissioner for electronic services at the Social Security Administration.

Because most benefits flow through state agencies, the benefits portal will have to connect state sites, too. Coordinating federal efforts is one thing. Getting states to join in is something else, said John Kamensky, a senior researcher at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP of New York.

Some states have portals for citizens to find benefits information or apply online, but they aren't interconnected. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study of state portals, most are stovepipe efforts except in California, Maine, North Carolina, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

Callahan's federal partners on the portal project come from the Agriculture, Education, Energy, HUD, State and Veterans Affairs departments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Labor is 'the central nervous system, but they are our arms, legs and brainpower,' Callahan said, referring to the partner agencies. 'Their participation is vital.'

Labor still doesn't know exactly what it needs from which partners, however. The program might eventually lead the agencies to share servers and database administration because the initiative already has a 'several million-dollar price tag,' Callahan said.

Trenkle said the project is still in a conceptual stage, and 'issues need to be worked out.' He met for the first time last month with representatives from the other eight agencies to describe how SSA directs site visitors to benefits information.

'We have a tool on our site, and Labor needs to leverage that' and other existing tools, Trenkle said. Since last April, he said, SSA has had about 700,000 visitors seeking benefits guidance.

The search tool 'keeps people from having to make a phone call to us,' Trenkle said. 'I think Eligibility Assistance Online has potential, but Labor needs to work closely with other agencies.'

A major impetus for the initiative is the Government Paperwork Elimination Act deadline of October 2003, PricewaterhouseCooper's Kamensky said. The Clinton administration's National Partnership for Reinventing Government and the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government laid the groundwork for the portal, he said.

NPR, for example, left the Bush administration a strategic framework for e-gov initiatives. What the framework did not mention, Kamensky said, was a December 1999 directive from President Clinton ordering agencies to catalog forms and services.

The CIO Council's Web site even outlined best practices for cataloging, he said. 'Everybody supported this thing along the way. It's now to the next step,' Kamensky said. If the IRS can give citizens online tax information, he said, it's time other agencies did the same for benefits.

But dealing with administration, congressional, state, municipal and other officials takes time. 'You're working in a very complex environment,' he said.

Callahan said another big chore is that 'the logic to determine a person's eligibility needs to be integrated with the FirstGov search engine.'

After that, it will be simple to route an eligible visitor to the correct site. 'It's just a link' from one URL to another, said George Molaski, former Transportation Department CIO and co-chairman of the CIO Council's E-gov Committee.

Molaski said the benefits portal will be similar to an advanced search site that delivers hits based on answers to questions.

In the project's second phase, the member agencies will bring in more benefits programs and add eligibility questions. The goal is to finish the project in about two years, Callahan said.

USA Service, another e-gov project that the General Services Administration is spearheading, will assist citizens who don't have a computer or Internet access or might not know how to start looking up benefits. Its call center operators will relay eligibility assistance information to callers.

'It's not like people that apply for welfare benefits are going to have a T1 line,' Kamensky said.

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