Go Digital, Gore Says

Vice President Gore today announced a new Clinton Administration plan to wire federal agencies into the digital age on an unprecedented level.

The administration's plan, entitled Access America, calls for agencies to provide their services online, make all payments electronically by 1999, teach technophobic bureaucrats about information technology and develop a "virtual office" model so that federal employees can work from home, at telecommuting sites, or even plug in their laptops at neighborhood libraries during inclement weather so they don't have to drive to their offices.

"The recommendations here paint a picture of the kind of government we should have as we begin the next century," Gore writes in the report. "It will be a government where all Americans have the opportunity to get services electronically and where, aided by technology, the productivity of government operations will be soaring."

David Barram, acting administrator of the General Services Administration, announced the report's proposals at the Virtual Government conference in McLean, Virginia today.

"With this plan we can change the future of the government," Barram said. "We will set a new standard of customer service that has never been reached in history."

The report says citizens should be able to walk into a government office or tap into a government Web site and request a replacement Social Security card, apply for a passport, get a fishing license, and enroll in the VA health care system -- all at the same time. The Commonly Requested Services page on the White House Web site, the report says, is a prototype of this kind of "one-stop shopping."

For people in rural locations, Access America calls for a 21st century "bookmobile" to travel around the countryside offering government services on computers connected to the Internet via cellular phone links. The report also says the government will also expand its use of kiosks in libraries and post offices. The Postal Service is already setting up such kiosks in its WINGS project.

Access America acknowledges that one of the primary obstacles to using technology to improve customer service is federal managers' lack of high-tech know-how. By the end of this year, the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board will begin developing technology tutorials for all federal employees.

"Leadership by example from senior executives is critical in persuading employees to use new technology," the report says. "Like other employees, managers and executives need to understand the potential uses of information technology and be able to apply them."

The report also calls for the government to redefine its concept of the workplace. In the future, Gore says, civil servants should be able to work from sites outside their offices with laptop computers and wireless mobile terminals such as those already used by package delivery workers. GSA and the Office of Personnel Management will come up with models for the "mobile workplace" by September. OPM will also move all of its personnel files, which are still paper-based, to an on-line system by mid-1999.

While the report says agencies will provide all federal payments, including payments to retired beneficiaries, grant recipients and contractors, using electronic funds transfer by 1999, one administration official admitted that while there will be significant progress toward that goal, the government would "probably not" reach the 100 percent mark by the end of the decade. The report notes that some federal agencies' payment systems are incapable of supporting electronic funds transfer and some banks do not account for electronic payments well. The Treasury Department's Financial Management Service will lead a new effort to make it possible for agencies to make all of their payments electronically.

The public wants more accessible government services, Barram said today. The administration, he added, is setting high expectations for federal agencies, so people should expect both successes and failures.

"You put [technology projects] out there. If they don't work, you put them away and try something new," Barram said.

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