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Agencies' investments in online initiatives have more than tripled since 1994, a General Accounting Office study released this week found.

Half of all federal employees now have access to electronic mail and 31 percent have access to the World Wide Web, GAO reported.

"The Internet has become a valuable and widely used means of communicating and sharing information," GAO said.

Agencies estimate they spent $190 million in 1996 providing Internet access to employees and developing World Wide Web sites and on-line bulletin board systems. That's up from $59 million on such activities in 1994 and $100 million in 1995.

Agencies told GAO that their figures were only estimates because most do not account for Internet projects separately from other information technology investments.

The number of employees with Internet access varies significantly by agency.

While the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) each reported that they provide 100 percent of their employees with e-mail access, the Department of Justice said that only 8 percent of its 102,000 employees have access to e-mail.

Justice and the Treasury Department each said that 8 percent of their employees have the capability to surf the World Wide Web, while HUD reported that all of its employees can get to the Web.

GAO surveyed 42 federal agencies and departments for its study. They reported that they had developed 4,300 distinct Web sites. GAO compiled a list of those sites (GGD-97-86S), available only on the Internet.

GAO also asked agencies to report if their employees were using the Internet for non-official purposes and if they had policies governing Internet usage.

No governmentwide Internet policy has been developed, but most agencies have policies that restrict Internet use to official purposes. A few allow incidental personal use, similar to the way they treat telephone usage.

The Department of Energy reprimanded nearly 100 employees at a national laboratory for accessing material from adult-oriented Web sites. The Interior Department inspector general found that a department employee had given private citizens access to the Web through department computer systems.

Agencies reported many advantages to Internet use, including improved information sharing with the public and among agencies.

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