s Government Executive discovered six months ago when carving its own niche in cyberspace, Web site construction is not for the faint-hearted. Staking a claim in cyberspace requires skill, patience, dedication, secure financial backing and lots of Chinese takeout. Within two years, dozens of federal agencies have risen to the challenge and produced lively Web pages that, in some cases, outshine the best in the private sector.
Many of these sites-usually created by skeleton staffs working with bare-bones budgets-feature stimulating content and snazzy designs. Some, such as the IRS' home page (www.irs.ustreas.gov), are downright amusing while at the same time informative. And unlike the static, first-generation sites that contained little more than mission statements and photos of key officials, many of today's government Web sites are fully interactive. They offer access to sophisticated databases for on-line transactions and contain small applications programs, called applets, that users can download and use locally.
Net surfers can do everything from conduct two-way discussions on nuclear power plant regulations (www.nrc.gov) to monitor near-real time satellite images of hurricanes (goeshp.wwb.noaa.gov) and buy products from an electronic shopping mall (www.gsa.gov). They can obtain the latest information on international cancer research (cancernet.nci.nih.gov), scan federal help-wanted ads (www.usajobs.opm.gov) or request estimates of Social Security benefits (www.ssa.gov).
The Census Bureau is working on a $30 million Data Access and Dissemination System that will make all Census data available via the agency's Web site. The system will enable site visitors to create customized reports on line.
In an effort to publicize information on more than 2,000 federal Web sites, the White House has added links from its home page to various agency on-line services (www.whitehouse.gov/WH/Services). The General Services Administration recently introduced its Government Information Exchange site (www.info.gov), which supplies an overview of all federal, state, local and foreign government programs. Developed in conjunction with the National Performance Review, the site serves as a shortcut to government on-line services by providing menus that link users to federal directories.
In addition, agencies are using inexpensive and user-friendly Internet technologies such as browsers and servers to create internal agency networks. These intranets are enabling workers to quickly tap into enterprise computing systems and share data or applications as easily as they would surf the Internet.
But several problems plague developments in the world of cybergovernment. Hackers and spies continue to threaten the integrity, confidentiality and availability of on-line data. Although many webmasters are routinely installing firewalls and encryption devices, most transactions involving credit cards or private information such as Social Security numbers are being postponed until more advanced technology becomes available.
Another major problem is congestion as user demand outstrips bandwidth capacity of the Internet's backbone networks. Blackouts, such as the one that recently shut down America Online for 19 hours, and more frequent brownouts have earned the World Wide Web the nickname the World Wide Wait.
User volume is causing chronic busy signals and long waits for data. Despite persistent efforts by companies such as AT&T and MCI to update switches and routers that direct Net traffic down pipelines, bottlenecks are developing and data packets are being lost. And with the number of Internet hosts expected to double this year from 4.8 million to 9.4 million, according to researcher Network Wizards in Menlo Park, Calif., some are predicting the collapse of the information superhighway.
The Office of Management and Budget and the new Federal Webmasters Information Management Working Group are busily studying possible solutions to data security problems and Net gridlock, along with a host of other issues such as how to archive electronic documents. Fresh guidelines, along with new products detailed on the following pages, should help travelers avoid at least some of the potholes along the superhighway.
The General Services Administration's Government Information Exchange site, developed in conjunction with the National Performance Review, provides menus that link users to government programs.