A Wired Government for a Wired Nation

The federal government has dismantled most of its offices that once tracked agencies' acquisitions of computers and communications systems, and there's little central investment in information technology. But a crafty White House that eschews bureaucracy seems to be succeeding in its aim of wiring the government for the 21st century.

By now, most people know the Internet was developed as a research project sponsored by the Defense Department. In the two decades since, the federal research community has fostered and used the Internet extensively. And in 1994, the White House gave the Net a jump-start by setting up its own World Wide Web home page-complete with photos of Socks the cat and links to federal departments.

Not only did the Clinton administration set up its own World Wide Web site, it also asked agencies to establish Web links to that site. It seems like an obvious notion today, but at the time it amounted to an unprecedented gateway into the government.

The White House made sure government was in the picture when the latest wave of technology arrived. President Clinton has blessed initiatives such as networks in America's schools, installed with little direct federal investment. His White House established low-cost task forces to develop electronic commerce and intergovernmental activities online. Vice President Al Gore became the administration's ambassador to the technology community and its reengineering advocate.

In many other ways, the administration has given the green light to construction of the Government Information Infrastructure-without mounting a major new program at major new expense.

One White House move stands out: the call for standardizing the government's use of electronic mail. In communications, standardization means maximum connectivity. E-mail that connects one desk to virtually the entire online universe is becoming the norm in federal agencies, according to the e-mail office at the General Services Administration. Ninety-five percent of the agencies it surveyed late last year (including some state and tribal agencies) said e-mail would be an integral part of their operations within the next two years.

In DoD, the massive Defense Message System (DMS) has been slow to arrive, but commercially available e-mail is proving adequate for now. The governmentwide technology upgrade has worked partly because big procurements like DMS weren't needed to get it off the ground, says Jock Gill, who set up the first White House home pages.

Instead, he says, the White House empowered federal employees who were champing at the bit to use the new technology. They didn't need a budget or a staff. They just borrowed a networked computer and, using free software, started building experimental Web pages.

"The Internet solves two problems," Gill says. First, it allows agencies to exchange information. Until now, incompatible formats and other barriers discouraged information-sharing. Second, it gives the public access to federal information and a means of two-way communication with agencies.

It's also been said that the World Wide Web was designed from the start to carry text information. Other modern networks distribute database records and information in different formats-voice messages in the case of the telephone network.

There was a happy synergy between the Web technology, particularly in the early days, and the Clinton team's interest in making government information freely available to the public, says Gill, now a consultant in the Boston area. Issuance of the revised Office of Management and Budget Circular A-130, which directed agencies to make public information available for the cost of distribution, contributed to the success of the Web in federal agencies, he suggests.

At a recent State Department symposium, Columbia University Professor Eli Noam expressed the views of many when he said the Internet has gone from being a "nerd preserve" to an office park, shopping mall and amusement park. Others held high hopes for its long-term effect on the public sector. For example, James P. Bond of the World Bank said the technology will result in "much greater transparency and efficiency of government."

Internet security remains a problem and a barrier to even more reliance on this channel. An agency gateway that's open to the public will draw malicious and perhaps destructive visitors. In survey after survey, federal information technology managers have identified network security as their greatest concern.

The prevailing view seems to be that vulnerability is a price to be paid for an open government. At the same time, agencies are not complacent. In hopes of staying one step ahead of the bad guys, agencies are snatching up products that protect systems from intrusion.

One way agencies are limiting access to their Internet systems is by creating intranets and extranets.

An intranet is a mini-Internet accessible only to users within a particular agency or organization. It's a medium for distributing internal policies and procedures, agency telephone listings, news of personnel changes, and other kinds of information that might appear in an employee newsletter. There's no hard and fast definition of an intranet, but most experts say a real intranet should use Internet technology, including World Wide Web pages.

The Veterans Health Administration, a major bureau of the Veterans Affairs Department, is developing an intranet to strengthen links among the hundreds of VA hospitals and clinics. Officials hope the intranet will provide search tools and collaborative tools so that medical information becomes more readily available to VHA employees.

In the Pentagon, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations is using Lotus Notes and Lotus' Web software, Domino, to build and maintain a Web site that now offers certain information only to authorized users who have Notes passwords. This intranet is distributing budget, logistics and facilities information within the office.

Extranets, this year's hottest buzzword, are being used primarily in the private sector, to the extent that they are being used at all. An extranet resembles an intranet, but it links two or more organizations whose businesses are closely tied. For example, a manufacturer could set up an extranet with information about product inventories. Its users would be not only plant managers but also external distributors who need to know about product availability.

Such a network could come in handy for communications between a federal agency and a contractor, especially in agencies that rely heavily on operations and facility management contractors. However, extranets raise questions about security and confidentiality.

Gill mentions security as an issue for Internetworking but says he is confident the best is yet to come. "We're now working with quite limited and primitive technology," he says. Soon, he predicts, the Internet will be smarter, and the current era of "brochure-ware and eye candy" will give way to more useful and compelling services.

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