FirstGov Web portal finds a home in new administration

While the Bush administration has yet to announce its e-government agenda, the officials behind FirstGov, the one-stop Web portal built at the end of the Clinton administration, are quietly making improvements to the site. FirstGov is a joint project of the federal government and the private FedSearch Foundation, which oversees the search engine that powers the site. The site is governed by a board of directors drawn from the President's Management Council and the federal Chief Information Officers Council. While the board is restructuring under the new administration, a new FirstGov office opened within the General Services Administration last month. "We are continuing to add more pages and step up the feedback and search capabilities of the site," said Deborah Diaz, deputy associate administrator within the FirstGov office. Diaz noted that the Bush administration added a FirstGov link to the White House Web site within a week of Bush's inauguration. Staffed by a mix of career GSA employees and employees on detail from other agencies, the FirstGov office is focusing on improving its feedback mechanism and site security in response to congressional concerns. The site now provides an automatic response to all questions submitted online and will soon add a "frequently asked questions" section, said Diaz. An interagency task force is also designing a system that will route users' questions to the responsible federal agency. FirstGov has beefed up its security in the wake of a critical assessment from the General Accounting Office at an October hearing. FirstGov has drafted a comprehensive security plan and is currently performing a risk assessment of the site, according to David McClure, director for information technology management issues at GAO. "They have taken several steps to address [security] concerns we outlined in October," said McClure. FirstGov has never been hacked and has thwarted one attempt to overload the site, according to David Benetti, president and CEO of the FedSearch Foundation. "A hacker attack on us would be a very difficult endeavor," said Benetti. Critics of the public-private partnership behind FirstGov contend the portal's reliance on the FedSearch search engine could create problems when the foundation closes its doors in a few years. Eric Brewer, co-founder of the software firm Inktomi Corp., created the FedSearch foundation last June to finance FirstGov at no cost to taxpayers. FirstGov will have use of the FedSearch search engine for two to three years--or August 2003 at the latest. FirstGov will use the acquisition process to find a new search engine well before then, according to Diaz. But FirstGov's relationship with the FedSearch engine, which was developed by Inktomi, could give Inktomi a leg up when GSA bids on a new search engine, critics said. "[Inktomi] has put itself in a situation where they could have a big client in a few years," said David LeDuke, public policy manager at the Software and Industry Information Association. "It's a dangerous set-up to have a single provider of all government information on the Web." Benetti responded that the FedSearch Foundation will have no role in the selection of a final bidder for the FirstGov search engine and added that FirstGov could choose a new search engine at any time. Still, he noted that some agencies, led by the Department of Commerce, are replacing their own search engines with a modified version of the FirstGov engine, increasing the engine's use throughout government. "Any agency has to decide on their own whether [the search engine] is useful," Benetti said. "Nobody's pushing it." Enthusiasm among federal CIOs for FirstGov may be tepid at best. Representatives of the Information Technology Association of America said that many chief technology officials have told them they see the FirstGov initiative as peripheral to the work they are doing in their own agencies. While the site aims to provide a bridge between citizens and government services, some CIOs have speculated that the real effect of FirstGov will be to expose the redundancies already present in so many federal agency Web sites. The ITAA surveyed nearly 40 federal technology officials for its 11th Annual Survey of Federal CIOs, released Feb. 20.
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