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Innovation in American e-government: the sole federal agency winner of the prestigious Innovations in American Government award for 2002 offers is an organizational model for individual federal, state, and local Web sites to learn from and adopt.

Think about it. Until two and a half years ago, Internet users needing to get information from government or do business with it had hundreds of federal Web sites at their disposal. But there was no one-stop way to search all of them. There were millions of federal (and state and local) Web pages out there. But the problem was the same--too much information and no easy way to find it.

Beyond these technical problems, people lacked knowledge of what government offers. The federal establishment was a mass of unconnected stovepipes, not focused on the needs of citizens. Channels for the public's engagement with government were inadequate.

True, some federal government Web portals did exist. But none of them organized federal Web sites in a user-friendly way. Even the best of them were built on the mind-boggling flow charts of governmental chains of command. None had search engines that reached all of government. None was written in plain English. Alternatively, one could try one of the commercial search engines. But they came nowhere close to being able to search government wall-to-wall.


And then, in September 2000, came Today this official online portal offers entry to all--repeat, all--federal government transactions, services, and information, plus links to state and local governments. It brings the public sector to people's computers--which is not so much a technological as an organizational feat. It is a citizen-centered facility structured by topics and audiences across agency lines and committed to public interaction. It aims to put users where they want to be in just three mouse clicks.

FirstGov, which this year won an Innovations in American Government award, enables people to find their way around online government without having to be familiar with agency functions or plow through layers of bureaucracy. It can search 500 million documents--180 million Web pages on 20,000 sites--in the blink of an eye and handle millions of such searches every day. It offers an always-current directory of reliable government services and information by category with direct links to government agencies where those services can be found. President Bush envisioned it as government's front door.

American Citizens

That's what it has become. Through FirstGov, individual Americans can file their taxes, find jobs, investigate and compare health care options, register new addresses with the post office, read and comment on proposed government regulations, buy coins or savings bonds, and apply for Social Security benefits or a student loan. They can get passport applications or copies of their birth certificates, file patents, find data on hearing aids, and renew their licenses to drive or practice medicine. FirstGov allows them to contact members of Congress, connect with state and local governments, and register ideas and complaints. In short, Americans can inform themselves or transact business in these and a hundred and one other ways important to their businesses, their health, their families, and their lives.


Businesses can use FirstGov to identify the laws and regulations that apply to their activities, learn how to sell their products and services to government, report wage earnings, and file corporate taxes. Federal employees can discover training opportunities, manage payrolls, find agency directories, check civil service rules, and study the Web sites of other agencies they deal with. State and city workers can plug into intergovernmental networks for information about grants, disasters, and health benefits. The same is true for tribal governments concerning land use, education, and housing. Those are just a few examples among thousands. And the range is quite wide.

"What in the world is the federal government doing auctioning banana juice, a bear head, and a baby Jesus figurine?" the Washington Post wondered not long ago. "Buying a new car?" asked the Myrtle Beach Sun-News. "Looking for information on food safety? Arson? Childrearing?" How about "a Gucci watch or a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter?" the New York Times wanted to know. It's all true--you can find items like those and many more online using a special FirstGov facility that links you to auctions and sales of seized, abandoned, and surplus goods in a wide assortment.

After the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated over Texas in February, FirstGov users could link to a site with updated official information. When war began :in Iraq two months later, FirstGov added links to a Navy site through which people could e-mail members of US fighting forces overseas.

In a very real sense, then, FirstGov is a boundary-leaping voyage of discovery, where users find services they did not know existed and learn much more about those of which they were already aware. It's a voyage made easier by what USA Today called "the least baffling :interface between the government and the people to date."

Three Gateways

Via that interface, FirstGov since February 2002 has operated in three basic channels that connect government with individual citizens, with business, and with government at all levels and its employees. It defined those three gateways with help of usability studies, focus groups, and direct input from customers. From them, FirstGov learned that Americans wanted government to sort out and arrange its online services and information around their most frequent and common reasons for connecting with it.

What has its impact been? A few statistics tell the story. In 2001, FirstGov had 6.8 million first-time visitors and 14.4 million who visited more than once. In 2002, those figures surged to 37 million and 40.8 million. In February of this year, there were 5.3 million first-time visitors and through May the portal was averaging 1.3 million first-time visitors a week. Annualize that rate and you get a figure that approaches a doubling of the 2002 numbers. That, in turn, would be half of all 131 million Internet users in the United States. Another interesting demographic: In one mid-May week, 17.1 percent of FirstGov's visits were from outside the country.

Measures of Effectiveness

To these usage indicators, add two measurements of effectiveness. First is customer satisfaction, for which FirstGov applies the online version of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). In September 2002, it averaged 72.4 on the ACSI. A month earlier, according to the Wall Street Journal, CNN. corn scored 72, scored 73, AOL scored 59, Yahoo's score was 76, and Google's was 80.

Second is the number of Web sites that have linked themselves to FirstGov. That's a measurement of usefulness and of third-party confidence in the site. At the end of 2000, a few months after FirstGov began, Google said there were 10,200 such sites linked to FirstGov. Twenty-one months later, there were 59,800.

Humble Beginnings

Yet FirstGov's formative and early years were anything but smooth sailing. Its first ancestor materialized in 1997, the result of efforts by a group of nonprofit organizations to get better connections to federal data. The group got a MacArthur Foundation grant to help press that case on behalf of nonprofits in general, who were especially interested in information about federal grants.

The administration responded with an operating Web site, the US NonProfit Gateway. Soon, however, it found itself trying to serve a multitude of needs, as groups within the nonprofit community asked for separate channels serving their particular areas of concern. Amid growing attention and rising pressure for services, this posed a basic question: Should there be several federal portals, serving an extensive range of interests, or only one?

US General Services Administration (GSA)

The eventual choice was a single portal and the existing Web site migrated in 1998 to the US General Services Administration (GSA), which had agreed to create and test a model portal. A year or so of development followed, and the site got a new name--WebGov. But repeated delays in public launch of the site followed, ending only in early 2000 with the intercession of a Berkeley professor and software firm co-founder, Eric Brewer. He offered to contribute money and technical capacity to help give the federal government a portal that would reflect government's high hopes for the project without falling short of funding or stumbling over a lack of up-to-date technology.

GSA's chief and Brewer worked out the appropriate conditions for the gift, and Brewer set up the Federal Search Foundation to devise a strong search engine and keep it upgraded for several years. In the fall of that year, after a powerful extra push from the president, FirstGov went public--a redesigned and more visionary version of its stillborn predecessor.

But getting operating funds for the new portal was still, in FirstGov's own words, a pass-the-hat operation. GSA persuaded the President's Management Council (PMC) and the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council to sponsor the financing and to sit on FirstGov's board. Funding came from the PMC's 24 member agencies. Management was in the hands of a modest interagency group led by GSA.

FirstGov's leadership tried to get Congress to regularize funding via a line item in annual appropriations, even as economic recession in 2001 cut short the Brewer gift a year early. GSA successfully used competitive procurement to replace that support. Yet later that year, September 11 found FirstGov about a day late and more than a few dollars worth of software short in its response. Even so, the portal recovered smartly and within 36 hours was presenting a well-organized portrayal of what government was doing.

Challenge of Stable Funding

Stable funding, however, remained a basic challenge. The change came finally in October 2001 when the PMC chose FirstGov as one of 24 electronic government initiatives to be implemented by the Office of Management and Budget with policy and budget support. This was Operation Quicksilver's rigorous two--month examination of hundreds of e-government efforts to find the relative few with the greatest potential for becoming fully citizen-centered, results-oriented, market-based enterprises.

As a result, FirstGov is now on solid ground. In 2002 it transformed itself from a government portal for information only to one that offers transactions and other services as well as information. The old pass-the-hat environment has given way to dedicated appropriations (about $10 million in fiscal 2003); the portal resides safely in GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Information; and the outdated software is now being replaced.

The data cited earlier shows that FirstGov is justifying the investment. Increasingly used to find government information and services, it is the federal government's only national, cross-government channel to the American people, available 24/7/365. It is also increasing user traffic to state and local Web sites.

If you're an ambitious government innovator, you would doubtless like to hear your work described as "incredibly useful." That's what Yahoo said in naming Firstgov one of 50 Web sites meriting such plaudits in 2002. Some of the other organizations and awards that have cited Firstgov in its short life are Parade Magazine, Government Computer News, the Grace Hooper Government Technology Leadership Award, the 2001-2002 Golden Web Award, and FOSE and the CIO Council of Excellence Award.

Innovations in American Government

It is the prestigious Innovations in American Government award, however, that underlines FirstGov's achievement in a very particular way. Known as the Oscar among honors recognizing government organizations, the award puts a great premium on replication--spreading the message and example of innovation to others. It promotes creativity and excellence in the public sector by identifying programs at any level of government that develop imaginative solutions to challenging social and economic problems. Each year it rewards five programs with cash prizes of $100,000 that support activities to advocate and replicate their innovative achievements. Firstgov was 2002's only federal winner.

How Does FlrstGov Achieve Replication?

How does FirstGov achieve replication? First, it is an organizational model for individual federal, state, and local Web sites to learn from and adapt. It's a model that shows the results:

* of seeing things as citizen users see them; and

* of simplifying the front door while integrating and showing the way to what the rest of the house has to offer.

Second, FirstGov is speeding the development of the entire US e-government undertaking. That is because it highlights best practices in Web design, content, accessibility, learning, and adapting, and shapes and raises public expectations. Users of FirstGov don't fail to notice the facility with which it speeds them to the other sites they visit. They want those sites to be as coordinated, easy, and quick as FirstGov.

Third, FirstGov's example encourages public sector agencies everywhere to apply technology on their own sites to open more avenues for handling public transactions and feedback. That builds public knowledge of government and boosts public confidence in it.

Fourth, it multiplies its impact through its connections to third parties, like other search engines, business firms, libraries, and educational institutions.

Last but hardly least is a subtle but important point for innovators and would-be innovators in government. As a close observer put it, FirstGov is a Web site, not a program.

The quality of the product is high. But it is the program behind the product that is the true innovation and this is the achievement that others can replicate.

Billboard for the Promise of Electronic Government

Citizens need and deserve reliable, accurate, and timely information from government. They should be able to get it quickly and easily. FirstGov's unique quality, as a billboard for the promise of electronic government, is its capacity for continual self-reinvention to stay relevant, responsive, and on the cutting edge. In fact, there is no better example of e-government than FirstGov, because the "e" also means effective, efficient, and excellent government.


The Innovations in American Government Award--a program of the Institute for Government Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government--is administered in partnership with the Council for Excellence in Government. The program was founded by the Ford Foundation to identify and promote excellence and creativity in the public sector. For information and an application, visit

Patricia McGinnis is president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government ( a national, nonprofit, and nonpartisan organization whose mission is to improve government performance by strengthening results-oriented management and creative leadership in the public sector; and to build understanding by focusing public discussion on government's role and responsibilities.
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Title Annotation:Image
Author:McGinnis, Patricia
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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