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Hill eyes corporate model for federal Web

Joe Lieberman is leading a bipartisan group of senators in an effort to overhaul government Web sites and create a federal CIO, but they say they need private-sector help.

WASHINGTON--A bipartisan group of senators Tuesday admitted that when it comes to providing information online, the federal government has a long way to go to match the private sector.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., unveiled a bill called the E-Government Act of 2001, which would coordinate and improve federal Web sites while creating a federal chief information officer that would operate out of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The bill is co-sponsored by the co-chairmen of the Senate Internet Caucus, Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as well as nine other senators.

The central theme of the bill is that citizens are finding it too difficult to access public information from federal sites.

"The people are demanding the same 24/7 access to government information and services now available to them from the private sector online," Lieberman said. But, he said, "e-government is a loose-knit mix of ideas, projects and affiliations--often uncoordinated, sometimes overlapping, and too frequently redundant in their costs."

The bill's sponsors made it clear that the initiative couldn't succeed without the help of the private sector. Burns in particular said the telecommunications sector will be key, pointing to the need for fiber-optic technology, but all Internet-related companies may be called upon to contribute.

"We have to have the entire IT industry, hardware and software, in coordination with us to make this happen," Burns said.

One company has already stepped forward to volunteer.

"Microsoft shares the senators' belief that technology can revolutionize the way government operates," said Microsoft Federal Affairs Director Jack Krumholtz. He said Microsoft will work with other high-tech companies to give the public better access to government information and services online.

"The public expects ever better and more user-friendly access to its government, but this has not been fully possible because much of the infrastructure has not been universally in place," said Patrice McDermott, a senior policy analyst at the watchdog group OMB Watch.

Not exactly Internet speed
Politicians have been talking about e-government reform since the dawn of the Web, but little has been accomplished. The Clinton administration launched FirstGov, which was supposed to allow Web surfers to go to just one site for government information, but members of both parties agree the site hasn't worked as promised. Lieberman said FirstGov would be folded into this new initiative.

"Incredible as it may seem, this is the first bill ever to comprehensively require the federal government to use the Internet to serve citizens," said Ari Schwartz, senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Several states have overhauled their Web operations, but the federal government has lagged behind. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans use the Internet at least once a week, fewer than 1 percent of interactions between citizens and the federal government occur online, the sponsors said.

"This isn't providing services to citizens like it is in the states, paying parking tickets online and so forth," Schwartz said. "This is about providing information to people. This isn't as sexy, so it hasn't gotten the attention in Congress."

It has been of interest to Lieberman for some time. Last year he and Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., set up a Web site where interested citizens can offer their ideas on how federal Web services can be streamlined. Lieberman said feedback from that site was incorporated into the bill.

The E-Government Act of 2001 would make several changes:

• The bill would create a federally funded $200 million annual Interagency Information Technology Fund that would work much like a venture capital fund in backing initiatives that would tie agency sites together toward the goal of "one-stop shopping" for citizens online.

• The federal CIO would act as a coordinator to see that federal agencies were working together and would also work with state and local governments and the private sector. The Bush administration has not rejected the idea of a CIO but has other thoughts on how the position might work. Lieberman and Burns said they have been having discussions with the administration on the issue.

• The Office of Personnel Management would design training courses to boost the number of qualified IT professionals in the federal work force.

• The bill would prohibit a government agency from beginning a new method of collecting personal information without clearance from the federal CIO after an extensive privacy review. This is a sensitive area, as the federal government has come under scrutiny for its handling of consumer information at the Internal Revenue Service, the Census Bureau and elsewhere.

• All federal court opinions would be posted online.