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Improvements for FirstGov
Posted On January 1, 2002
FirstGov (, the official online gateway to the federal government that launched in September 2000 (see the October 2, 2000 NewsBreak at, has been beefing up the content available through the portal site and recently announced plans for some major improvements. FirstGov is an interagency initiative that's managed by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

When it launched, FirstGov was weak in links to state and local government information. In June 2001, it added searching of state government Web sites (which are indexed daily) in addition to federal agency searching, and also improved the searching speed. I can vouch for this. I recently found it quite a bit faster and more productive to look for Texas-specific information using the state option in FirstGov rather than using the State of Texas site (

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax incidents, FirstGov quickly responded with a special section of information called "America Responds to Terrorism." There is a wealth of excellent links here, including anthrax updates, bioterrorism information, precautions for handling mail, victims' assistance information, and travel tips.

In December, FirstGov launched a new one-stop Subscription Center where people can easily subscribe to several free federal government e-mail newsletters at one time. From the FirstGov home page, click on "Free Government Newsletters." You just need to check the newsletters you want and enter your e-mail address once. The Subscription Center is a product of a cross-agency portal working group led by FirstGov. It's an example of how agencies are working together to make federal government information more accessible to citizens. FirstGov is encouraging other agencies to join the subscription service.

FirstGov's overall interface has not changed substantially since its launch (mostly some tweaking to major topic categories on the home page), but big modifications are now planned. The GSA has put out a call for bids to conduct focus groups and usability tests and to develop an interim redesign of the existing site, with bigger changes to follow later. Bids were due by December 21. The purpose is to gain customer feedback and determine how best to reorganize existing content to highlight online transactions, three primary customer channels (i.e., government to government, citizen to government, and business to government), government shopping, and topical information. According to a GSA representative, the agency is looking over the bids now and expects both the interim study and planning to take a month or two.

According to a notice on December 6, "The interim redesign will reposition existing content, form new content categories, feature graphical improvements, and position FirstGov to easily implement future features." The GSA wants an "enhanced graphical image" for FirstGov and would like the look and feel to be on par with a site like the California State Portal (, which it mentions as an example.

The California site is much more attractive than FirstGov, offering colorful graphics, photos, logos, a pleasing layout, and quick links. And, being a friendly and techie state, it even offers users their own, personal My California Homepage, which lets them select their preferred online state services and category links, as well as the news that's most relevant, based on their needs. The site also provides a wireless feature that allows Californians to register to receive up-to-date information via a pager, cellphone, or PDA.

Maybe it caught the attention of the FirstGov folks when the My California Homepage won this year's Best of the Web contest conducted by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine. The contest judged government sites on their innovation and use of Web-based online technology to deliver government services, efficiency and time saved, economy and money saved, and functionality for improved citizen access. Sounds like good criteria to me.

The GSA notice calling for the FirstGov usability studies further states, "This [interim redesign] activity is a precursor to a larger effort that includes deployment of a content management system, integration of other FirstGov business system components (i.e., customer relationship management system), and a major redesign of the site to include information architecture reconfiguration."

According to a FirstGov representative, the vision for the site is to ultimately provide the same functionality that citizens have come to expect from other services like online stores or banks. As part of this, FirstGov is also working to upgrade the capabilities of the search engine (and possibly replace it)-the gift of the engine from Inktomi and the Federal Search Foundation was originally for 3 years.

So, with the California site an admitted model for upgrading FirstGov, it looks like we can anticipate seeing some key improvements to this important online gateway.

Laura Gordon-Murnane, who writes frequently on government information for Searcher, said, " is a great idea and well on its way to being a very useful and valuable government tool." She is anxiously waiting to see the results of the planned upgrade. The February issue of Searcher will have her in-depth review of the gateway service (which includes the development of and details about the search engine), as well as a review of American FactFinder (, the impressive demographic tool from the Census Bureau.

Gordon-Murnane also recommends two other government search engines: Google/Unclesam (, which has a search interface that's familiar to Google's many users and the powerful and intuitive search features of Google's search engine, and Northern Light's usgovsearch (, a good choice especially for National Technical Information Service (NTIS) documents.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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