With much fanfare and a Webcast by President Clinton, the federal government launched FirstGov (http://www.firstgov.gov), its one-stop portal to government information on the Internet. FirstGov consolidates access to 27 million federal agency Web pages from 20,000 government sites. The site allows users to search or browse for information of all kinds and also enables users to conduct government business online, such as applying for student loans, tracking Social Security benefits, or comparing Medicare options.
In June, the president announced the concept of FirstGov in his first-ever Webcast address to the nation, challenging government and industry to finish its creation within 90 days. Then, exactly 90 days later on September 22, the president announced its launch.
The new site's search engine, Fedsearch, was developed and donated by Eric Brewer, Internet entrepreneur and Inktomi's chief scientist (http://www.inktomi.com). Reportedly, it can search half a billion documents in less than one-quarter of a second and handle millions of searches a day. The site is managed by a team from the General Services Administration. Other technology partners in the development process included AT&T's GRC International, Autonomy, AppNet, Inc., and Imigitas. The FirstGov brand will also be extended for custom use by portal and organization partners who agree to specified conditions involving integrity, privacy, free access, and no advertising.
The FirstGov site presents a main list of 16 "Interesting Topics," including items like Business and Economy, Consumer Services and Safety, Federal Benefits and Grants, and Money and Taxes. Clicking on one of these leads to a screen with subtopic links (these are not annotated, but they should be). Some are general like U.S. Department of the Treasury, and others specific like W-4 Calculator for Tax Withholding.
FirstGov provides a keyword search box prominently at the top center of the screen, with a Search Tips screen a click away. The engine handles wild card searches and claims to do phrase searching using quotation marks, though searching two words with or without the quotation marks retrieved the same results in my testing. In addition to searching the database for keywords, the search will look for pages with a specific word or phrase in the URL, using "URL:text."
Users can also click directly to the three branches of government or to two new sites: Workers.gov and Mapstats.gov. The Workers.gov site is an easy-to-use site that's designed for "connecting American workers and their families to government services and information." Nine core categories take users to Internet job postings, medical information, family services, and much more. The categorized and annotated list of Government Gateways here is particularly helpful. The Mapstats.gov site provides easy data access tools to a range of government statistics from over 70 agencies, and gives state and county profiles.
The launch of the FirstGov gateway is definitely a major step in the right direction—easing access and use of government information, without having to know the department or agency. The site provides easy user-feedback mechanisms, so we hope to see ongoing improvements to the site. (Hint to professional searchers: Speak up!) The existence of FirstGov should also encourage government agencies to improve their individual sites. While the search capabilities on FirstGov are limited at this point and will hopefully be enhanced, the weakest part of FirstGov looks to be the links to state and local government information. This certainly has lots of room for growth and improvement.
The Scout Report (http://scout.cs.wisc.edu) for September 22 noted the easy access to agencies provided by FirstGov, but commented on some limitations. "While a central portal for all U.S. government sites is certainly welcome, one can't help but wonder if the site aims too low by emphasizing the interesting topics over a more straightforward organization of sites. Power users will probably be disappointed in the layout and the search engine, which falls short of the leading commercial government or even general search engines."
Tara Calishain gave the site a first look in LLRX Buzz (http://www.llrx.com/buzz/buzz25.htm) and found it promising, but in need of additional work. "While there's a lot of information here, it's not well-annotated and would be greatly assisted by some categorization and increased searching options." She helpfully provides a list of suggested improvements, including sorting search results by date. Let's hope the Webmaster reads her article.