The U.S. government is the country's largest distributor, buyer, and seller of goods and services, as well as the biggest publisher and employer. It is also the largest single provider of assistance for emergencies or disasters, and the largest awarder of grants for study and research in the United States. But everyone knows that the U.S. government is much more than that. Laws, the post office, passports, and taxes are just a few of the areas in which the average U.S. citizen regularly encounters the federal government. All of these important resources--information, funding, and support--have also been protected or concealed by perhaps the largest bureaucracy in the country: the U.S. government. Indeed, throughout its history, transparency for the common citizen has been one of the federal government's greatest challenges.
In 2000, FirstGov was created to address this problem: how to provide efficient access to a complete body of authentic government information and services to the ordinary citizen. Their solution was FirstGov.gov, a portal to all federal government transactions, information, and services, combined with links to state and local governments. The website uses the cutting edge Fed-Search search engine that can search more than 500 million documents in a quarter of a second, "crawl" through documents to create an index, and scan documents in multiple formats. The engine also returns links of higher relevance and ignores many that are irrelevant. For instance, a specific requirement that the government placed on the engine's vendor was that the engine should, when searching for "white house," return sites containing "George lives in the White House" but not "Al's house is also white." As most of the governmental information was already published online under separate agency websites, the engine amasses the information and makes it accessible from a single portal.
FirstGov's primary test came after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The website provided an unforeseen service to the public. By posting links to lists of victims and lost people, the status of various buildings, and other resources, FirstGov proved its ability to not only provide access to the pre-existing governmental programs, but also its ability to innovate, changing its service to cater to people in specific times of need. Indeed, the innovation of the program is not found in the creation of transparency and service as a primary goal, but in the use of technology and the management of resources to achieve the integration of so much disparate information.
The remaining challenge of FirstGov is informing the public, first of its existence and, second, of its potential. The word is getting out: nearly 3 million more people visited the site in September of 2002 than did in August 2001 and sites linking to FirstGov.gov have increased by over 600 percent.
The realization of the portal's potential will more likely occur as people understand the convenience of alternative means for acquiring governmental services. For example, by using FirstGov a citizen that has recently moved can renew their driver's license and change their address without ever leaving the house.
The FirstGov site is part of an important global trend in government portals; governments large and small are making their governments transparent to their citizens through web portal technology. By taking active part in the ongoing information revolution, the U.S. government, in its FirstGov program, is creating transparency in its services and resources.