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E-Service, No Waiting

June 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Citizens go online instead of standing in line to get information, services.

While the U.S. military is diligently building network centricity into the battlespace, the federal government is constructing virtual bridges between agencies and citizens on the home front. Cyberspace is now a two-way street where information is driven to the public, and citizens steer through the bureaucratic maze. Considerable advances already have been made, and plans on the drawing board promise to increase home-delivery of government services.

The federal government’s strategy, announced a little more than two years ago, outlined 24 e-government initiatives to facilitate interaction between citizens and agencies, improve efficiency and effectiveness, and increase agencies’ responsiveness to citizens (SIGNAL, July 2002, page 21). As a result of this management agenda, citizens today can do more in minutes from their homes than they were able to do in hours or even days just a few years ago.

In September 2000, the federal government introduced FirstGov.gov to help citizens navigate through government agencies online. Through this single Web site, visitors can click to the home pages of thousands of federal, state and local agencies.

Beverly Godwin, director of FirstGov operations, Office of Citizen Services and Communications, General Services Administration (GSA), Washington, D.C., explains that before the Web site was introduced, the average citizen had to know how the government is organized and which agency handles individual programs. FirstGov.gov is at times a front door and at other times the last resort where citizens can find information organized in various ways, including by subject, audience and online service.

The site has undergone two major redesigns since it was introduced. Audience channels—citizen, business and government—were added in the first redesign. Because 75 percent of site traffic went directly to the citizen gateway, the second redesign now features an increased focus on online transactions for citizens. Last October, FirstGov en Español was launched to serve the 28 million Americans with limited proficiency in English.

Godwin’s office has been tracking Web site usage during the past several years, and the statistics illustrate that users value the site. For example, during fiscal year 2002, FirstGov.gov had 33 million visitors, a number that increased to 63 million by fiscal year 2003. Currently, the site receives approximately 1.5 million visitors per week. Other organizations also find the information on FirstGov.gov valuable. The number of sites that link to FirstGov.gov increased from 77,000 two years ago to more than 140,000 this year.

Godwin attributes much of this success to the site’s evolution. “We really look at what citizens want from government and want from the Internet. We look at our market of 293 million Americans then look at what they are looking for and the terminology they use. That helps us design the site and decide what to put on it. Then we look at our site statistics, and we use that input to continuously improve the site,” Godwin says.

Stuart Willoughby, program manager, USA Services, Office of Citizen Services and Communications, GSA, notes that one goal is to have government Web sites with a similar look and feel so that people can navigate easily. “Part of the USA Services’ goal is to make the federal government more responsive electronically, and part of that is to help all the agencies develop customer service standards and performance metrics,” he says.

Although thousands of citizens turn to the Internet for government services information, people continue to use more traditional means to acquire information, Willoughby maintains. USA Services administers the Citizen Customer Service Center, which opened 10 years ago. Individuals can call 1-800-FedInfo (1-800-333-4636) and speak to a customer service representative, and last year the option of sending e-mail was added to the service. Customer service personnel can tap into a database that includes more than 70,000 points of contact about nearly 4,000 topics. “USA Services is trying to meet the needs of all citizens, not just those that are wired,” Willoughby states. For example, last year nearly 6 million copies of government publications were mailed even though many are available on the Web.

Godwin relates that the E-Government Act of 2002 established an interagency committee on government information, and working groups are examining Web content to determine which features should be common to all sites. She emphasizes that the goal is not to make all sites look alike; however, some content would look similar on each site, such as the frequently asked questions and organizational charts. By law, the Office of Management and Budget must have these standards outlined by December 2004.

Despite different appearance and capabilities, many government Web sites have experienced tremendous growth in the service-to-citizen area in recent years, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Washington, D.C., is a prime example. Terry Lutes, associate chief information officer for information technology services, IRS, explains that companies began developing software for professional tax preparers in the 1980s. Although the applications were used for tax preparation, paper forms still were being sent to the IRS, and the data was converted back into an electronic format. Lutes says that the idea to find a way to eliminate the paper step was initially outlined by IRS personnel on a cocktail napkin. Today’s electronic filing has a “prettier face” thanks to the tax software industry, Lutes allows, but the basic principle is the same.

As Internet use began to grow, the IRS seized the opportunity to enhance communications. In 1995, the service began to accept electronic tax returns directly from citizens. Approximately 12 million tax returns were filed electronically that first year, a number that doubled by 1998.

In 1997, the Electronic Tax Administration was created to set up an executive structure and focus on electronic filing, to expand the use of technology for filing tax returns and to seek additional ways technology could facilitate the process. As a result of the increased focus, the number of tax returns filed electronically grew to 53 million in 2003, and Lutes estimates that 60 million returns will be filed electronically in 2004.

Because the IRS must serve all citizens and not just those who can afford tax preparation software, the service and the Free File Alliance agreed in 2003 to set up a system whereby companies offer their tax preparation products to segments of the population free of charge. Each company determines the taxpayer criteria for eligibility to use the service. Some are based on adjusted gross income, while others offer free software to all active-duty military personnel. The IRS’ only stipulation in the plan was that each company cover 10 percent of taxpayers and, once all the free offers were tallied, at least 60 percent of taxpayers could take advantage of the offer. In 2003, 2.8 million taxpayers used the service.

E-filing of business tax returns is growing as well, and earlier this year the IRS began accepting small corporations’ returns. Next month, the IRS is expected to announce that it will begin accepting large corporate returns electronically.

Because today’s system is still based on the approach designed in the 1990s, the IRS is now modernizing its systems by starting from the ground up using today’s technology. Lutes says the new design will reduce the cost to tax software companies and provide a model that will enable the IRS to address software industry and tax professionals’ needs.

The new design is customer-focused. “We think this is going to fundamentally turn the way the tax business is done on its head because as we roll this modernized system out across return families—including the 1040s—during the next few years, there will be no reason for practitioners to still do paper business. All the IRS needs is two things: We need data, and we need money. With modern technology and using XML, you can tell us how you want to send it to us. You tell us how it works for you and send it to us, and we can put it in whatever format we want when it gets here. We don’t have to be dictatorial about how it’s got to work to fit our systems because we’re talking about newer systems,” he explains.

In addition to improving e-filing systems, the IRS redesigned its Web site in January 2002. The home page guides visitors through the site based on roles. For example, an individual may work on payroll during the day, access the Web site as a taxpayer in the evening and handle a charity organization’s tax filing on the weekend. Content meets the various needs of each role. Customer satisfaction with the design is evidenced by usage. Last year, the site received more than 4 billion hits.

The IRS continues to improve its Web site with enhancements to the search engine, and last year the electronic transaction function was added. More than 37 million citizens checked the status of their tax refund or child tax credit through the site in 2003. Modernization of the back-office systems will enable even more improvements to the site, Lutes notes.

Effective use of technology and the Internet is about more than installing new systems, Lutes contends. “You can’t manage an electronic system the way you manage a paper system. It actually challenges your decision-making process,” he states. For instance, the IRS publications state that taxpayers can expect their refunds in four to six weeks. “In the paper environment, we could have a system problem at the center where you mail that paper return—our systems could be down for a week—and you wouldn’t even know the difference. In the electronic world, where we promise you an acknowledgment file in 48 hours, if we’re down for an hour, the newspapers know it. That’s the challenge, because your problems are real time,” he says. One way to address this challenge is by examining and adopting commercial practices, an approach that the IRS has used both in its back-office and Web site designing plans.

Another government agency that regularly interacts with citizens through the Internet is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Washington, D.C. Ginger Price, acting director, health informatics strategy, VA, explains that the VA is working on an incremental three-phase project, called My HealtheVet, that will change the way veterans interact with the department.

The first phase, a portal, came online on Veterans’ Day 2003. The goal is to familiarize visitors with the available online tools, services and information. It includes a link to the Tri-Care Web site.

Phase two of the project will include some electronic service delivery, such as ordering prescription refills, viewing medical appointment schedules, accessing information about co-payment balances and entering military and health history information. This last piece of information will be available in a read-only format to individuals designated by the veteran, such as family members or medical personnel. An e-log feature will allow users to track personal health information such as blood pressure, weight and cholesterol levels, and this information will be compared to normal readings. This functionality currently is available at nine pilot sites, and full deployment is scheduled for late summer 2004.

The phase three capabilities will be available early next year. They will include 18 elements of an individual’s patient records, which can be kept in a veteran’s online e-vault. Medical personnel will be able to drill down through this information. In addition, each veteran will be able to allow designated individuals to manage the account.

From a back-office standpoint, the VA is examining how best to facilitate communications between doctors and patients. This may include e-mail reminders about appointments or communication of test results. Questions of format and security currently are being addressed.

Home loan benefits are another service veterans often use, and Keith Pedigo, director, loan guaranty service, VA, says that in 2003, nearly a half million loans were guaranteed through the VA, totaling $65 billion. The service interacts with numerous customers, including veterans, banks and real estate companies.

Last year, a portal was launched that facilitates lenders’ access to information, including automated appraisal and eligibility status data. Once an appraisal is complete, the report can be sent directly to lenders and the VA through the portal, which shortens the loan process by three to five days. The automated eligibility system reduces the verification process by as much as two weeks, Pedigo says. The department also is examining the feasibility of enabling veteran access to certificates of eligibility online. In addition, a new funding fee payment system allows lenders to send the fee to the VA electronically. The system was developed by the VA, the U.S. Treasury Department and Mellon Bank.

The VA currently is working on a system that will allow lending institutions to provide the department with the necessary information to issue the guarantee certificate electronically. Approximately 80 percent of the lenders submit this data manually today. The new system will be Internet-based, so it will be more cost-effective, Pedigo notes.

One data-intensive VA responsibility is veteran interment records collection and storage. Joe Nosari, deputy chief information officer for memorial affairs, VA, explains that the VA receives approximately 1,000 requests annually for burial records, primarily from people tracing their genealogy. In the past, information had to be researched manually, which was time-intensive work. However, in April, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration put 2.8 million interment records that date back to the Civil War on the Internet.

To use the service, Web site visitors enter the name of the service member and the cemetery code if known, and the VA fills in additional information such as date of birth, date of death and branch of service. Private genealogy companies charge for this search, so Nosari says this service saves people money. In addition to the online service, kiosks will be installed in national cemeteries so that visitors can locate service members’ graves.

Records will be updated daily, and approximately 100,000 records will be added to the database each year. Although the current system includes information only for veterans interred in national cemeteries, this summer available records for veterans buried in private cemeteries will be added.

In the future, the VA will enhance its interface with funeral homes nationwide. When a veteran dies, the funeral home contacts the VA via facsimile and telephone to determine eligibility for burial in a national cemetery. Nosari says the improved systems will reduce processing time by allowing funeral homes to use the Internet to request information and schedule services.

Online Assistance to Small Businesses Grows

Numerous government agencies have been learning effective Web use from the commercial sector to improve service to private citizens, and one is returning the favor by offering services that help businesses grow. The Small Business Administration (SBA), Washington, D.C., is launching several initiatives through its Web site that will help established companies improve and entrepreneurs realize their dreams.

Justin Van Epps, director of customer relations, Office of the Chief Information Officer (CIO), SBA, explains that the organization has established an e-government group as part of the Office of the CIO that is the managing partner of the Business Gateway. The gateway is one of 24 initiatives in the federal government’s E-Government Strategy published in February 2002. One goal is to develop a business portal where small business owners can go for information from a variety of agencies. The second goal is to examine the hundreds of government forms that entrepreneurs need to start a company and provide them on one Web site.

In addition to these two goals, Van Epps explains that the SBA is looking at its own service delivery to determine how it can be improved. Last year, the administration reviewed its home page and found that it was organized according to the SBA’s program areas rather than as a useful tool for small business owners. The site was then redesigned to parallel the life cycle of a small business. Today, hot buttons include “Starting Your Business,” “Financing Your Business,” “Managing Your Business” and “Business Opportunities.” This is an example of how the SBA has changed its focus so it now concentrates its programs and services on its customers rather than on its internal processes, Van Epps says.

The SBA also is examining how it practices e-government techniques and how it can use technology to improve business processes and service delivery. “What we’ve found is that there’s a lot of opportunity to improve. So we’re now in the process of automating several items. For example, our government contract business development office historically was the place that had information about doing business with the federal government. What we found is that there are applications that people have to fill out to acquire certain statuses. They are lengthy and they’re difficult, and historically it has been a paper-based process. As a small business [owner] that may or may not be familiar with the federal government, an entrepreneur would sit there and [ask], ‘What do I do with all of this?’ We’re now evaluating each one of those and looking at them not only from a technology perspective but also from a business process perspective,” Van Epps explains.

Some progress already has been made. The application process for Department of Housing and Urban Development zone status has been automated, for example, and the SBA is working on a similar upgrade for 8(a) and small disadvantaged business status.

In addition, the SBA is exploring how to automate the loan application process. This is an important area, Van Epps relates, because automating this process could reduce the amount of time it takes for loan approval, which is a critical decision point for an entrepreneur.

Training and development is another focus area for the SBA. “What we’ve found is that we have a lot of programs that we offer through our partners, but a lot of the training could be provided online. We’ve rolled out online training where people can go and pick a topic of interest and take a course. The courses that we’ve put together for this are actually courses that our partners as well as other folks within industry use,” he relates.

In January, the SBA worked with the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Defense Department to integrate the Pro-Net and Central Contractor Registration databases. Van Epps explains that this creates a single place where companies can register to do business with the federal government. In addition, procurement offices within federal agencies can access the database to find vendors for products or services they need. The Business Partner Network is now fundamentally complete, he says.

The SBA has written a strategic plan that includes near-term, mid-term and long-term goals for improvement. It centers on enhancing the SBA’s information technology use to improve service delivery and to support small businesses. One goal is to determine how to use information to make better decisions, Van Epps says.