Clinton’s E-government is an e-failure

OXFORD, Miss. (U-WIRE) — For years the federal government has been searching for avenues by which to regulate the burgeoning Internet. Finally, they seem to have struck upon the solution: let the bureaucracy at it.
Perhaps you have been one of the nation’s few to catch President Clinton’s new Saturday Web addresses, his “Webside chats.” For the past three weekends he has heralded the arrival of the government, and particularly his administration, on the Internet.
On June 24, in his inaugural address, he announced the impending creation of firstgov.gov, an interactive Web site designed to consolidate government information and services. The new site will, above all else, supposedly do away with the legacy of a difficult bureaucracy where limbo is a standard operating atmosphere. Welcome to the e-llusion.
“In the spirit of cutting through red tape,” Clinton said, “this new Web site will be created in 90 days or less.” The idea behind this is to prove how the government is advancing side-by-side with business in its pioneering technological adventures. That a site of such magnitude might be created in 90 days or less would be, when accomplished, quite the show of a new federal efficiency. That is, if it were true. The firstgov.gov domain name as well as the .com, .net and .org suffixes were all registered by a federal employee nearly a year ago, on July 15, 1999. The claim of a 3-month incubation time is then nothing but smoke and mirrors. With a little more than 14 months to prepare the site, even the bureaucrats would have to put forth a special effort to fail in meeting the promised operational deadline.
Alternately, of course, the government might have truly been sitting on the domain names and the entire project for the past year, a tribute to the sluggish paper trail of their forebears. One look at whitehouse.com will show why the administration is anxious to erase any possibility of oversights in its new endeavor. A porn site, while perhaps a fitting tribute to the president, is not their idea.
But making sure someone who wants to check on their Social Security doesn’t end up with a choice of sultry “First Ladies” is still the least of their concerns. On the day Clinton announced his new era of e-government, immutable forces of nature were active at work against him. Web browsers sent to firstgov.gov automatically defaulted to the .com site. Not a catastrophe by any means, but precisely the opposite of what had been intended, the classic bureaucratic foible. This, after nearly a year to prepare for that one moment. What promise lies ahead.
When questioned about the slip-up, the official media representative for firstgov.gov first expressed ignorance (the error was quickly fixed) and then concurrence as to the irony of the mistake. Even top e-government officials agree that any online services are at least five years from comparing inability with those of e-business today. For all who are not keeping track, that’s the same e-business of server delays, lost information and sites vulnerable to intrusion by 13-year-old children.
Of course, the real circus is still more than two months away, when the site premieres and its claims are put to the test. While it’s nice to know there are still humans with the ability to make mistakes behind the impersonal electronic networks, the frightening part is that they are branching out.

James Stockstill’s column originally appeared in the Daily Mississippian on July 11.