Government falls behind in Internet maintenance

It’s not enough to build a Web site. If you want people to use it, you have to make it helpful and easy to find.

So says the General Accounting Office, a federal agency that recently examined traffic at the regulations.gov Web site aimed at helping the public participate in the federal rulemaking process.

The site works reasonably well, the GAO said, but it is still scarcely used by the public, which finds it confusing or, worse, never finds it at all. People don’t know it exists because federal agencies often don’t link to the regulations.gov site from their own.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who sponsored the E-Government Act that spurred creation of the regulations site, was disappointed by the GAO findings. He called for renewed efforts to reach out to the public through cyberspace.

“The E-Government Act requires that the public be given a greater voice in the rulemaking process through use of the Internet,” Lieberman said in a statement.

But if the federal government is having troubles getting its cyber-act together, that’s nothing compared with the fumbling going on at the state and local levels.

Back in the Internet’s go-go era, every city, town and state agency rushed to set up its own Web site. Join the digital age! Get your own Web address! Communicate your mission to the public! Scores of new government Web sites went online in a period of months.

Naturally, these early efforts were frequently amateurish. Plenty were downright ugly. Most were little more _than electronic brochures providing basic information: “The public works department is in charge of maintaining the roads and removing snow. . . .”

Given time, though, it was _expected that these sites would steadily improve. Citizens would find more and more information available electronically. New forms of electronic transactions, such as online tax payments and license _renewals, would become available.

And in a few cases, that happened.

But much more often, state and local Web sites fell into neglect. Hundreds now seem like virtual ghost towns. Out-of-date and devoid of useful information, they testify to how little some agencies care about informing the citizens they serve.

Obviously, you can’t expect _government to run the kind of stylish, _robust sites maintained by e-commerce companies such as Priceline.com or Amazon, or by commercial publishers such as CNN.com. It’s also true that _government money has been rather _tight over the past couple of years. _Updating Web sites hasn’t been a _priority for agencies short on cash and people to accomplish even their basic functions.

But what too many local governments and state agencies seem to have forgotten is that the Internet can be a valuable and cost-effective way to build public support for their efforts.

Government Web sites shouldn’t _become an electronic billboard for higher taxes. But by honestly communicating needs and accomplishments, agencies can generate public good will and support. Honest disclosure of mistakes can help, too, by giving citizens a chance to point out ways the system can be improved.

Building such well-rounded Web sites is no easy task. Citizens won’t be _convinced by glib assurances that _government is “doing a great job” for you. Details are needed: How many roads were paved? How much did test scores improve? How many restaurants were inspected? What’s the agency budget? How many people work there?

The Internet is no cure-all. But its _potential for promoting communication between the public and its government remains woefully underused. Now is the perfect time to reverse that.