The Federal Government failed to use the Internet to communicate effectively with citizens about the terrorist hijackings and attacks.
By Wednesday evening, more than 30 hours after the first plane struck one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the governments own self-described “only official U.S. government portal,” FirstGov (www.firstgov.gov), was still little more than a list of links to other federal sites. There was no mention of the crisis.
To get to information about resources addressing the catastrophe, FirstGov users would have to navigate through the portal before finding the Web site for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov), which was posting relevant information.
The lack of information on FirstGov during the crisis is “a lost opportunity,” said John Spotila, who was in charge of government IT policy and regulatory affairs for the entire federal government through the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. Spotila is now chief operating officer of GTSI.
FirstGov, he said, was supposed to be “a single place citizens could go to without having to know that its FEMA that does emergency response. So if they go to FirstGov, I think there is a strong argument that the government should be able to direct them to wherever they need to go. If the government does not devote the resources to keep the [site] current, its losing an opportunity to meet the needs of the American people in time of crisis.”
Few federal Web sites initially carried any information about the terrorist attacks. The Department of Justice (www.usdoj.gov) had nothing on its site until late Wednesday, when it posted a statement from Attorney General John Ashcroft about the attacks. The Department of State (www.state.gov) offered only comments from department officials.
The dearth of information on federal Web sites, Spotila said, may stem from the closings of federal buildings Tuesday. In the future, he said, federal Webmasters should be considered part of the essential team that stays behind during crises.
“Theres an argument that says even when the government shuts down, it really shouldnt shut down. It should use the Web to communicate to the American people,” he said. “That would require a change in funding.”
One federal Webmaster, who asked to remain anonymous, was disgusted by the FirstGov sites lack of response to the crisis. The site, the Webmaster said, is largely run by contractors, and its notoriously difficult for federal workers to influence what is posted.
“People want information in real-time, but to do that, you need people working on the content in real-time,” the source said. “We dont have that focus. There should be a group right now figuring out what people need to know, and they should be organizing that content and putting it up.”
Meanwhile, AOL quickly posted links to relevant pools of information on its Government Guide Web site (www.governmentguide.com).
“I can go to AOL and set up an account and be posting material in real-time,” the Webmaster said. “But I cant do it in the federal government because they dont understand the issues of the Web.”