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Uncle Sam online


Gannett News Service

People generally go to government Web sites for the same reason they go to dentists: because they have to.

"The problem is that a lot of the government presence online looks like it was designed by bureaucrats," said Carol Kelly, vice president for electronic government strategies at the Meta Group consultants.

Translation: Many government Web sites are boring, confusing and occasionally frustrating.

That's a pity.

Because lost in this sea of cyberbureaucracy is some truly useful information that will help you travel safer, vote smarter, protect and educate your children better, start a business, run a business, cut your fuel bills, get a good job out of the military, get a good government job, find money for college, track your Social Security benefits, and apply for some of the $500 billion in grants, goods and services the government allocates annually.

What's more, just about all of this information is absolutely free.

"One of the best-kept secrets is how many really useful government sites there are out there," said Kaleil Isaza-Tuzman, co-founder of govWorks Inc., a company that works with government to provide online services. "Half the battle is steering people in the right direction."

Indeed, there's a lot to sift though.

The federal government alone has about 25,000 Web sites with 100 million pages of information, and that's growing rapidly.

Some sites are clearly little more than public relations facades with virtually no useful information or are so technical and wonkish that they're a waste of time for anyone but technocratic wonks.

So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

Easy, let somebody else do the hard work.

Based on interviews with some of the leading e-government consultants and people who track and analyze online government, here's a list of useful, easy-to-navigate Web sites loaded with practical information. Some are even fun.

  • Firstgov.com (www.firstgov.com)

    If you need information from the federal government, but don't really know where to start looking, here's a good bet. This site has excellent search features capable of scanning more than 100 million Web pages in less than a second.

    The site is designed to serve as a single point of entry to the federal government's more than 25,000 Web sites.

    FirstGov will guide users to information on everything from starting a small business to sites where they can track their Social Security benefits. The site is being touted as ideal for citizens, small and large businesses and community groups, providing especially quick access to grant and procurement opportunities.

  • GovWorks.com

    (govworks.com)

    GovWorks Inc., which operates this site, works with government agencies to provide online services to businesses and citizens. The Web site has excellent plain-language search features, message boards and tutorials in government.

  • Govspot.com

    (www.govspot.com)

    This site is similar to the above two with links to government search engines, news wires, and interesting sites with information on teachers' salaries and other data that can spice up school board meetings. It also has links to international government sites if you're planning to travel abroad or do business there.

  • Military.com

    (www.military.com)

    In the service? Then bookmark this easily navigated site. It's loaded with practical information on how to turn your military experience into a civilian career. It also contains a military voting guide that details political voting records and where the candidates stand on military issues, a personnel locator for tracking down friends in the service, a daily military news digest, service-specific homepages, a military marketplace and free e-mail. Military.com is a private firm.

  • Government Printing Office

    (www.access.gpo.gov/)

    Looking for transcripts of the Microsoft antitrust trial? Or perhaps something more practical such as export regulations, mining safety violations or Supreme Court decisions? This Web site is the official site of all federal paperwork. It bills itself as the only government Web site that provides "easy, one-stop, no-fee access to information from all three branches of the government." The site is a treasure trove of American history, including a vast inventory of historic presidential and congressional documents and speeches It also features Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids.

  • Wonder what's in the federal budget? Look it up in the Office of Management and Budget's online guide to the federal budget ( w3.access.gpo.gov/usbudget/index.html). The search function at this site makes it easy to find the money you care about. It also includes a plain English guide to the budget.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services' Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance Programs (aspe.hhs.gov/cfda/index.htm). This is a government-wide compendium of all 1,425 federal programs, projects, servicesand activities that provide assistance or benefits to the American public. A clearly labeled link at the bottom of the main page tells you how to find what you're looking for.

  • If you thought Amazon.com was the last word on everything published, jump to the Library of Congress online catalog, (catalog.loc.gov/). It's essentially a giant, easy-to-use search engine.

  •  The U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov), has an easy-to-search site that boasts information galore on who lives where.

  • The Federal Election Commission (www.fec.gov/), lets you see how much money candidates have received in contributions and who has contributed to whom.It also has information on campaign finance laws in English and Spanish.

  • Need some stats to back up all the bilge water you've been pumping? Check out the Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy (www.fedstats.gov). The site compiles statistics from more than 70 agencies and is easy to search.

  • The National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov/), lets you assess for yourself how American students are doing, and how much taxpayers are spending on them.

  • Traveling abroad? The CIA's World Factbook www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/), is full of up-to-date information about every country in the world. It has data on government and economic stability, exchange rates, natural hazards, terrain and other concerns. The CIA has a kids' page as well.

  • The Federal Consumer Information Center ( www.pueblo. gsa.gov/), in Pueblo, Colo., publishes government guides and materials on hundreds of topics, from cars and travel to consumer alerts and product recalls. Many of the publications are free and readable online.

  • Run a small business, or thinking of starting one? Visit the U.S. Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov).

  •  FedWorld's site (www.fedworld.gov/), provides search access to more than120 government agencies and all the information they generate from satellite images to reports on Social Security benefits.

  • Is there a bill pending in Congress that you care about? THOMAS (thomas.loc.gov), tracks where it is in the legislative process, what's been said about it, and who has voted on it.

  • Looking to save a few bucks on gas or heating fuel? Visit energy.gov, the Department of Energy's consumer Web site.

     

  • "One of the best kept secrets is how many really useful government sites there are out there. Half the battle is steering people in the right direction." Kaleil Isaza-Tuzmanco-founder govWorks, Inc.

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