After three years of Vice President Gore’s cheerleading for a higher tech government, we decided to find out how easy it is to find government material online. After all, those rules and regulations flowing out of government agencies are adding several days a year to our business lives. Wouldn’t you prefer to fill out and file forms online instead of wasting time trying to find them? And while the veep can exhort the federal government, he has little control over the state and local bureaucracies that conceive prodigious amounts of their own material. We set out to get a snapshot of how extensive online support is at all three levels of government.
Leading by Example One thing to keep in mind about the federal government’s online presence is that most businesspeople need to find information coming out of the executive branch. Congress passes legislation and the courts interpret it, but only the president (through various departments and agencies) actually tells us how to comply with the law. This makes for a wonderful test of the vice president’s cyber-government vision. If you want to find out at what point you have to report to the federal government what you’re paying the independent contractor you’ve just hired, for instance, try going to FedWorld.
On its first page, FedWorld links to the Department of the Treasury, and from that home page you can link to “Shortcut to IRS Taxforms.” That brings up a page of choices including, “Search through tax forms by keyword.” Click on that selection and type in: Independent Contractor. Bingo, you’re presented with “Form 8233: Exemption From Withholding on Compensation for Independent Personal Service.” The form suffers from the usual bureaucratese, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. This is pretty indicative of how thoroughly the Gore vision has permeated the federal government. The only problem is that you’ll also need to download the Adobe Acrobat software from the site to read the form.
But what if the information you want isn’t a specific document? Unfortunately, you might get frustrated if you need a detailed answer to a question that can’t be phrased in a specific way. “It’s like dealing with a voice-mail tree,” one small-business person told us. “You get 30 selections, but none is the one you need.” Ideally, federal agency Web pages should have some way to answer specific questions when you can’t find your answer. E-mail, anyone?
Attorney Robert L. Sommers also warns that the fed’s online information isn’t always up-to-date. “The IRS forms will keep saying, `This is the rule,'” he notes about the independent contractor form. “They won’t tell you they’ve already lost in court. You can get a general sense of the rules from sites like the IRS, but how you apply them requires expertise.”
At least we’re to the point of criticizing what the federal govemment has online. The mere online presence of your state or local government, on the other hand, varies enormously. Cyber-gaga California has passed legislation to make all government documents freely available. New Jersey is considering similar legislation, but there is discussion of charging for Garden State documents. The best place to start a search for any state or municipal listing is through CityNet. It lists every state in the Union with a further breakdown by city.
California’s extensive listings include a special section devoted to small business. But even here there’s a sense of trying very hard but not quite getting it. When we checked the site in mid-December, there was information, including a mail-to form, regarding participation in roundtable discussions on the state’s “Regulatory Reform Initiative.” Unfortunately, the deadline for submissions had been early November. The site permits searching by keyword, which is excellent unless your keyword isn’t listed. Nevertheless, California’s site is relatively comprehensive and easy to navigate. Within a few clicks, you will likely find the complete text of most documents. By contrast, the state government of California’s neighbor, Nevada, offers nothing. All we could find was information put up by cities or counties acting on their own.
Muni-Net? Cities vary even more widely. Dozens of California municipalities are online, but while the larger cities like San Jose and San Francisco have comprehensive official government sites, many of the smaller city’s sites were created by commercial providers to boost sales and tourism. On the commercially created site for Rancho Cucamonga, for example, you can buy souvenirs from the Route 66 museum. You can also find information on “Incentives for Business.” That may sound encouraging, but it’s only an enticing overview; for details you need to fax or call. These kinds of sites might provide an excellent place to showcase your business, but they’ll hardly help you navigate government regulations.
Over in Nevada, Reno has put up its municipal code and even includes a mail-to form for suggestions to the city council. As with California’s smaller cities, the offerings from other Nevada cities tend to be more tourist- than business-oriented. We couldn’t find any business information about the Lake Tahoe area (in part because the Incline Village Chamber of Commerce’s server was down), but perhaps over lunch at Tahoe’s Sweetwater Saloon & Dining House’s online site, you can meet someone who will talk to you about business regulations.
And in perhaps the most perfect example of where-we-stand-now irony, Palo Alto, California’s site offers to send you a printout of all the phone numbers for city agencies–even though those same numbers are available on the Web site.
The guiding rule seems to be that only governments that understand the benefits of being online are pushing their documents onto the Net–slowly. Despite the federal government’s attempt at getting it’s act together as long ago (technologically speaking) as the Reagan Administration, Vice President Gore’s efforts got the ball rolling. He helped get President Clinton to issue the National Information Infrastructure Executive Order, which pushed federal agencies online. Although we have gripes about how we now interact with the fed’s Web sites, at least it’s moving in the right direction.
What’s needed next are Gore-like data champions at every level of government. We risk calling forth a plague of blow-dried cyber-prophets, but it seems like the best way to ensure the future of online government. It could mean that you’ll be able to find state licensing requirements in minutes. You should also be able to search zoning ordinances after your clients have taken up all the daytime hours when the bureaucrats are in their offices.
So, the next time candidates for your city council show up at a local event, ask them how quickly they plan on getting the municipal code online. When prospective county supervisors show up at the chamber of commerce, find out if they’re going to improve online content. And when state legislators start heralding how another tax break brought a company to your district, ask them why they haven’t done anything about getting an e-mail address.