How Computers Helped The Feds to Get Faster, The Public to Get Access

HERE'S a switch: Government bureaucrats are finding ways to speed things up instead of slow things down:

* In Los Angeles, 1,500 federal inspectors are assessing earthquake-damaged property at a record pace. They inspect nearly 10,000 structures a day - twice as many as in Florida's Hurricane Andrew two years ago.

* The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is experimenting with TeleFile, which allows certain taxpayers to file their return in about five minutes - by phone.

* This spring the Census Bureau will begin offering businesses a chance to fill out some surveys by touch-tone telephone and fax. The new systems should speed up filing time as well as the bureau's own processing operations.

The secret behind this new-found speed is computer technology. Long a user of big mainframe computers, the federal government is discovering how useful personal computers (PCs) can be in reaching the public.

``The new [Clinton] administration is really interested in using the new technology to keep citizens informed,'' says Nancy Ferris, managing editor of Government Computer News, a biweekly publication in Silver Spring, Md.

Or maybe the White House is just keen to get its message out. ``It certainly can serve as some kind of propaganda tool for the government,'' says Daniel Weitzner, senior staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington, D.C., public-policy group. ``But, on balance, it gives people who care about certain policy issues a lot more detail about things than they had before.... It really democratizes that sort of access beyond the Washington power elite.''

The signs of electronic outreach are everywhere.

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department released the first-ever CD-ROM version of the federal budget. The optical disk, easily read by a properly equipped PC, is not only simpler to search, it's cheaper to buy. The disk costs $30; the printed version, $56.

The Census Bureau offers dozens of CD-ROMs - from the 1990 Census to its latest release, the Statistical Abstract. At $50 a pop, the disk is more expensive than the $32 paperback. But it's also more complete, points out Thanos Theodoropoulos, a marketing specialist with the agency. ``What the Census Bureau aims to do is make the data available to as many people as possible.''

FedWorld - the government's electronic on-line service - is burgeoning. Using a modem or the Internet, computer users can download everything from the latest White House press release to federal job listings (one of the most popular items). Since coming on-line in November 1992, the system has tripled the number of daily callers to 2,400. The system has well over 62,000 users already and is adding 250 new ones a day. ``It has exploded,'' says Systems Manager Ken Royer.

Government agencies are also using PC technology to improve data-gathering.

Last month, for example, the Census Bureau equipped 1,500 interviewers with laptop computers to collect data for the monthly Current Population Survey. The machines not only save the bureau from keying in information from paper forms, it guides the surveyors through the interviews and checks for inconsistent responses.

``We expect that over the next five to seven years, most all of our major surveys will go to automated collection systems,'' says Mary Ellen Beach, a team leader with the bureau's Computer-Assisted Information Collection office.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has gone a step further. Its southern California property inspectors use hand-held computers, which is why they're so productive. At each site, the inspectors record their findings directly on the screen with a computer pen known as a stylus. Every night, they send their assessments by modem directly to the agency's mainframe in Redwood City, Calif. Estimated savings: $7 million to $10 million a year, says F.E.M.A. spokesman Phil Cogan.

Another agency with a stake in speedy data collection is the IRS. In addition to TeleFile, available this year to selected taxpayers in seven states, the agency is promoting electronic filing and tax-preparation software. Some 6.1 million of this year's 117 million tax filers will send in their data electronically - up from 4.8 million last year.

There's a problem. The agency has discovered electronic filing is more open to fraud than traditional paper forms. Rep. J.J. Pickle (D) of Texas has threatened to recommend suspending electronic filing unless the situation is corrected. The I.R.S. says it is moving to correct the problem. It doesn't want to lose the electronic option: ``What about the 99.75 percent that isn't fraudulent?'' asks IRS spokesman Don Roberts. ``Do you throw out the baby with the bath water?''

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