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'Net gains Computer contacts: Local government turns to spinning information via World Wide Web.


MAKING GOVERNMENT more accessible is a frequently voiced goal that many times falls short of achievement.

But Maryland counties hope to use the increasing popularity of home computers and the user-friendly reach of the World Wide Web on the Internet network to expand their contact electronically.

Dog licenses, building permits, water bills, job applications, complaints about potholes and taxes -- these are the kinds of things that could be done by home computers talking to the county information center in cyberspace.

It's an idea whose time has come, but there are some important caveats.

Officials must hope that taxpayers don't blame them for problems connecting with the network, finding the right pages and inability to download required information -- real frustrations for anyone navigating the Internet.

If the system is to be truly interactive, governments must be prepared to respond promptly to messages and questions. That immediacy is, after all, a major reason why people use electronic mail rather than the post office.

There's also the cost of maintaining and servicing the electronic channel, in addition to the set-up charges. Information must be kept up to date, bugs in the system fixed, refinements made for easier use. Public agencies also risk the backlash from non-users of the Internet, who may feel slighted if computer communication gets priority treatment.

Public library systems in the metro region have been the leaders in computer access, allowing patrons to browse the card catalog from home, reserve a book, or connect to other computer networks, including the Internet. Computer terminals at some library branches also offer that connection service.

In the Baltimore area, Howard and Carroll counties and the city of Annapolis have taken the lead in creating home pages (or graphics menus) on the World Wide Web. Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties and Baltimore City are seriously studying the move.

Given the explosive growth in home computers and the number of surfers on the 'net, an electronic information center is an exciting, useful tool for local government. But they must be equally responsive to phone, mail and personal requests from other citizens.

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