Cyberspace for the political animal

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The Independent Culture
Andrew North trawls the Internet for the 10 best government information sites

Would your life be improved if you could access the mission statement of Singapore's Ministry of Education on your computer? Or if you could read what America's First Family gets up to on an average day, complete with downloadable images of Chelsea Clinton and the sound of the White House cat, Socks?

Three years ago, the US government was the only political body with a significant Internet presence, and even that was fairly limited. Other governments derided cyberspace as yet another American fad.

Today, at least 30 national governments and international organisations are providing information on the World Wide Web and via gopher servers; more are going on-line every month. North American and European government ministries predominate. But in compiling a top-10 list of political Internet sites, the Independent found ministry Web and gopher sites as far afield as Argentina, South Africa, Taiwan and Australia.

Like kids with new hi-tech toys, not all governments fully understand the Net and how to make best use of it. But don't despair: not all of political cyberspace is dross.

Where to start is the biggest problem with the US. Not only are the White House, Congress and every federal government department represented, but all 50 states have active Net sites, too.

The US's Fedworld Web site wins the number one position by providing a comprehensive one-stop link to all the US government departments and agencies on the Net. Fedworld can access everything from the CIA's home page to the Oregon state Web site. Perhaps the three most interesting for non-Americans are the White House, the Library of Congress and the State Department gopher.

What makes the White House Web server particularly useful is the daily press briefings, statements and speeches it provides. Barely a fraction of the mass of literature and data held in the Library of Congress is available on-line. But it does provide a comprehensive search facility, at least allowing researchers to avoid making an expensive trip across the pond.

If you are planning a trip to a hotspot like Cambodia or Egypt and you want up-to-date advice on the risks facing travellers, the Dosfan gopher (as in Department of State Foreign Affairs Network) should be your first port of call.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Office's equivalent travel advice service is not on the British government's Web site. In fact, the Foreign Office has no presence there at all. But what is on the open.gov.uk Web server makes it worthy of fifth place. Eighteen government departments are now placing information there. The best service is provided by the separate, but linked, Treasury Web site. Among other things, you can access the transcripts of the regular meetings between the Chancellor and the Bank of England governor. In the Northern Ireland Office's pages you will find the full text of the Framework Document.

One of the best features of the UK government's Internet activities is the Collaborative Open Groups system. These lively discussion groups cover a whole range of issues relating to government information technology policies. There was a very good discussion recently about libel on the Net.

Winning sixth place is the French Ministry of Culture Web server. As you might expect from the French, the tenor of these servers is conspicuously nationalistic. But if you are planning a trip to France they are worth checking out. As well as countless documents on French culture and language, there are detailed listings on museums and dance, theatre and music venues.

Most of the material on the main Israeli gopher relates to the peace process, its dealings with Arab states and the UN and the threat from Islamic terrorism. Its Web site offers several useful mailing lists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you cannot run a similar test on any Arab governments: none of them has an official Internet site.

Snapping at the heels of these government Net services, in terms of the quality of its information, is the eighth-placed African National Congress's gopher. This is a bargain-basement Internet operation, run by a few hard- pressed specialists for the ANC from Cape Town. What it lacks in user- friendliness it more than makes up for with the amount of information available. It provides ANC press releases, speeches and documents as well as daily coverage of South African news.

The Web site of the Hungarian prime minister shares equal ninth spot with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) server. The Hungarian PM's site is improving fast and now offers weekly public statements, the 1995 budget and an extensive document archive, accessible via FTP (File Transfer Protocol).

International organisations, such as the United Nations and the European Union have a major presence on the Net. But the UNDP Web server is the best of the bunch. It offers databases on human development and the environment, as well as press releases, a list of other relevant Web servers and links to other UN sites.

There are still a lot of poor performers in political cyberspace - check out the sites for Italy, Singapore and Japan. They have no excuse for the paucity of their services: thousands of less well-funded organisations manage to provide useful information and services over the Internet. But these governments are unlikely to lag behind for long: they cannot afford to be seen to be skimping in the Internet services they provide for their citizens.

Top government Net sites

1 Fedworld: http://www.fedworld.gov (Thomas Jefferson server: http://thomas.loc.gov)

2 White House: http://www. whitehouse.gov

3 Library of Congress: http:// lcweb.loc.gov

4 Dosfan: gopher://dosfan. lib.uic.edu

5 UK government: http://www. open.gov.uk

6 French Ministry of Culture: http://www.culture.fr/culture

7 Israeli Government Information Service: http://www.israel. org gopher://israel-info.gov. il:70/11

8 ANC: gopher://wn.apc.org e-mail: info@anc.org.za

9 Hungary's PM: http://www. meh.hu/gov

10 UNDP: http://www.undp. org

Honourable mentions

Australian federal government: http://www.nla.gov.au

Canadian government: http:// debra.dgbt.doc.ca/opengov

Baltic States: http://viabalt.com. ee

LibDems: http://www.compulink.co.uk/libdems

Worst government Net sites

Italy: http://www.mi.cnr.it/NIR-IT/Italy.html

Singapore: gopher://gopher. moe.ac.sg/1-goph

Japan: http://www.kantei.go.jp

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