WASHINGTON - Executive branch organizations spent $349 million on Internet-related activities over a three-year period - with the Defense Department responsible for the bulk of the spending - according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued this week.
The 42 departments and agencies surveyed spent $190 million in fiscal 1996 on an estimated 4,300 separate Web sites and 215 computer bulletin boards, more than triple the amount spent in fiscal 1994, the first year the World Wide Web gained widespread popularity.
The study also found that Internet spending and usage vary widely across the government. Of the major departments, Veterans Affairs spent the least - $1.9 million over three years - and Defense the most - $147.8 million. The State Department did not respond to GAO's survey.
"DOD is ... actively using the Internet to link our locations around the world and to advance our acquisition reform efforts," said Defense Department spokeswoman Susan Hansen.
Annual spending by the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) increased from $38,000 in fiscal 1994 to $443,000 last fiscal year.
"We have an obligation to provide to the American people ... as much information as we can about policies that make a difference in their lives," said White House communications director Ann Lewis. "The Internet is an extraordinary resource enabling us to make available information in-depth that is instantaneously available to people wherever they are. It's an enormously important tool and one that we have just begun to use."
Overall, nearly one-third of federal employees at the surveyed agencies are hooked up to the Internet while 1.7 million workers now have e-mail access. But online access varies by agency. All Housing and Urban Development employees have e-mail and Internet access compared with 8 percent at the Justice Department. Only half the departments have developed standard procedures for creating and running Web sites.
Spokesman Lawrence Haas said OMB hopes to issues guidelines this summer governing government-wide Internet use that will also "probably call for the agencies to better account for their costs and keep their costs within their overall strategic plans." The report acknowledged there were benefits for the federal government in conducting business electronically. For example, the National Institutes of Health can now share vast medical resources with the public. The National Science Foundation reported that electronic transactions increased accuracy and cut staff time required to administer grants.
The report, which was requested by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, when he chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee, also documented instances of misuse. Nearly 100 Energy Department employees were disciplined for using their computers to look at "adult-oriented" sites and one DOE site posted information on scuba diving and boat racing. An Interior Department employee used agency computers to provide free Internet access for private individuals.