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    United States: What the Information Age Means to a TPO


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2002

    The Information Age means many things to people and organizations (for example, new business processes, more speed, more choice). Above all, it means the Internet. Companies and individuals can find information in many places on the Internet, but a surprisingly large number go to government for information they can trust. One-third of Internet users in the United States seek information from government web sites for business opportunities.

    Today, everything seems to be moving to the Internet: information; business introductions; sales; government procurement; government permits and licences; job announcements and applications; "knowledge management"; and international trade promotion information and services. Change is rapid and constant. Organizations, including trade promotion organizations (TPOs), must adapt quickly or become irrelevant to the customers we serve.

    Changing expectations

    Information technology (IT), particularly the Internet, has accelerated the delivery of information by TPOs. It has also raised expectations of service quality by clients and employees. We want answers now or, at the latest, overnight.

    Internet users don't have to rely on traditional suppliers or sources of information, since the Internet offers many alternatives. This forces the suppliers of information, products and services to ensure quality and objectivity on their web sites. Comparing your or my information with that of others reveals exaggerations and untruths.

    Constraints on the use of the Internet begin with lack of trust, i.e. fear of the ability of hackers to steal secrets. Other constraints include authentication, intellectual property rights, bandwidth, basic business processes within organizations and employees' reluctance to adopt something new and different. Internet users must work around these fears and constraints, or wait for creative fixes.

    Lessons learned

    The United States Government stimulated the creation of the Internet per se, but it is a late entrant into e-commerce and e-government. We are learning from our own frustrations, our clients, the private sector and from other governments around the world. I want to share my perceptions of where we failed and where we are succeeding.


    The United States Government spends huge sums annually on information technology (US$ 45 billion in 2002), but this investment has not produced gains in productivity comparable to those of the private sector. Here, IT investments contribute 40% of the increase in annual productivity growth.

    Problems have stemmed from government agencies that developed IT systems without regard, until recently, for the need to share with other agencies. Financial, human resources, procurement and other systems are generally independent of one another. Sharing data or processes is either an electronic nightmare or impossible. Also, the Government tends to evaluate IT systems by the percentage of time they are working, not by the performance gain they deliver or by the work the agency is supposed to do. Agencies tend to use IT to automate pre-existing processes rather than create new and more efficient solutions. Bureaucrats sometimes perceive IT as a threat to their chains of command and ways of doing things, rather than as an opportunity to improve delivery to customers and performance.


    • Opportunities for change. The United States Government has begun to improve its services to citizens, focusing on e-procurement, e-grants, e-regulation and e-signatures. Goals include:

      • creating easy-to-find, single points of access to government services for individuals;
      • reducing the reporting burden on businesses and individuals by enabling them to fill out one form one time for use by multiple agencies;
      • sharing information more quickly among federal, state, local and foreign governments and institutions;
      • automating internal processes to reduce costs; and
      • disseminating best practices, including use of digital signatures for trans-actions.
    • Web portals. Examples of the new, easier-access web portals include http://www.firstgov.gov, the United States Government's primary web site, where information is retrievable by keywords. Another initiative is http://www.FedBizOpps.gov for all government procurement over US$ 25,000 in value. A portal exclusively aimed at exporters is http://www.export.gov, which contains information about programmes offered by all government agencies involved in international trade promotion and regulation. We are developing a single application form for companies to use in applying for financing, insurance or other programmes.
    • Videoconferencing and webcast technologies. Videoconferencing is expensive compared to e-mail, but cheap compared to moving people by aeroplane. We use it for virtual briefings of businesspersons, for introducing United States and international companies to each other, and for staff training. We also find video technology critical for intimate human-to-human dialogue, when you need to look the other person in the eye. We use webcasts to market our services and inform our customers of international business opportunities. The Internet allows us to store webcasts, creating a marketing and trade promotion library.

    Learning from others

    We have entered the Information Age not only through our own efforts, and mistakes, but also by learning good lessons from the private sector and from other governments.

    From the private sector, we have learned how to collect fees securely via the Internet. My agency began this two years ago, and now all of our 160 offices overseas can collect money by credit cards and draw on the funds to perform services requested by clients.

    Other governments have created impressive online trade promotion services, the best of which we are adapting to our own environment.


    France's Odyssée Intranet database links public and private export groups to a single government source of international market and regulatory information. It has a simple online application process for government trade insurance. All government web sites can be reached from a single web portal. We followed France's example by consolidating many client databases into one, and by creating an export portal web site (http://www.export.gov). We have online application processes for many of our trade promotion programmes, but they are neither simple to use nor unified within my agency, let alone within all government trade promotion agencies.


    Sweden offers an Internet-based Business Inquiry Management System that pushes overseas market information to each member company. We have begun initial "push technology" efforts to send market research and trade opportunity information directly from our database to US clients.

    United Kingdom

    The United Kingdom is developing a single online application for many government trade services, and has created "customer satisfaction" surveys via the web. In the United States, our first online customer satisfaction survey was created this year with excellent results, which will help us improve our programmes.


    The Republic of Korea's "Silkroad21" offers a web site alliance between government and private partners that is a buyer-seller e-marketplace. Foreign buyers and sellers can register their products on this site free. Last year we developed an online buyer-seller e-marketplace called http://www.BuyUSA.com We made it "dot.com", not "dot.gov", to stress that the site is a serious business address, and we did it in close collaboration with a well-known US IT company, IBM. It is a matchmaking service to put United States sellers together with international firms that want to buy US technology. International firms register for free online; United States firms also can register for free for a limited service. We charge a fee for including advertising about specific US company products, hyper-linking the site to the company's private web site address; or for putting the company's product catalogue onto the site.

    Internal processes

    We are moving all our internal record-keeping processes to the Internet and making them accessible either directly, or on Intranets, through passwords available to offices or people who need to know a specific field of information.

    Our basic Intranet is accessible instantaneously to all of my organization's 1,700 employees of 80 nationalities, located in 268 offices in the United States and in 83 other countries. The Intranet contains basic output and performance measurement data, internal announcements and awards information. We use the Internet and a system called E-Menu to record financial information from each office. Other data is available on the same Intranet system but is restricted, such as personal information on each employee.

    We use the Internet for "knowledge management," the new term for what seems to be sharing records of how to do something right (best practices). "Collaboration Zones" is an Internet-based system to write, edit, critique or clear with other people and agencies various documents. We are using the Internet to survey customers to evaluate how well we do our work. We also hire new employees quicker via an Internet-based vacancy announcement and application process.

    Hardware improvements, such as wireless technologies, and the growing range of personal digital assistants and ultralight laptops have further encouraged us to use the Internet for our mobile workforce.

    The technologial innovations of the Information Age make our work more productive and more meaningful for clients and ourselves.

    United States Commercial Service

    • Mandate: To place primary emphasis on export promotion of goods and services from small and medium-sized enterprises; and to protect the United States' business interests abroad.
    • Institutional positioning: Unit of the United States Department of Commerce.
    • Founded: 1980.
    • Location: Washington, DC, with 105 export assistance centres in the United States and 160 international offices in 83 countries.
    • Funding: National budget.
    • Staff: 1,700 worldwide.
    • Of interest: Analysing other governments' web sites to create their own online trade promotion services.

    United States Commercial Service, International Trade Administration / United States Department of Commerce,
    Washington DC 20230, USA.
    Tel: +1 202 482 5777
    Fax: +1 202 482 5013
    Web site: http://www.export.gov

    Laron Jensen is Acting Deputy Director General, United States Commercial Service. He can be reached at laron.jensen@mail.doc.gov