In the past, dealing with the U.S. government often meant dealing with paperwork, paper trails and a system of constituent outreach that might not have been the most customer-centric in its approach.
That was then; this is now. From the campaign trail to Capitol Hill, the government has upped the ante in how it communicates with and delivers services to citizens and business owners.
More specifically, the government’s adoption of Web services as a tool for supporting the incubation, startup and growth of small businesses is making public sector resources and information more accessible and actionable than ever before.
Here’s a list of five government agencies and government-sponsored programs that are embracing Web technology and social media to make it easier for business owners to get the information and support they need to start, operate and grow businesses.
1. Small Business Administration (SBA): Undergoing a Dramatic Transformation Online (and Offline)
Yesterday the SBA unveiled a new SBA.gov Web site that includes a host of user-friendly bells and whistles designed specifically to help small business owners find what they need quickly and dynamically. Using an interface aptly titled SBA Direct, visitors to the site are asked a few questions about their business profile (e.g. ,women-owned, home-based business, etc.), location and needs. The tool then delivers relevant and targeted information on all aspects of running a business such as the steps involved in getting started, business growth strategies, and how to stay compliant with laws.
SBA Direct also provides information on the available SBA programs that can help businesses succeed, such as financial assistance, guidance and training.
The new website is a critical part of SBA’s mission of transforming itself into “a proactive, responsive and “customer-centric” organization that better serves the needs of the nation’s more than 29 million small businesses,” said SBA Administrator Karen Mills in yesterday’s press release from the agency.
The redesigned site also includes location-based maps to help small businesses find resources in their communities, improved navigation, and in 20011 will evolve to include a Lender Tool that will allow lenders to process online loan applications – speeding up the time it takes for SMBs to get the capital they need.
2. Internal Revenue Service (IRS): Tools to Shout Out About
Once just the domain of downloadable tax forms, the IRS.gov Web site has undergone a low-key, yet shout-out worthy, transformation in recent years – and this is good news for small business.
The IRS web site (www.irs.gov) is now the home of numerous online tools designed to help small businesses and the self-employed better understand their tax obligations as well as help them improve their overall financial literacy. These include the IRS Virtual Small Business Tax Workshop online training tool and a Retirement Plans Navigator that helps small employers find, compare and manage a variety of retirement plan options.
This new customer-centric approach is all about using the speed, ease and accessibility of the Web to reduce the administrative burden that can weigh so many entrepreneurs down. Read more from Business.gov in this article: IRS.gov Undergoes a Quiet Evolution – Revealing Invaluable Online Tax Tools for Small Business.
3. HealthCare.gov: Making Sense of It All
In the shadow of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, finding the right health-care plan for yourself and your employees can be quite an undertaking. If you are shopping for self-employed or employee health insurance plans, Healthcare.gov is truly a “first-of-its-kind” site in that it brings together data from more than 1,000 insurance carriers and 5,561 open products (3,531 in the small employer health insurance market) to help you understand your options and make more informed decisions about health-care coverage.
In addition to providing clarification about the Affordable Care Act (what it means in practice and the timeline of changes), the site also aims to make comparison shopping for health insurance a whole lot easier using basic personalization features that help you determine consumer or employer plan options (and, in some instances, pricing information) and potential eligibility.
4. Export.gov: Helping Your Business Trade Overseas
Did you know the government can help target and facilitate meetings with potential partners and buyers overseas? Or that Uncle Sam provides U.S. exporters with international marketing and promotion opportunities?
Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce as a collaborative effort with 19 other agencies, Export.gov is a goldmine of information, toolsand programs for anyone looking to navigate the exporting business and succeed in the global marketplace. These include webinars, exporting information, help in building partnerships and advice on marketing overseas. Explore more in 8 Reasons why Export.gov Might Just Be Your New Best Friend, and follow Export.gov on Twitter and Facebook.
Last, but not least …
5. Business.gov: Award-Winning One-Stop Portal and Interactive Forum for Small Business
Business.gov began life in May 2004 as part of a Presidential E-Government Initiative, with oversight by the SBA, in partnership with 21 other federal agencies. Business.gov was intended to act as a one-stop Web portal targeted at helping small and medium-sized businesses find, understand and comply with government regulation. The goal was to lessen time small business owners spent searching for information across multiple agency sites.
Since then the site has evolved into a content-rich, interactive online media hub. In 2009, the Business.gov Community was launched as a forum for business owners to interact with government, industry experts and each other through discussion boards, idea exchanges and blog articles. The Community was the first government-sponsored online community for small businesses and later that year was featured on the White House Innovation Gallery as an example of open government at work.
Today, the Community has over 15,000 members and includes renowned guest bloggers including Anita Campbell, Rieva Lesonsky and Joel Libava, among others.
Many of the resource-based small business guides on Business.gov can now be found on the new SBA.gov Web site. And, come January 2011, the Business.gov site, its discussion boards and blogs will be fully integrated into SBA.gov – creating a one-stop portal for small business owners to find all the answers they need, at one URL.
Other notable government and government-sponsored websites that support the needs of small business include: