Get It All Sorted!

gdstWould the appearance of your home office make your mother smile with pride or cringe in embarrassment? Either way, the business value of organization goes far beyond what meets the eye. An office that looks neat may be a nice place to work. But an environment that’s structured for efficiency will help you earn more money. Think about all the time you spend looking for things during a typical workday. From pens to notes to computer data to payments, it all adds up to lost productivity. Here you’ll see how organizing expert Lisa Kanarek helps Wendy Badman, the grand prize winner of our Third Annual Most Disorganized Home Office Contest, build an effective system that suits her needs.

Badman was in denial. Unlike Art Shay and Clive T. Miller, the grand prize winners of our first two contests, Badman didn’t believe that her office was a wreck. But she admitted that she feared that her disorganized work habits would begin to erode her bottom line. She referred to her domain of disarray as “creative clutter” and blamed die state of her office on having had a disorgarized bedroom as a child. She also added that her busy schedule never left her enough time for her to tidy up. There was hard work ahead for Badman, but by entering our contest, she had already taken STEP ONE toward climbing out of the depths of disorganization–she was willing to admit there’s a problem.

STEP TWO: CREATE A SYSTEM THAT MATCHES YOUR WORK HABITS. Yo-yo organizing is similar to fad dieting in that most people attain great results for a short period of time. But they eventually fall back into their former routines because the new system doesn’t fit their style. If Badman was going to remain organized, the arrangement had to be one in which she felt comfortable working.

I asked Badman to describe typical workday because new office setup also needed to support the way she handled She explained that she always works on several projects at a time and that material from these projects gets scattered around the office. For example, when she’s not handling marketing and administrative tasks for Badman Construction, a business she runs with her husband, Steve, she works as a clerk in Durham Township. Badman edits the township’s official newsletter and is a freelance writer, photographer, and public relations consultant. She also designs and creates customized teddy ears as a hobby and needs a separate work surface for assembling the bears.

STEP THREE: CLEAR A PATH. Before you throw out, rearrange, or file anything, you need to take a moment to see where you stand (literally). Walk around your office and assess the space from all angles. If you’re in cramped quarters, move everything out of your office. Badman’s office is large, measuring 25 feet wide by 30 feet long. Instead of having to clear the room completely, Badman and I consolidated the contents of boxes, then removed the empty boxes, and took out anything that she didn’t use for business. We pushed the remaining boxes against the walls to free up more floor space and for sorting later.

STEP FOUR: POSITION YOURSELF. Many of my clients complain that their home offices are too small. Badman’s office, however, is so large that she fell into the trap of spreading her work over the entire space instead of establishing a main work zone that she could control.

To determine if your office is arranged efficiently, do what I call the “work circle” test. While sitting in your chair, spread your arms out and make a complete circle. Everything you need should be within that circle. To improve the flow of Badman’s office, I rearranged her desks (replacing her old computer desk with the Anthro desk she was awarded) into a U-formation.

She still had plenty of room, so we created a separate sewing section for assembling the bears. We got her sewing machine from the spare bedroom and placed plastic boxes filled with related supplies in the same area.

STEP FIVE: CLEAR YOUR DESK. People who spend most of their workday at the computer or on the phone may find that their desks are magnets for clutter. When you’re ready to manage this mess, remove everything from the desktop and put back only what you need to have in your immediate reach. Fortunately, because she used a daily planner, Badman hadn’t developed the bad habit of writing notes on scraps of paper. It’s a good idea to keep memo pads and Post-it notes away from your desk to minimize the tendency to use loose paper. Instead, use a spiral notebook, daily planner, or contact management program to keep track of phone numbers and conversations with clients.

Originally, Badman had three desks in her office, and they were littered with papers, folders, books, accessories, and plants. Two desks were positioned in an L-shape and another was placed in front of a window. Only one of the desks had drawers and these were crammed full of papers and supplies. Her computer and phone were on another desk. And she used a third table as an additional work surface. After clearing everything off the desktops, the two of us replaced items in a logical order. For example, we put the card file next to the phone so she could quickly access her client addresses and numbers.

Next, we moved rarely used reference files to a freestanding four-drawer cabinet Badman had recently bought and added more hanging folders to her desk drawers. We sorted through boxes that contained papers she needed for current work. We labeled hanging folders with general headings and inserted manila files with specific project or task labels. The Bills Paid folder, for example, contained files organized by type of bill and the Long-Term Projects folder contained files labeled by particular assignment.

The rest of the files in the desk drawer were empty and labeled as current projects. Instead of replacing the papers in the folders, Badman was leaving them on top of her desk because she said it was too much trouble to wrestle with the overstuffed drawers. To avoid this problem, we placed a vertical file holder on her desk to create additional storage. These files were labeled To Do, Follow Up, Projects, Correspondence, Photography Projects, and Bills to Be Filed. Badman will reduce her paper consumption and increase her drawer space when she starts using her Canon flatbed scanner, one of her prizes.

STEP SIX: USE HIERARCHICAL STORAGE MANAGEMENT. When deciding where to store material, you should take into consideration the frequency of its use. The things that you use the least should be filed farthest away and the things you use the most should be more accessible.

I haven’t met an entrepreneur who didn’t have some type of storage concern. Either they don’t have enough storage space or they don’t know how to make the best use of the storage space they have. Badman has both problems. Her office had only one closet that measured nine feet wide by two feet deep. Before deciding on how to store material, she first had to determine what should stay and what should go. Whenever she was uncertain about throwing something away, I asked her the following three questions: Would she use it again? Was there a valid reason for keeping it? Did she have a place to store it? The more she thought about these questions, the less time she spent deciding what she did or didn’t need to keep. The result was that she tossed more than she would have if left on her own.

Badman was actually amazed at how many bags and boxes we filled for removal. “I can’t believe I threw stuff away,” she says. “Once I started, it was easy to get rid of the things I knew I would never use again.” She tossed loads of old magazines without a second thought because she rationalized that if she hadn’t read them by no she never would.

If you find that you have an accumulation of old issues, flip through them and tear out any articles you want to keep for future reference. File the articles and throw out the magazines. As new issues come in, tear out articles at least once each month and when you receive renewal notices, only renew those that help you improve your business.

Finally, we turned to the task of maximizing Badman’s closet space. First, we added shelves and grouped similar (labeled) items on each shell Badman plans to install more shelves along the back and left side of the closet. She also has room outside the closet for a small round conference table and a cabinet or bookcase to display her bears or store books. The last three pieces of furniture–a metal bookcase, four-drawer file cabinet, and small supply table–remained along the back wall.

Six hours later, Badman could see her floor, her desktop, and her solution to remaining organized–a customized organizational system that tackled office clutter and streamlined her business.

Make Your Workspace A Place For Genius

mywBlending work life and home life can be a test of both functional design and family cooperation. Homeowners may find that a den, spare bedroom, or attic is an ideal location for an office. But these options are usually unavailable to the average apartment dweller confined to limited space and a less compromising layout. A home office tucked into an alcove off a living room or behind pocket doors in a dining room may be a good solution for some apartment residents because these rooms funcfion well for greeting visitors or holding meetings. New York City literary agent Richard Curtis and his wife, author Leslie Tonner, hired interior designer Joan Halperin to create an elegant and efficient work space in a heavily trafficked area of their 1,300-square-foot apartment–the living room.

Realizing that the alcove is a pretty snug fit for two people, the couple decided that an office designed for serial rather than simultaneous use was the best solution for accommodating their work schedule and the entire family’s daily routine. “The office is constantly occupied,” says Curtis. “But my wife and I rarely work in the space at the same time.” Halperin designed a wraparound worksurface (comprising three individual pieces) to help make efficient use of the area and maximize desk space. There’s a 62-inch-long-by-17 3/4-inch-wide return, a 92-inch-long and 21 1/2-inch-wide platform, and a 3 3-inch-long-by- 17 3/4-inch-wide countertop. Adequate storage was also a big concern for the entrepreneurs. “My husband works with a number of authors, and I have a lot of research material,” says Tonner. “We’ve got hundreds of books.” So beneath the left return and right countertop sit two-shelf lateral files. The main working platform has a slide-out accessory drawer. Their abundant book selection is stored on six shelves measuring 134 inches long and 11 feet high built into the wall along the conference room/dining area. A partition made of bleached-oak, paned glass, and sheetrock establishes a distinctive work zone. And the complementary color scheme and custom bleached-oak cabinetry creates a sense of continuity between their professional and leisure space.

Claiming a spot in front of their Power Mac 6100 (not shown) is like playing a game of musical chairs for this dual self-employed couple. Tonner commands the workstation during weekdays. And Curtis, who also rents a small commercial space, uses the Mac in the early mornings and late evenings during the week and about 12 hours on the weekend. If a schedule clash arises, either Curtis or Tonner pulls out their old trusty Toshiba notebook and works at the seven-foot-long by three-and-a-half-foot wide dining/conference table. When used for work, the table is anchored to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with special pegs. But it also comes with a wood base covered with Formica allowing for easy conversion to a freestanding unit that comfortably seats eight for dining.

An office design that blends with your home decor and furnishings requires a careful selection of furniture that permits living and working to overlap within small spaces. Curtis and Tonner hired a designer and contractor to build their custom-design dream office.

Taking It All On The Road Is A Page Away

tialrIT’S 11:30 A.M. AN; MY FINGERS ARE FLYING OVER MY laptop computer keyboard. I’m sitting in the cafe car of Amtrak’s Metroliner train, traveling to a client meeting while banging out an article that another client needs by noon. I polish off the final paragraph somewhere around Iselin, New Jersey. Now what?

Your daring and resourceful correspondent pulls a wireless modem card from his trusty computer case. He slaps it into the laptop’s PC Card (formerly PCMCIA) slot and hears the satisfying “bleep” of mutual recognition. I leap into the RadioMail Connection program, type a quick cover note, address it to my client’s Internet e-mail account, and attach the urgent file. “Send,” I click, and send it does, over the ARDIS wireless data network. Moments before the train enters the tunnel leading to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, my article completes its invisible journey.

In the past month I’ve experimented with cutting-edge wireless technologies. RadioMail (and other radio-based services such as U.S. Paging’s RadioExpress) is just one of the three alternatives. Its sophisticated mobile e-mail system works with laptop computers and several PDAs. Another option is to tie your notebook computer to your cellular phone with a cellular modem like the one from U.S. Robotic’s Megahertz division that I test-drove. It allowed me to perform most of my day-to-day data communications chores, such as logging on to an online service, from just about anywhere as if I were in the office. Finally, Skytel’s two-way pager system takes the portability of traditional pager technology and adds tremendous new versatility. Each has its own special strengths for small-business tasks. And each is, in a word, cool.

Mail to Go The RadioMail system provides subscribers with an Internet address where you can receive mail on the go. You can send messages to any other Internet address (including commercial online services), or–if your client doesn’t have e-mail–fax the same message for an additional 99 cents a page. The software works very much like a deskbound Internet mail package.

The $700 to $750 Motorola Personal Messenger 100D wireless modem card I used to communicate with RadioMail is elegant, though pricey. (Megahertz has a similar card and recently announced an $89 per month lease plan that should take some of the sting out of setting up RadioMail.)

About the size of a five-inch TV remote with a mini flip-up antenna, the 100D is powered for three hours at a stretch by a single nine-volt battery. By the time you read this, Motorola will have extended the battery life to at least 15 hours. Installing both hardware and software was a breeze. The PC Card management software in my Dell Latitude XPi laptop recognized the wireless modem with no fiddling.

RadioMail service costs $39 a month for up to 100,000 characters, incoming or outgoing. The service expects the average message to run 1,000 characters, so you’ll get about 100 messages per month before incurring additional message costs of 32 cents for the first 1,000 extra characters and 16 cents per 500 after that. Distribution lists send the same document to several people at once, keeping costs down.

Still, RadioMail start-up expenses are high and heavy e-mail users are advised to find a way to keep costs in line. If your messaging needs are modest, you won’t mind the $40-per-month service charges. And if you need to initiate e-mail from anywhere, Radio-Mail works better than a two-way pager.

Online, Anywhere To explore cellular-based wireless communication, I test-drove a $379 XJ3288m modem from Megahertz in conjunction with a Motorola MicroTAC Ultra Lite phone. Connecting your laptop to a cellular phone is simple enough: A cellular-ready PC Card modem attaches via cable to the expansion port of a cellular phone. Then, instead of accessing a special wireless e-mail service provider like RadioMail, you connect to America Online or CompuServe or whatever via cellular. You’ve now gone beyond simply exchanging e-mail to complete access to your online service.

Although cellular modems work, they suffer serious problems that limit their utility. Does a cell phone voice call sound the same as a call on a regular corded phone? Fat chance! Since cellular data has to move over those same connections, the same modem that gallops along at 28.8Kbps when connected to a standard phone line can’t keep up on a cellular. I found myself running at 9,600bps on a good day and often going down to 4,800bps on a bad one. It’s still fast enough to retrieve e-mail and accomplish some basic info hunting, but it’s not the kind of speed we’re used to nowadays. I tried accessing my TCP/IP Internet account through the cell phone without luck.

Relatively slow speeds increase your connect time and drive charges for even the best-priced cellular service skyward. Equally important to your pocketbook, each attempt–successful or not–to get through via cell modem will cost you a minute of airtime charges. Trying to get into America Online on a weekday evening could send you to the poorhouse!

Two-Way Tango So far both of my wireless solutions meant lugging a portable computer, or at least a brick-size PDA. For a pocket-size solution, I turned to the new Skytel service that uses the Tango two-way pager. Tango is roughly the size and shape of an ordinary pager, but the Skytel service (plus similar services that should be offered later this year from such companies as PageNet and American Paging) does lots of impressive new tricks.

First, your clients now have a new way to convey information to your pager. They can call a toll-free number and enter a numeric message on the phone keypad or dictate a text message to an operator. The service forwards numeric and text messages (up to 500 characters) directly to the pager.

Skytel also supplies free software disks that you can give to your clients so they can send messages directly to the pager via modem. Even without this software, they could send a pager message via regular Internet mail or through Skytel’s World Wide Web site.

Unlike an ordinary pager, you can immediately reply to your client’s incoming message with one of 16 preset responses. By using the Access software, or by dictating to a Skytel operator, the sender can also supply you with custom replies. To check on your response, the client calls the toll-free number again or logs in with the Access program.

For an even more potent two-way communications tool, you can add Hewlett-Packard’s HP 200LX palmtop PC or its new OmniGo handheld organizer and a $49 software/cable combo to the Tango pager. Now you can type responses on the organizer keypad (up to 95 characters) and, voila, instant wireless e-mail. You can’t, however, initiate e-mail to the Internet.

Skytel’s two-way pager service starts at $24.95 a month for 100 messages in your local area. National coverage starts at $74.95, or if you travel infrequently, you can buy temporary national extensions to your local coverage when necessary. The Motorola pager costs $399 from Skytel or leases for $15 a month. Although it lacks the ability to initiate e-mail, two-way pagers appear to be the most cost-effective wireless way to respond to a client’s e-mail.

Both CompuServe and America Online have announced plans to allow subscribers to forward incoming e-mail automatically. That could be a boon for travelers who need to pick up their e-mail from RadioMail or a similar system while on the road but prefer to use their established e-mail addresses at home. Some Internet mail readers already provide this capability.

There are also systems in the works.to integrate the voice/text/data communications process more tightly on your office PC. Properly implemented, these systems should forward appropriate messages to you by the wireless medium of your choice and allow you to access messages using anything from a wireless communications device to a standard telephone.

As with the cost of cellular phone calls over the past 15 years, expect wireless prices to come down. Existing wireless technologies, however, are already versatile, powerful, and reasonably priced for small-business people who need to keep in constant touch with clients.

California Totally Rules

mnThe day was long. I was tired. And boy, did I need a vacation! But what’s a hardworking freelancer to do? Assignments were piling up. Clients were calling and giving me more work. Great! But again, I needed some time off.

Then a client from Los Angeles called and asked if I could fly out to give a presentation on Thursday. Let’s face it–what freelancer ever feels comfortable turning down work? And then it dawned on me: Why not take advantage of this sojourn and combine business and pleasure? After all, my client is even springing for the airfare.

Lala land. L.A. The possibilities were endless. Hop a flight on Wednesday, present on Thursday, and take a few well-needed days to recuperate and refresh. With a fresh cup of java in hand, I plotted strategy. To plan my weekend in L.A., I would use any technology I could lay my hands on. I had Internet access and subscriptions to the Microsoft Network and Compuserve, in addition to numerous travel-related CDs.

My first port of call was the Internet. Southern California is probably one of the most wired places on the planet. Firing up my Web browser, I pointed my mouse west to California and zeroed in on L.A. I found few sites as helpful as the Virtual Tourist and CityNet. I ran searches on Los Angeles and discovered links to hundreds of travel and recreational sites in Southern California. After a couple hours of browsing, I had lists of dozens of clubs, restaurants, museums, and galleries–enough to keep me occupied for a month or longer. I was only going there for a long weekend. I needed to focus my efforts.

Through CityNet, I found a link to Virtually Hospitable, a collection of home pages for every major hotel in Los Angeles. Each page gives the hotel’s location and price along with photos of its rooms. Of the hotels listed there, I chose the Best Western Mayfair for its location, price, and quality. I got a great deal. Keep in mind when starting your own searches that the prices listed for rooms are not written in stone. Try bargaining, or just keep asking for a lower rate. I ended up with a corporate rate that was 15 percent less expensive than what was posted.

My next step was to sign on to the Microsoft Network (click on the Travel forum in the Interest, Leisure, and Hobby category) and Compuserve (go: travel and go: california) to see what advice I could get. These discussion areas are where subscribers trade travel information. Before I posted a query, I read the old postings to see if L.A. had been mentioned. I then posted a very specific question: Given my time frame–about three days–and my wide range of taste in music and food, what reasonably priced clubs and restaurants should I visit while I’m vacationing?

My experience on the Microsoft Network was disappointing. MSN’s travel forum is basically a link to the Travel Bulletin Board. The only response I got was from someone sending me an invitation to The Magic Castle, an exclusive hangout in L.A.

CompuServe offered up a gold mine of information after only an hour of searching through old discussions and other information posted there. The California Travel forum gave me just what I needed. In the Los Angeles section I downloaded lists of amusements, one- and two-day sightseeing tours and some welcome weather data. (I like to travel light, so weather information is essential.) The Zagat Restaurant Survey provided reviews of a dozen of the best moderately priced Chinese, Tex/Mex, and Cajun eateries in town. I don’t normally go strictly by anyone’s say-so–Even Zagat–but if I find the name of a restaurant recommended more than once-say, in a discussion group or in a newspaper review–I’ll give it serious consideration.

I then dipped into Microsoft’s Automap Road Atlas on CD. Unfortunately, its city map was not detailed enough to show individual streets. However, it is loaded with lots of information on parks, entertainment, and sightseeing. I zoomed in on the map of Southern California and was finally able to picture L.A. and its environs in my mind. I was especially impressed with the topographical maps that show the Los Angeles basin between the mountains and the sea. I printed out maps for future reference, but I also bought a regular street map that I could carry with me on my travels. Technology, it seems, can only go so far.

My client will pick up the tab for the flights, two nights in a hotel, and some of my expenses for Thursday and Friday. If you find yourself having to pay for your flight, check out the OAG (Official Airline Guides) on Compuserve (go: oag). There, you’ll find available flights, airline schedules, and ticket prices. And even though I decided to go to L.A. for my work/vacation combo, don’t feel your choices are restricted. There is online information for just about every city in North America through a variety of Web sites (check out Citynet to get started), CompuServe’s Travel forum (go: travel), and America Online’s Travel areas (keyword: travel). Using such Internet search tools as Web Crawler to find references to a particular city can turn up all kinds of interesting information.

Now that my trip is planned and I am satisfied that I will get the most out of it, I am looking forward to the weekend. And yes, I realize that it’s not quite the full-fledged vacation I need and deserve, but for now, it will be a welcome respite and it’ll make me a star in at least one client’s eyes. Now that I have all the information I need, I can plan an itinerary. My first stop will be the La Brea Tar Pits to see the saber-toothed tiger that’s riding on the mastodon’s back–an image that has haunted me since childhood. I plan to make a pit stop at nearby Kate Mantilini for lunch, since I love Italian food and this restaurant cam highly recommended by several wired Angelenos. I will also try to get in a few hours at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And the Border Grill in nearby Santa Monica certainly beckons for a bright and raucous Tex/Mex dinner.

On my second day I want to stop by The Pantry for breakfast. This 1930s diner is described as an ideal locale for a Raymond Chandler novel. After breakfast I’ll head for Olvera Street. This museum/shopping area is maintained as a 1920s Mexican market and park. In the afternoon, the Huntington Library and garden in nearby San Marino beckon. This is the home of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, part of a wonderful art collection In the evening I’ll dine at Al Amir, described as the best Lebanese restaurant in America.

Sunday morning I’m going to wander over to the Santa Monica Pier for some relaxing California beach ambience, sightseeing, and shopping. Before heading to the airport, I’ll try one of the reasonably priced restaurants on the Third Street Promenade. Assessing the damage, my extended stay in L.A. will cost me about $300 for my hotel, car rental, meals, and entertainment.

Government Did Seize Tech, Albeit A Little Early

gdstAfter three years of Vice President Gore’s cheerleading for a higher tech government, we decided to find out how easy it is to find government material online. After all, those rules and regulations flowing out of government agencies are adding several days a year to our business lives. Wouldn’t you prefer to fill out and file forms online instead of wasting time trying to find them? And while the veep can exhort the federal government, he has little control over the state and local bureaucracies that conceive prodigious amounts of their own material. We set out to get a snapshot of how extensive online support is at all three levels of government.

Leading by Example One thing to keep in mind about the federal government’s online presence is that most businesspeople need to find information coming out of the executive branch. Congress passes legislation and the courts interpret it, but only the president (through various departments and agencies) actually tells us how to comply with the law. This makes for a wonderful test of the vice president’s cyber-government vision. If you want to find out at what point you have to report to the federal government what you’re paying the independent contractor you’ve just hired, for instance, try going to FedWorld.

On its first page, FedWorld links to the Department of the Treasury, and from that home page you can link to “Shortcut to IRS Taxforms.” That brings up a page of choices including, “Search through tax forms by keyword.” Click on that selection and type in: Independent Contractor. Bingo, you’re presented with “Form 8233: Exemption From Withholding on Compensation for Independent Personal Service.” The form suffers from the usual bureaucratese, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. This is pretty indicative of how thoroughly the Gore vision has permeated the federal government. The only problem is that you’ll also need to download the Adobe Acrobat software from the site to read the form.

But what if the information you want isn’t a specific document? Unfortunately, you might get frustrated if you need a detailed answer to a question that can’t be phrased in a specific way. “It’s like dealing with a voice-mail tree,” one small-business person told us. “You get 30 selections, but none is the one you need.” Ideally, federal agency Web pages should have some way to answer specific questions when you can’t find your answer. E-mail, anyone?

Attorney Robert L. Sommers also warns that the fed’s online information isn’t always up-to-date. “The IRS forms will keep saying, `This is the rule,'” he notes about the independent contractor form. “They won’t tell you they’ve already lost in court. You can get a general sense of the rules from sites like the IRS, but how you apply them requires expertise.”

At least we’re to the point of criticizing what the federal govemment has online. The mere online presence of your state or local government, on the other hand, varies enormously. Cyber-gaga California has passed legislation to make all government documents freely available. New Jersey is considering similar legislation, but there is discussion of charging for Garden State documents. The best place to start a search for any state or municipal listing is through CityNet. It lists every state in the Union with a further breakdown by city.

California’s extensive listings include a special section devoted to small business. But even here there’s a sense of trying very hard but not quite getting it. When we checked the site in mid-December, there was information, including a mail-to form, regarding participation in roundtable discussions on the state’s “Regulatory Reform Initiative.” Unfortunately, the deadline for submissions had been early November. The site permits searching by keyword, which is excellent unless your keyword isn’t listed. Nevertheless, California’s site is relatively comprehensive and easy to navigate. Within a few clicks, you will likely find the complete text of most documents. By contrast, the state government of California’s neighbor, Nevada, offers nothing. All we could find was information put up by cities or counties acting on their own.

Muni-Net? Cities vary even more widely. Dozens of California municipalities are online, but while the larger cities like San Jose and San Francisco have comprehensive official government sites, many of the smaller city’s sites were created by commercial providers to boost sales and tourism. On the commercially created site for Rancho Cucamonga, for example, you can buy souvenirs from the Route 66 museum. You can also find information on “Incentives for Business.” That may sound encouraging, but it’s only an enticing overview; for details you need to fax or call. These kinds of sites might provide an excellent place to showcase your business, but they’ll hardly help you navigate government regulations.

Over in Nevada, Reno has put up its municipal code and even includes a mail-to form for suggestions to the city council. As with California’s smaller cities, the offerings from other Nevada cities tend to be more tourist- than business-oriented. We couldn’t find any business information about the Lake Tahoe area (in part because the Incline Village Chamber of Commerce’s server was down), but perhaps over lunch at Tahoe’s Sweetwater Saloon & Dining House’s online site, you can meet someone who will talk to you about business regulations.

And in perhaps the most perfect example of where-we-stand-now irony, Palo Alto, California’s site offers to send you a printout of all the phone numbers for city agencies–even though those same numbers are available on the Web site.

The guiding rule seems to be that only governments that understand the benefits of being online are pushing their documents onto the Net–slowly. Despite the federal government’s attempt at getting it’s act together as long ago (technologically speaking) as the Reagan Administration, Vice President Gore’s efforts got the ball rolling. He helped get President Clinton to issue the National Information Infrastructure Executive Order, which pushed federal agencies online. Although we have gripes about how we now interact with the fed’s Web sites, at least it’s moving in the right direction.

What’s needed next are Gore-like data champions at every level of government. We risk calling forth a plague of blow-dried cyber-prophets, but it seems like the best way to ensure the future of online government. It could mean that you’ll be able to find state licensing requirements in minutes. You should also be able to search zoning ordinances after your clients have taken up all the daytime hours when the bureaucrats are in their offices.

So, the next time candidates for your city council show up at a local event, ask them how quickly they plan on getting the municipal code online. When prospective county supervisors show up at the chamber of commerce, find out if they’re going to improve online content. And when state legislators start heralding how another tax break brought a company to your district, ask them why they haven’t done anything about getting an e-mail address.

We’ve put Voters Telecommunications Watch’s Technology Pledge on America Online (keyword: hoc). The pledge includes a plan calling for the online availability of public documents. Get your state and local candidates to sign it–or, at the very least, to sign its public documents clause.