FirstGov gets into holiday (sales) spirit

Despite the allure of holiday selling, the government's portal does an exceptionally half-assed job of marketing a rich catalog of items from the nation's top museums and souvenirs from agencies.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor on

Every retailer in the world works hard to take maximum advantage of the holiday season - and Uncle Sam is no exception. Over at FirstGov.gov, citizen-consumers can meander through a shopping site that includes books, museum souvenirs, holiday ornaments, folk recordings, jewelry, art and souvenirs.

For example, the U.S. Mint touts an American Eagle one-ounce silver coin for $27.95, the Supreme Court Historical Society sells a rhinestone flag pin for $18.99, and the Library of Congress offers railroad songs and ballads on an $8.95 CD.

"There are lots of things for sale by the government that you don't realize," said Martha Dorris, deputy associate administrator for the office of citizen services at the General Services Administration.

And of course there's always the goodies at GovSales.gov, which sells surplus and seized property. Most of the bidding ends on Christmas Eve.

Apparently, the General Services Administration wishes FirstGov to become a household name and a prime Web destination. With an $18 million budget, the site isn't really going to compete with Google or Yahoo. One percent of Internet users visit FirstGov.gov and the shopping part of the site is unlikely to change that behavior.

The shopping site presents viewers with a series of hierarchical menus before you get to click through to various agencies' e-commerce pages. Thus FirstGov's shopping site is little more than a 1995-era government version of Yahoo or any of a million other link sites. There's no continuity of presentation, no recommended products, nothing to suggest FirstGov is providing any kind of value except the most basic - a link page.

And despite talk about becoming a prime destination, the government services is clearly operating on a typical government-culture approach to building the site.

"We are not in competition with Google," Dorris said. "We are the only source of official government information. Our search results . . . are not based on paid advertising or any blogging."

The FirstGov staff is studying possible changes to the portal "based on what the public likes," Dorris said. An announcement will be made in January and may be followed with a new look next spring to make it easier for users to find information, she said.

Imagine a private company coming in with a one percent audience ranking and saying, "We'll do some research and see if any changes need to be made. Maybe we'll redesign it next spring."

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