Make dot-gov retailing work

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the rapid expansion and eventual implosion of the dot-com market, most people have not realized that the federal government is succeeding where many commercial ventures failed.

Dozens of federal agencies have begun to sell surplus property, products and services via the Internet to the public, according to a four-month-long study conducted by Federal Computer Week and funded by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The result has been billions of dollars in sales. Granted, the vast majority of the sales came in the form of U.S. bond sales from the Treasury Department, but Americans also have logged on and bought cars seized in fraud cases and maps to hike trails in national parks. Many people say that is what they expect from their government.

Others are not so sure. Industry lobbyists, seeing an outsourcing opportunity, say the practice infringes on private business. Americans do not care who does it, so long as they get the best value. The federal government has always sold excess property and goods to the public, so selling on the Internet seems a reasonable next step for agencies to take. Besides, the Internet enables more people to take part in auctions and, in some instances, earns more money for the government. There's nothing wrong with that.

What may be of more concern is financial accountability and security. Americans expect their government to be able to track its finances, and most agencies are not sure how much they sell online and where the money goes. Most sites, except for the ones that do the most business, do not allow buyers to place an order online. Security is most likely the primary concern.

But the public will demand the same online service from the government as they get from Amazon.com. If government is serious about going electronic, it will need more money and more people. Congress may not want to fund such ventures and do what is necessary to beef up information security. But Americans clearly demand it.

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