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When you want to know whether the restaurant down the street is worth eating at, there's a decent chance you'll turn to online services like Yelp to see what other diners in your area have to say about it.

This is despite the fact that local government agencies, such as those that enforce health rules, probably have data that's more interesting to you than John Doe's angry rant about a rude waiter.

The reason, of course, is that many if not most government agencies around the world are either luddites or stuck in the late 1990s when it comes to distributing data and information on the internet. But that may be changing in some instances.

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) "is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction", yet for decades none of the complaints it has received have ever been available to the public.

As detailed by AdAge, that will no longer be the case on March 11 when the agency launches a new service on SaferProducts.gov that will make the product complaints it collects available to the world.

The service will allow consumers to search for products by manufacturer or brand name. Consumers who wish to file a complaint will have to provide legitimate contact details, as they do now, and manufacturers will have the ability to respond to complaints within 10 days. Their responses will be published alongside the complaints, which must by law be published within 15 days of their receipt.

Needless to say, many manufacturers are not looking forward to the CPSC's new online service. And they may have some legitimate reasons for concern. According to AdAge, the CPSC has a limited staff of approximately 500, yet receives 16,000 complaints via phone alone each year. While the 15 day rule for publishing complaints permits the CPSC to keep complaints that are false from being made available, it's obvious that the CPSC will not be able to independently verify whether most complaints are accurate or indicative of a serious public safety risk.

This said, it's still unclear whether government agencies like the CPSC can successfully launch their own Yelps. They face numerous challenges in establishing themselves as go-to resources for consumers.

The four biggest challenges are:

  • User experience. Building successful online properties takes more than just data/content. User experience is key. Government agencies will need to make sure that the information they publish is easy to find and easy to understand. That, of course, is easier said than done.
  • Timeliness. Information moves at the speed of light these days, and in many markets consumers are coming to expect that the information they are fed is up-to-date down to the second. That means government agencies will have to ensure that the data they publish online stays timely.
  • Marketing. If you build it, they will not come. Web properties don't market themselves and in many cases, government agencies will realistically need to look at everything from SEO to paid advertising. Of course, this takes time, money and expertise that may not currently exist in-house.
  • Community. Online publishing isn't a one-way street. Government agencies looking to succeed with their own Yelps will want to thoughtfully examine how they can incorporate tools that enable consumers to interact with their services and improve their data.

While it's nice to see government agencies which collect important data that may in some instances help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions moving online in more meaningful ways, for the exercise to be effective, they'll need to deal with these sorts of challenges.

That means that the people responsible for these services will have to think more like startup executives and online publishers and less like government bureaucrats.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 January, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2406 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

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Pablo Edwards

Interesting thought... I can't see any reasons why this isn't a trend that should take off.

over 5 years ago

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Teppo Nieminen

And none of this is actually government's core business. I cannot see much justification in this age of austerity on a government agency spending £££ to design, build and market online properties. It's better for them to concentrate on their role as regulators and enforcers, make the data available and then get out of the way (while rettaining ownership of the data).

over 5 years ago

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