Should public-sector websites be moneymakers?

With budgets tight, states and municipalities consider selling ad space

State and local governments, feeling quite a pinch in the wallet these days, are looking for any way to save money. Spending cuts have become the norm in proposed budgets. Layoffs, pay freezes and furloughs for government employees are all on the table, if not already in place. California Gov. Jerry Brown is even taking away half of all state-issued cell phones to save a few bucks.

Along with saving money, at least a few government organizations are exploring new ways to make money by accepting advertisements on state, county and city websites.

In Connecticut, state Rep. Richard Smith has proposed that the state start selling ads on its websites, according to a report in the Hartford Courant. Smith cited the state’s budget nightmare and suggested that "this might be a way to raise money for the state without reaching into people's pocketbooks.''

If his plan goes through, Connecticut would join Washington state, which recently started running ads on its state ferries website. Check the ferry routes on Puget Sound, and you’re greeted with a pitch to visit the Hawaiian Islands.

The states are following the example of some other public-sector organizations. The Cook County, Ill., Assessor’s Office began selling ads on its website a couple of years ago, according to the Examiner in Chicago. And USA Today has reported that school districts in Virginia and Arizona sell ads on their websites.

The advertising brings money into state coffers, though we doubt it’s much. However, the question is whether tax-supported government organizations should be selling advertising at all. What happens when an advertiser applies for a zoning variance, or a contract bidder loses to another company that regularly buys space on a government site? Wouldn’t there at least be the appearance of conflict? What about a state or city competing with the private sector for ad revenue?

Federal agencies don’t have to make this call because the General Services Administration’s policies “clearly prohibit advertising on federal public websites registered in the .gov domain,” according to USA.gov’s site on best government web practices.

States and municipalities have the leeway, although it seems it could get dicey, especially as budgets get tighter. We don’t propose that it’s a slippery slope leading to police cruisers plastered with logos like NASCAR race cars or people trekking to Philadelphia to see the Go Daddy Declaration of Independence. But with all significant achievements state and local governments have made in providing public services via the Web, it might be preferable to keep them purely public.

It’s a familiar dilemma with technology: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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