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What federal agencies can learn from eBay

Robert Gellman

I have become a bit of an eBay junkie. I used it to buy some baseball cards, a 1980 Phillies World Series ring replica and this column. The column was a real bargain because I got the idea free while surfing www.ebay.com.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of eBay is its public feedback system. Everyone is publicly rated by everyone else. If you buy something, you get to post feedback about the seller. The seller can post comments about the buyer. People can respond to negative comments.

The feedback system is invaluable. If I worry whether the seller of that baseball card has accurately described it, it helps to know that 350 other buyers were happy with the seller and that only one was unhappy.

I recently bought something from a seller in India. He wanted me to mail him cash. Could I trust this person? The answer came from the feedback system. The seller's feedback was positive, though there wasn't much of it. But it was clear that the seller wants to do more business on eBay, and he expressly asked me to post feedback when the transaction was through.

Those two elements were enough to induce me to risk sending the grand sum of $6 in cash to India by regular mail. It worked'that is, he sent me the goods as promised'and I posted a positive comment about the seller.

I want federal agencies to allow public feedback on their Web sites. Let users communicate with the agency and with one another. Ask for compliments, complaints and advice to other users.

For example, users at an Environmental Protection Agency site might direct other users to different sites for better data or might share good search techniques. If enough users complain about the lack of fiscal 2000 data, an agency might be motivated to get that data online sooner. Or, users might ask if anyone else is analyzing toxic dumps in Ohio.

It isn't enough to let users send private e-mail to the agency. The pressure of public comments produces change and discussion in a way that private messages cannot.

Limit the comments to 100 words or so, and keep them public for a year to let people review past comments. Let people mark their comments as positive, negative or neutral. Other categories might be advice, help requests or search techniques. Allow users to search the comments by categories and by keywords.

Will someone post less-than-useful comments, such as 'George Bush sucks,' on your Web site? Sure. But people will take it for what it is. And erasing irrelevant comments is OK. Use a filter for obscenities, but leave complaints public. Webmasters should post responses when appropriate.

EBay's feedback system isn't perfect. Internet auctions still generate complaints, and fraud has become more common as the site has grown. Still, feedback helps honest people feel more comfortable doing business together online.

Let the users of your Web site feel that way, too. Give users a chance to help you improve your agency Web site by meeting their needs and talking to each other. It's worth a try.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@cais.com.

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