Home > eGov > The Craigslist Effect on Government Transactions

The Craigslist Effect on Government Transactions

Over the past decade, government has become very good at putting applications and services online. Visit any state web site and you’ll find hundreds available at your fingertips. However, if you look at the statistics of many applications, such as vehicle registration and driver’s license renewals, adoption rates are still incredibly low.

There really is no point comparing the advantages of going online versus going into a brick and mortar building.  We’ve heard them for so long they’re now clichés:

  • Open 24/7/365!
  • No more waiting in lines!
  • Do business in your pajamas!

Government has every incentive to drive usage to their online applications because it’s stupendously cheaper and more efficient than staffing physical offices. Citizens have every incentive to go online because, well, you can do it in your pajamas. To keep the clichés rolling, sounds like a match made in heaven.

So, the million dollar question that every program manager asks is:

Why aren’t more people going online to conduct government transactions?

Traditional explanations include:

  • Can’t trust the internet: security is always a risk, especially when personally identifiable information is involved
  • Don’t like extra fees: people don’t like paying extra for convenience
  • Digital divide: many people still don’t have access

Yes, these are factors, but they haven’t stopped people from going online to do other kinds of business in the private sector. I’d like to offer another important factor I call the Craigslist effect.

Craigslist continues to be the dominant online community marketplace, despite keeping the same boring 1.0 interface they’ve had since the mid-nineties…. despite adding few functionalities relative to the rest of the online community… despite competition from two of the internet’s biggest players in Facebook and Amazon… Despite it all, Craigslist is still the default service for buying and selling goods and services in your community.

I believe a big reason is because it takes a lot of effort for people to change the way they do things once they’ve been doing it comfortably for a period of time, no matter how attractive a replacement may be. Many people know about going online to renew a driver’s license, but they don’t know exactly how it works or what happens to their information, whereas they know EXACTLY what to expect when they go into an office. In addition, there’s always a learning curve when trying something new, regardless of how intuitive and usable the new system is.

So, once you couple the comfortability of the old with an inexperience of the new, you get another cliché: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’m not a professional researcher and I don’t have tons of empirical evidence to support this idea. And I understand drawing parallels between government and Craigslist is stretching it a bit. But I have talked to a good number of folks and it seems that a common denominator is that they’re fine doing it the way they’ve been doing it, thank you very much.

Even though adoption rates are relatively low now, the numbers will climb steadily as generational habits change. But in the mean time, there will still be plenty of folks lining up at the local government office, just like how there are plenty of folks that continue to use a plain and undecorated marketplace like Craigslist.

What do you think? Are there other significant factors that keep people from doing government business in their pajamas?

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  1. Martin
    July 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Theory makes sense… May pitch the inclusion of the “Why don’t you use the website?” question in our customer surveys.

    • Jon Lee
      July 13, 2010 at 2:57 pm

      Thanks, Martin. Yes, customer surveys are a great way to try to drive adoption

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