A Look at Advertising e-Government

Would you say a government Web site was more like a bus or a park? The way you answer this question is likely to determine how you feel about government agencies selling advertising space on their official Web sites.

Some people feeling queasy about it. To them, a government Web site is like a park, a public space that shouldn’t be marred by clever click-through ads featuring images of supine Pamela Anderson lookalikes. Others are not troubled by the prospect – they point to city buses wrapped in advertising and nod approvingly. As long as they don’t have to pay for it, they don’t care.

Whatever your view, it’s a practice that is likely to become more common – at least in the U.S. – as muni-cipalities look for cash to bankroll large investments in information technology. A company called GovAds, for example, is already marketing its advertising-placement services to revenue-hungry governments.

The debate is new to the Internet but familiar offline – the spread of advertising into the public sector has dismayed many. In several countries, the U.K. among them, schools accept advertising revenue through soft drinks contracts and cable TV broadcasts, or “soft sponsorships” through free hardware and software. In America, publicly-owned stadiums bear the names of corporate sponsors. Even the U.S. presidential debates were sponsored by a brewing company to the tune of US$550,000 (608,000 euros).

It was just a matter of time before governments were approached regarding their Web sites. So what should it be, park or bus?

The promise that the Internet would improve government services is repeated so frequently it has become something of a public-sector mantra.

First, as the argument goes, information technology will make the provision of public services dramatically more efficient. Citizens will go online to register vehicles, renew drivers’ licences and passports, apply for planning permission, file tax returns, pay parking tickets and so on.

Second, information-hungry people will be able to delve into issues by reading official reports, council meeting minutes, new proposals and the like. More practical-minded Web users will be able to access the rubbish collection schedule, information about reserving the local sports facilities and tax rules on their home computers.

Finally, elected officials will communicate directly with their constituents. According to the manta, this interactivity will break down the vast chasm that separates the governors from the governed, and a new golden age of democracy will be born.

This may all be true. The problem is that making it happen will cost a great deal of money – money that most governments do not have. Maybe someday our more traditional interfaces with government – bureaucrats behind frosted-glass windows – will be replaced by kiosks at the local supermarket. However, potential savings in the long run provide little help in making contemporary budgets add up. Right now, governments have to pay for both the high-tech and the low-tech facilities. That is not cheap. There are three ways to raise the money. One is to pay for the investment out of general revenues. This may work for the limited number of governments that are flush with cash. But elsewhere – assuming citizens are not eager to pay more taxes – this option is going to encounter significant opposition.

A second approach would be to charge user fees for all Web-based transactions. This has some obvious appeal. It would tax only those directly benefiting from the provision of the service and it would make it easy to gauge “market demand”. On the other hand, it would price significant portions of the population out of the market for good.

That leaves the advertising solution. The public has already expressed some dissatisfaction with the ubiquity of advertising in our lives, and critics claim that by allowing such commercialism into educational institutions, we are in effect “commoditising” our children. Still, there is ample reason to shrug at the prospect of Internet ads on government Web sites and say: “A little more can’t hurt”. After all, the aesthetic displeasure created by the placement of crass come-ons on the same page as schedules of city council meetings is not too big a price to pay.

But there are additional issues to consider – such as the endorsement problem. An ad on a government Web site may carry a tacit endorsement that should not be sold to the highest bidder. Is it possible to place a banner ad for a hotel on a council tourism site without implicitly recommending it to prospective visitors? Not surprisingly, GovAds’ Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Timothy Bartlett says it is. He argues that people are used to ads on Web sites and don’t infer an endorsement.

And indeed the bus analogy supports him. Just because Los Angeles’ buses drive around wrapped in Yahoo advertisements, does that mean the government is making a portal recommendation? Most would say no.

Another issue is more problematic. Anyone who spends more than a little time on the Web knows the two strategies that seem to guide almost all advertising campaigns there: create a banner that looks like a

Windows dialogue box or try to be as shocking as possible. Assuming that most people are not fooled by the fake dialogue box, the shocking ads are more of an issue: someone is going to have to make decisions regarding appropriate content. Who is that going to be? Unless we are willing to accept any and all ads on the Web, there will have to be judges of propriety.

Bartlett argues there is no censorship problem, because his company will make the decisions based on publicly available, contractually set criteria. This helps, but leaves the door open to controversy.

Advertising on government Web sites is probably not the most pernicious commercialisation of public space. For one thing, it may not work. Scepticism about the profitability of ventures that rely on Web-based advertising revenues is rife. But Bartlett does make a convincing case that he’s got a winning formula in his ability to target eyeballs for advertisers.

But as we spend more of our lives online, our concerns over the sale of public cyberspace is likely to grow. Because there is infinite room to expand the Internet, there is no need to protect government Web sites as the Galapagos of the Web. In this case, effectively designating Web sites as “parks” is more a matter of preserving a mindset, the belief that some things are above commerce.

Talk is cheap. But someone has to pay for the servers and software that will make e-government work. If you’re not willing to pay for them, maybe the hotel down the street will be.