I’m not sure what Public Work’s online auction site will eventually look like, but don’t count on a lot of comparisons with eBay.

The Canadian Press on Monday reported that the federal government’s purchasing arm is working on a portal where users can bid on surplus items in real-time, including office furniture, computers and even boats. It quoted an internal report that came to the following conclusion:

“We found that a system where the bid amounts are visible and not sealed, and that enabled potential purchasers to bid as the amount changed during the bidding, could generate increased sale prices and more revenue.”

It would be easy to make fun of this line, but why not instead congratulate the government of Canada for recognizing the power and potential of e-commerce?

Although no one talks about it anymore, a number of federal departments, including Public Works, were consulted as part of what was then known as the Government On-Line (GOL) strategy. This was in the days of Web 1.0, when simply having a Web site with more than one page was considered getting in the game. While other areas of Canadian public sector IT investment became boondoggles, GOL actually met with enthusiastic response. Accenture, for one, routinely put Canada at the top of its list of countries successfully pursuing e-government initiatives. We no longer use the term “e-government,” either, because there’s an assumption that the Internet is a channel for all programs and service deliverables.

In this case, however, the government was still inviting people to physically come to its warehouses to inspect the loot, and was advertising in newspapers – not newspaper Web sites, necessarily, but an actual paper product – to find and manage customers. The planned auction site will probably look less like eBay and more like a similar portal set up by the B.C. government. It’s not the world’s greatest design – the home page still discourages users from deploying “beta” software such as Internet Explorer 8 – but it’s functional.

What should the federal auction site include? How about a Second Life-like virtual world where items can be modeled and visitors can get up close and personal with both the assets and Public Works personnel? How about the ability to make purchases with PayPal as well as major credit cards? What about a Twitter feed that automatically broadcasts new items that get added to the auction?

I’m not really expecting any of these things to make it in to the first version of this online auction, but that’s okay. GOL was occasionally criticised for focusing mostly on simply making information available electronically rather than engaging citizens to make transactions. This project could be an important, long overdue step in that direction.

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