Customer product reviews are a staple of nearly every type of eCommerce site except for one: government. While governments at the federal, state and local levels have adopted eCommerce for either payment purposes or procurement support, a taboo prevails: allowing customers of government-operated eCommerce sites the opportunity to say what they think about the products offered there.

As a private consumer, I cannot imagine making decisions about purchasing something that I couldn’t physically inspect without further information of some kind. What those who already own and use the product think is invaluable. Consumer product reviews are the answer to the questions about features not covered in the manufacturer’s marketing materials. They provide you with a warning about potential pitfalls or difficulties encountered when using a product. And their information can be vital in helping you determine which product to choose when most other factors are equal. Need an example? Let’s say that you need to buy 100 hammers to restock your maintenance shop? You find three hammer offerings, all the same price, weight and purpose and now you have to choose. What if one of the offerings had a product review that enthused about how the comfortable cushioned grip was ideal for big jobs; would that inform your decision? Of course it would!

The public sector has seen a high rate of adoption for eCommerce from access and sharing of records, and payment of taxes and fees, to acquisition of supplies and services needed in the conduct of government business. Since governments perform the acquisition of these supplies with funds collected from taxpayers, there is a fiduciary responsibility that both you and I should want taken seriously.

One area, particularly in the federal sector, that is highly regulated is contractor past performance (see Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 42.15). Since other acquisition professionals may use data regarding contractor performance in determining a contractor’s ability to perform on a new contract, the integrity of how data is collected and conveyed must be protected in order to ensure a level playing field. But is contractor performance and information about the product a contractor sells really the same thing? I don’t believe it is. Furthermore, if the information presented on a government website is clearly labeled, the need for transparency has been met.

Picture five little stars in a row with a label above saying “Customer-Provided Product Review” and a text box that appears when you hover over it that says, “This rating represents the average of all website users who have rated this product and does not reflect the opinion of the US Government regarding either the product or the contractor providing the product. This rating is supplied for information only.” There are few people ordering supplies within the federal government today that are unfamiliar with web-based ordering and the concept of customer product reviews. Customer reviews are a standard, better yet, best practice for eCommerce. The disclaimer covers any liability the Government’s might incur by stating that the opinion is unofficial, and the customer wins by being given valuable information that they could only get by picking up the object and using it for themselves.

It is not unusual to see feedback from users of government websites complaining that it’s just not user-friendly. However, when pressed for details, these users may find it difficult to articulate a specific problem. Government sites would be wise to adopt the commercial standard of providing starred reviews, which would go a long way to improve the perception of user friendliness by increasing the consumer’s understanding of the items available. To take this a step further, government eCommerce websites could benefit from incorporating the look and feel of their commercial counterparts to help their weary users feel more comfortable by operating in an arena with which they are familiar. So, what ideas would you offer to government eCommerce sites? Do you think consumer product reviews would be beneficial or would they be a problem? Sound off below.