Dozens of online federal auctions have come under scrutiny after President Obama’s executive order calling for web site consolidations and cuts in a massive online system that now results in confusion and massive duplication.
The auctions, designed to offload excess government property, currently offer no easy way for consumers and businesses to find the best deal. You can find similar wares on many different government websites, and there’s no roadmap to help the public find their way.
The stakes are significant: The White House wants agencies to sell off excess government property by the end of next year to save $3 billion in maintenance costs. The administration mandates that the number of .gov websites be cut by 50 percent by July 2012 and that every agency develop a web improvement plan.
“It’s like having dozens of Malls of America you have to go to and the government thinking it’s done a good job because it has so many different Malls of America,” said Mark Forman, the first federal CIO under President George Bush.
The online auctions are a viable means of ridding excess government properties, fueling partnerships with private industry and trimming budgets and saving taxpayer money. However, in addition to confusion and duplicated efforts, the hodgepodge of sites lacks consumer-friendliness required to be effective.
The multitude of sites are part of a larger issue White House officials are trying to tackle: The need to reign in an overabundance of government agency websites in general.
Obama issued the executive order on April 27 calling for government websites to be dramatically consolidated and cut in the next year. The Office of Management and Budget prohibited agencies from starting any more .gov websites until next year.
A task force has been assigned to carry out details of Obama’s executive order, which calls for eliminating duplicate federal websites. There are more than 2,000 federal websites.
The range of excess products and property the government is trying to unload is almost overwhelming. The Small Business Administration provides a glimpse of the variety with a Small Business Guide to Government Auctions and Sales.
Here are some of the government auction sites where you can find everything from the extraordinary to the ordinary:
- Federal law enforcement agencies sell cars, trucks, motor cycles and boats and houses from the U.S. Marshal’s Service seizure program. Luxury items include a $28 million Park Avenue penthouse in New York City, a 2008 Mercedes Benz McLaren Convertible and a 1982 Cessna 414A. The Marshal’s Service has also turned to a high-end private auction site to sell expensive products.
- The Justice Department’s UNICOR site sells products designed and produced by federal prisoners including uniforms, furniture and electrical equipment. Many other sites sell excess clothing, too, including the Defense Department.
- The General Services Administration (GSA) RealEstateSales.gov site includes a wide variety of exotic properties for sale such as old lighthouses and an unused federal courthouse. The site sold $2 billion worth of property from 2006-2010. Gsaauctions.gov sells cars, medical equipment, fine jewelry, clothes, equipment from NASA’s Hubble telescope project.
- The Department of Defense (DoD) Army Corps of Engineers has homes for sale.
- The Department of Agriculture sells houses and ranches and farms on the USDA’s Farm Service Agency site.
The Treasury Department sells property, too, mainly small homes in rural locations
- Govsales.gov pulls many of these government auctions together on one site, where you can buy clothing, vehicles, property, jewelry, computers, electronics, and much more.
- Government Liquidation LLC, a private Arizona-based contractor, has sold $537 million in excess Defense Department goods over the last 10 years. The sales include Army trucks, cars, boats, tractors, clothing and aircraft parts, not to mention a 737 jet and World War II battleship gun tubes sold for scrap.
Government Liquidation LLC is an example of how private online auctions for government wares can turn a profit for the government.
“When the economy gets tough, people don’t want to pay full price, and they know where this property comes from,” said Tom Burton, the company president. “We are doing a function that DoD used to do – the government privatizing one of their functions.”
However, the current system also results in multiple government sites selling the same kinds of goods and, ultimately, less government savings, said Steve Galvan, former CIO at the SBA who now runs an IT consulting company.
“Agencies are investing in duplicative systems that are similar,” he said. “I would recommend consolidating auction sites, making information available on fewer sites and improving the interaction for citizens to go to fewer sites to find what they are trying to buy.”
David Robbins, director of GSA’s Office of Personal Property Management at the Federal Acquisition Service, said there is far less duplication today than in the past.
“We’ve already done consolidation,” said Robbins, whose office handles auctions for excess personal property such as vehicles, jewelry and office equipment. “There’s always a reason to consolidate more.”
What’s next? In the coming months, look for consolidation of many federal websites, especially on the auction sites.
Will these government sales retire the deficit? Not a chance.
Will it take billions of dollars in products and property off the government books and give money back to the Treasury? Absolutely.
When the system is streamlined, the public will be able to better target their purchases and have “more money available on expenditures the government wants to sell,” Forman said.