Uncle Sam Wants You to Shop at His Web Site

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

If the Santa wish list isn't working out, let Uncle Sam help you find a holiday gift.

FirstGov.gov, the government's official Web portal, includes a "holiday gifts for sale" link that shows you where to purchase books, mementos from museums, holiday ornaments, folk recordings, jewelry, art and souvenirs.

For example, the U.S. Mint touts an American Eagle one-ounce silver coin for $27.95, the Supreme Court Historical Society sells a rhinestone flag pin for $18.99, and the Library of Congress offers railroad songs and ballads on an $8.95 CD.

"There are lots of things for sale by the government that you don't realize," said Martha Dorris, deputy associate administrator for the office of citizen services at the General Services Administration.

If you're looking for the offbeat or for a bargain, the Web portal also links to GovSales.gov, which sells surplus and seized property, such as cars, trucks, real estate, computers and furniture. Yesterday's listings included a 1996 Jeep Cherokee with 68,876 miles. Initial bids have driven the price to $800; the bidding ends Dec. 24.

It's too late to order many of Uncle Sam's items in time for postal delivery by Christmas. But FirstGov.gov offers a taste of what you can find in the gift shops at federal buildings.

There are also a lot of holiday tips on FirstGov -- for mailing presents, cooking turkeys and showing support for the troops in Iraq. And, for the night before Christmas, FirstGov provides a link to the "Track Santa" radar operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

FirstGov is about six years old and was created to provide one-stop shopping for people seeking information from federal, state and local agencies and tribal governments. It is organized in sections focused on citizens, businesses, nonprofit groups, federal employees and others.

The site, which has an $18 million annual budget, is still striving to become a household name. In November, less than 1 percent of Web users went to FirstGov, compared with nearly 67 percent of Web users who went to Google.com and 30 percent who went to Amazon.com, according to Nielsen-NetRatings.

"They have very stiff competition in Google," said Larry Freed, president of ForeSee Results, a company that measures customers' satisfaction with Internet sites.

This summer, Google targeted federal employees by creating Google U.S. Government Search, a Web site that can search across agencies. The company also partners with agencies, such as NASA, to post information about their missions and operations.

Still, Freed thinks FirstGov, which lists information by topic and has a search engine, can appeal to Web users. "Users generally would rather navigate than search, and they turn to search when navigation fails them," he said, adding that, "In all cases, when I go looking for government information, I go to FirstGov."

Dorris said the FirstGov database contains more than 50 million documents and images, organized to address everyday issues as well as periods of crisis, such as services available after Hurricane Katrina or how to protect against identity theft after a federal computer security breach.

"We are not in competition with Google," she said. "We are the only source of official government information. Our search results . . . are not based on paid advertising or any blogging."

The FirstGov staff is studying possible changes to the portal "based on what the public likes," Dorris said. An announcement will be made in January and may be followed with a new look next spring to make it easier for users to find information, she said.

Meanwhile, if FirstGov does not help you find a holiday gift, it might help you with your New Year's resolutions. Among the New Year's links are "Lose Weight," "Pay Off Debt," "Get a Better Job" and "Reduce Stress Overall."

Retirements

Howard Faulkner, senior international relations officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will retire Jan. 3 after 38 years of government service. His assignments included developing bilateral nuclear safety programs with Western Europe and Asia.

Heddy Hubbard, senior adviser for nursing and patient safety regulation at the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, will retire Jan. 3 after more than 36 years with the Health and Human Services Department.


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