The Craigslist Effect on Government Transactions

Over the past decade, government has become very good at putting applications and services online. Visit any state web site and you’ll find hundreds available at your fingertips. However, if you look at the statistics of many applications, such as vehicle registration and driver’s license renewals, adoption rates are still incredibly low.

There really is no point comparing the advantages of going online versus going into a brick and mortar building. We’ve heard them for so long they’re now clichés:

  • Open 24/7/365!
  • No more waiting in lines!
  • Do business in your pajamas!

Government has every incentive to drive usage to their online applications because it’s stupendously cheaper and more efficient than staffing physical offices. Citizens have every incentive to go online because, well, you can do it in your pajamas. To keep the clichés rolling, sounds like a match made in heaven.

So why aren’t more people going online to conduct government transactions? Some traditional explanations include:

  • Can’t trust the internet: security is always a risk, especially when personally identifiable information is involved
  • Don’t like extra fees: people don’t like paying extra for convenience
  • Digital divide: many people still don’t have access

Yes, these are factors, but they haven’t stopped people from going online to do other kinds of business in the private sector. I’d like to offer another important factor I call the Craigslist effect.

Craigslist continues to be the dominant online community marketplace, despite keeping the same boring 1.0 interface they’ve had since the mid-nineties…. despite adding few functionalities relative to the rest of the online community… despite competition from two of the internet’s biggest players in Facebook and Amazon… Despite it all, Craigslist is still the default service for buying and selling goods and services in your community.

I believe a big reason is because it takes a lot of effort for people to change the way they do things once they’ve been doing it comfortably for a period of time, no matter how attractive a replacement may be. Many people know about going online to renew a driver’s license, but they don’t know exactly how it works or what happens to their information, whereas they know EXACTLY what to expect when they go into an office. In addition, there’s always a learning curve when trying something new, regardless of how intuitive and usable the new system is.

So, once you couple the comfortability of the old with an inexperience of the new, you get another cliché: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’m not a professional researcher and I don’t have tons of empirical evidence to support this idea. And I understand drawing parallels between government and Craigslist is stretching it a bit. But I have talked to a good number of folks and it seems that a common denominator is that they’re fine doing it the way they’ve been doing it, thank you very much.

Even though adoption rates are relatively low now, the numbers will climb steadily as generational habits change. But in the mean time, there will still be plenty of folks lining up at the local government office, just like how there are plenty of folks that continue to use a plain and undecorated marketplace like Craigslist.

What do you think? Are there other significant factors that keep people from doing government business in their pajamas?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Wesley Ziegler

It really does come down to ease of use. Craigslist does one thing and it does it well, it connects buyers to sellers without the interference of a middle man. No corporations, no advertisers to get in the way of your transaction. Most government websites share the same 1.0 era interfaces, but what they lack is ease of use. Once governments prove that transactions are easier and less complicated online than in person, I’m sure we will see the population transition en masse.

Jon Lee

Hi Wesley, thanks for your response. I agree, ease of use is important, but I’m not sure it’s the bottom line. In Texas, our Vehicle Registration app is incredibly easy to use. Takes about 2 minutes from start to finish. You really can’t make it any easier.

As for Craigslist, it’s easy to use, but I wouldn’t say there’s ease of use because it’s pretty clunky. It would be great if I could take a pic from my smartphone and upload it straight to a post. Instead I have to take it with my digital camera, move the file over to my hard drive, then wait for it to upload to the post. And I can’t tag my postings to try to attract more views. And there’s no easier way to communicate besides email. And there’s no account creation that builds some security measures to make sure you’re not dealing with psychos, sex offenders, or con artists…. There are a lot of things Craigslist could do, in my opinion, to make their site more usable. But they don’t. And it doesn’t matter because people keep using it.

Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

First, I want to know what Craig Newmark thinks of this post. I’m going to post to his page to see if he’ll weigh in. Jon, you’ve made some interesting observations. Thre thoughts come to mind… 1). What if government web sites gave people more of an incentive to try the first time? Once the citizens see a web site’s ease of use, they’ll be back again and again; and the government will save money. 2). What if government web sites became more like virtual worlds? With your example of DMV, they could simulate a waiting room, numbers being called, etc. It would give the familiarity of the known, physical world but present it in an easy, online format. 3). Government web sites have to evolve to the place where they can handle anything, even if it’s through the use of online chat support. I think too many people go to buildings thinking that their questions are so unique that they have to talk to someone in person.

Jon Lee

Hi Jay, I’m pretty sure Craig has a very good response for why Craigslist’s minimalist, anti-2.0 approach has been very successful, and it’s probably something he’s been answering for quite some time. I’ve read that in its infancy, Craig worked tirelessly at customer service, replying to every single email he gets and really building up the “community” and gaining loyalty to the site. But yes, I’d love for him to weigh in as well.

Regarding your thoughts…1) A very tricky part of government services is for most people, they only need to come once a year, so getting people to come often requires much more than just the transaction itself. Quality, up-to-date content will be the key to attracting regular viewers, which is very difficult to achieve in the public sector. 2) Interesting idea for virtual worlds, but it might be difficult. The whole Second Life movement is dying if not dead already, so I’m not sure how attractive it would be. Maybe taking some virtual elements, or using augmented reality, could be attractive, but a private third party would have to develop it. 3) Many state portals have live chat features these days, so I’d be very curious to see how its impact on OTC transactions.

Thanks for your feedback.

Craig Newmark

Folks, thanks!

I can’t claim proficiency in user experience stuff, only know a few basics.

Treat people like you want to be treated.

Stay seriously engaged with your community, listen, and act on suggestions which make sense. (I reply to emails sent to craig at

Do stuff that’s useful and effective.

Stick with plain language.

Keep it simple.

Jon Lee

Thanks, Craig! Do you think these tactics you used to build Craigslist into what it is today could translate into higher adoption rates for online government transactions?

Jon Lee

Awesome… we added some improvements in the recent redesign of State of Texas website back in June (saw the nice comments on your site, thanks). I think we embraced some of the ideas you just listed in our redesign… hopefully we’ll get some higher adoption rates. Thanks again!

Martha Garvey

This is a great post. I’m trying to think of the last time I engaged my local government, and I’d have to say…when we paid our quarterly taxes. By mail. So…there is a time gap, at least for some users, between processes. Would I pay online if it were available? Absolutely.

Jon Lee

Thanks, Martha! That is one of the disadvantages of government… people only visit once a year or so. We would love to put up-to-date, relevant content to attract more regular visits, but it’s not easy.

Martha Garvey

Here’s the city website for Hoboken, NJ, which is a mix of things–news, contacts, and downloadable documents.

(I found out a couple of cool things, including the fact that the first girl to play Little League in the U.S. is now the city’s assistant comptroller!)

The website also told residents when and why an old tree was removed from a park. This might seem like small potatoes, but the last time this happened (in the last administration), the city didn’t communicate about it at all, and an unbelievable number of print inches and electrons were spent discussing it.