Triple Threat? The GAO Audits Saferproducts.gov

Three years ago, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began to solicit the public’s advice and counsel on the development of a consumer complaint database, manufacturers and the purveyors of consumer products forecast the end of capitalism. The database would be full of false reports, besmirching the snowy reputations of good and humble companies, who existed only to serve their customers according to the highest standards of retail integrity. And as this pool of complaints spread and deepened, tort lawyers would cast their lines, hooking cases with no actual merit but heavy with potential to drive said good and humble companies out of existence.

They stamped their feet and waved their fists, but the database was mandated as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. A few rearguard actions were mounted to kill its funding, but they met with no greater success.

Saferproducts.gov debuted in March 2011. If you are afraid you missed the apocalypse, no worries. It didn’t happen. According to a rather mild – dare we say boring – Government Accounting Office report, the rumors of the free market’s demise at the hands of a consumer compliant database were greatly exaggerated. In fact, few consumers have actually used Saferproducts.gov to report an incident – only 12,030 from April 2011 to January 2013. The GAO, which conducted the performance audit from July 2012 to March 2013, found that more than 97 percent who used the website to report an alleged product failure identified themselves as consumers. In more than half the cases, the reporter identified him or herself – or a relative (parent, child, spouse) as the victim.

Most of the consumers who test drove the website for the GAO auditors found it easy to use. None of the group had heard of Saferproducts.gov before, and only a few understood the basic mission of the CPSC. Some were put off by requests that reporters register with the website. A few suggested helpfully that the website would be more aptly named Unsafeproducts.gov. (Now would that go over big with industry.)  

The GAO report entitled, Awareness, Use, and Usefulness of SaferProducts.gov, concludes that the CPSC could do more to promote awareness of the database and make its contents more useful to the agency itself. It made three recommendations to the CPSC:  to establish metrics to measure their success in promoting the website, look for some way to collect information about website users and their use of Saferproducts.gov and to make some cost-effective improvements to the website.

Snark aside, it behooves the CPSC to weave Saferproducts.gov more tightly into the fabric of the consumer community, because, as the GAO points out: this database is a part of CPSC’s larger Consumer Product Safety Risk Management System (CPSRMS), which is “designed to allow CPSC to study data from multiple sources in a centralized location to identify emerging consumer product safety hazards.”

A mere 12,000 reports out of a universe of millions of consumer products isn’t going to create much of an early warning tool. For example, CPSC officials told the GAO that its main website CPSC.gov received almost 10 times as many visits each month, as Saferproducts.gov.

But, new systems take time to establish themselves, work out the bugs, and raise their profiles. The CPSC has been using an array of promotional strategies. (Hey – did anyone catch “Chairtastrophe, the CPSC’s 30-second spot on reporting an office chair mishap? We laughed! We cried! It was the feel-good CPSC video of the year!)

So buck up, free enterprisers, your dark predictions may yet come to pass. Apparently, it’s going to take a little more time.

 

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