The Conservative government is considering a new money-making plan that would allow it to sell private-sector advertising on the government's Job Bank website.
The Globe and Mail has learned that federal officials are examining ways to raise millions from the website, which currently posts more than a million jobs per year. Canadians visiting the site could ultimately find themselves looking at ads from private-sector companies that would be targeted at them based on their location and the search terms they enter.
The possibility of ads running on a Government of Canada website is raising questions and concern over the type of ads that would be allowed and the criteria public servants would use to decide which companies or organizations would be approved to place ads.
Employment and Social Development Canada – the department responsible for the Job Bank site – paid $93,318 last year to U.S. firm Forrester Consulting for advice on two highly unusual options.
The consulting firm's September, 2013, report provides detailed analysis of two scenarios: selling the Job Bank website to the private sector for as much as $200-million or raising revenue from the site by selling ads and/or charging user fees.
As part of the Conservative government's push to balance the books, all federal departments are under pressure to cut costs and find assets that could be sold or privatized. This month's budget included $11.8-million over two years to "enhance" the Jobbank.gc.ca site by launching a job-matching service. However, internal documents reveal the government is looking at much bigger changes.
A federal government source says both full privatization and user fees have been rejected internally, but Ottawa has not ruled out selling ad space.
The consultant's report – obtained via Access to Information for The Globe and Mail by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin – estimates selling online ads could bring in about $2.6-million a year. A further $2.9-million a year could be raised by offering a "Corporate Customer Solution" similar to LinkedIn that would allow users to make more targeted searches for a fee.
The report further estimates that $19-million a year could be raised by charging employers a fee to post jobs, but warns this could cut the number of jobs on the site by more than half. An example in the report gives an idea of what the site would look like under the "digital ad revenues" scenario.
"If a job seeker searches for 'carpenter' positions and their [Internet Protocol] address is in Ontario, then ads for Ontario-based hardware stores would come up to the side of job search results," the report states. The consultant report also warns this "partial privatization" option carries a potential downside.
"Digital Ads can clutter a webpage, and deter potential job seekers," it states. , adding that "one of the stated advantages of the current website is its clean appearance and straightforward design."
Jonathan Rose, a Queen's University political science professor who specializes in government advertising, said the idea raises a lot of questions.
"This is the commercialization of government space. That's fascinating," he said. Mr. Rose said it is possible the government is trying to raise the value of the site at first by selling ads before trying to sell it for a higher price down the road. Mr. Rose said there would need to be clarity over how users of the site are tracked and what kind of ads public servants would allow. For instance, he noted that it is not clear whether political parties or interest groups could advertise campaigns related to government policy.
"It really does blur the line," he said. "The decisions about the kind of advertisers, what's done with the data and the like raises all sorts of questions."
The report notes that job sites have been sold to competitors for large sums in recent years. For instance, Yahoo bought HotJobs for $436-million in 2002, Torstar valued Workopolis at $300-million in 2008, Monster bought Trovix for $72.5-million in 2008 and then bought Yahoo HotJobs in 2010 for $225-million.
The consultants hired by Ottawa examined what took place in 2007, when the U.S. Department of Labour shut down a similar site called "America's Job Bank." The Department of Labour official responsible for the closing told the consultants the U.S. made the decision it "didn't want to be in the business of selling an asset and picking a winner."