Uncle Sam is the biggest consumer in the country. Federal agencies, military commissaries and PX’s regularly buy almost everything that ordinary consumers purchase — food, clothes, household appliances, drugs, autos, tires, light bulbs, detergents, blankets, and many other items. With these multi-billion dollar expenditures annually, there is very little testing done to determine what is best to buy.
This is one of the greatest lost opportunities to save the taxpayers’ money, encourage more quality and price competition and provide consumer information to everyone.
Take, for instance, the military commissaries and post exchanges. Together they have a retail sales volume that is exceeded only by Sears, Roebuck. In the past two years, Congressional inquiries have uncovered evidence of waste, spoilage and corruption in their operations, particularly at overseas posts. But the mild managerial shakeup which followed the disclosures is not in itself likely to lead to the establishment of a competent testing facility.
Such a facility would pay for itself many times over. Products considered for purchase by the post exchanges and commissaries would be routinely tested in much the way Consumers Union does its tests. There would be a food laboratory, a vehicle and tire testing facility and other establishments suitable for evaluating different kinds of products. The results would guide supply officials toward the best product for the taxpayers’ dollar. The companies who lost orders would make added efforts to bring their products up to muster. In some cases, entire product lines would be exposed, such as light bulbs designed to burn out too quickly, pharmaceuticals which are either ineffective or harmful, detergents that don’t fulfill their boasts, and packaged foods that cheat the customer in nutrition and quantity.
Obviously, such information about brand name products would be of use to consumers.
Prepared in an easy-to-read format and widely distributed, such facts would increase consumer awareness and lead to more intelligent choices. Companies would be pressed to perform better.
There is some experience on which to build. The government’s civilian purchasing arm, the General Services Administration, has conducted tests once in a while for some brand name products it has purchased, such as batteries or air conditioners. In 1964, Congress specifically authorized the GSA to set safety specifications for automobiles that it purchases. Infrequently, even the military will use one of its research facilities or civilian agencies such as the National Bureau of Standards or the Food and Drug Administration to conduct tests.
All these efforts have been mostly unorganized, hidden from public view but watched closely by industry lobbyists to see that no comparative brand name information is released. There was a brief period, in late 1968, when the Johnson Administration had decided to develop such government consumer information for use by millions of Americans.
This newborn policy decision was squelched by the businessmen who took over the White House as aides to President Nixon. Instead, three years later, a tepid brochure entitled “Consumer Product Information” was printed telling consumers how they could buy government pamphlets that advise them generally how to buy canned goods, a suit of clothes and the like. No brand name information and no specifics.
Perhaps, Congress can open hearings next year on how such a consumer information system should be established. Reducing government spending, obtaining better products, advancing consumer justice and enhancing superior competition add up to a package of considerable appeal — to everyone, that is, except the producers and sellers who profit from uninformed buyers, be they the government or the public.