Two years ago, most Members had lackluster Web sites that were hard to navigate, short on information and months out of date.
Since then, new media has swept the Hill, prompting lawmakers to start their own Twitter accounts, display YouTube videos and join social networking sites like Facebook.
But have their Web sites improved during the same time, and are they helpful to constituents?
The nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation hopes to answer those questions by evaluating all 618 House and Senate Web sites, spending close to an hour on each one. Each site will be given grades ranging from A+ to F, accompanied by a personalized report with a set of recommendations.
Officials plan to begin evaluations by the end of June and finish the report by the end of the year. The last time they studied the Web sites was 2007, and the average grade was a D.
The goal of the entire project is to give Congressional offices a benchmark for what a good Congressional Web site looks like, CMF spokesman Tim Hysom said. Just because a Member might be Twittering doesnt mean theyre using the tool the way it was intended or to its full potential.
The CMF has produced the report on and off since 2002, sparking competition between offices by handing out Gold Mouse awards to the best Web sites. The winning Web sites excel in legislative content, constituent services, timeliness and usability.
In the past, the organization has described the results as disappointing. In 2007, for example, only 17 percent of the Web sites received an A, and one-third of the sites
didnt have a functional search engine.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) was one of the exceptions, earning a Gold Mouse award every year that the report has come out. His staff constantly updates his Web site, adding links to legislation, updates on policy issues and videos of Honda speaking at hearings and on the House floor.
Ahmed Bhadelia, Hondas online media director, said the Web sites layout hasnt changed in years, keeping a simple format that is easy to use. But the office is in the middle of planning for a redesign that will allow more constituent interaction.
I think thats something thats really starting to take off right now involving constituents in the process, he said.
Indeed, Capitol Hill has come a long way in the last few years.
Last fall, for example, the surge in Members using YouTube forced Senate and House officials to change outdated rules that prohibited them from posting such third-party videos on their Web sites.
Democratic and Republican leaders have also begun to push Members to be more Web-savvy, hiring staffers who specifically handle new media issues. In the House, the Chief Administrative Officer offers new Members a design template so they can have a running Web site on their first day.
Many Members Web sites now look polished and professional. To stand out, more and more are hiring companies that specialize in Web site design and content management systems for Congressional offices.