In 2014, the World Wide Web hit its 25th anniversary. For the past 25 years, communications have been moving, changing and evolving at warp speed. Congress has struggled to find footholds, and many offices have found themselves in over their heads. In the rush to take advantage of new communication tools, many members of Congress (and staff) merely adapted the old rules to the new century. Websites were simply the new billboards. Facebook became the new delivery system for press releases. And Twitter was just an updated version of bumper stickers. Rather than change their styles and practices for the new media, they merely wrapped old media methods in new technology.
The Congressional Management Foundation recently conducted its biannual review of congressional websites and found many in Congress still unwilling or unable to successfully adapt to the Internet. But the 70 winners of the CMF’s Gold Mouse Awards not only have adapted, they’ve thrived. These members and their staff recognize that the Internet is a way to enhance transparency and accountability in Congress, leading to greater trust in our democratic institutions. Here are the top five characteristics their websites had in common:
Informs Constituents of Legislative Positions and Actions: The best websites display the member’s position on a full range of issue areas, actions they are currently taking, past accomplishments, and information about how issues impact their districts and states. A few years ago the CMF conducted a briefing for a legislator who wanted to enhance his website. We emphasized that the promotional aspect of the content must be replaced by clear information. He replied, “Oh, I get it. . . . I need to think like a librarian, not a politician.”
Demonstrates Accountability and Transparency: Member’s websites should provide information on roll call votes, including how the member voted and the outcome of each vote. The best websites highlight key votes and provide explanations for why members voted the way they did.
Follows Best Practices for Usability: The best websites are easy to navigate, easy to read, well-organized, professional-looking and employ current website usability standards.
Provides Timely Content and Updated Links: The information on members’ websites should be current and reflect the issues and events on constituents’ minds — and in their news sources — at a given time. This includes making sure links to sponsorships and voting records are from the current Congress. If there is a reference to something that Congress is doing on the front page of your local paper, it’s a sure bet your constituents will be visiting your website to see what the member has to say about it.
Helps Constituents Resolve Problems With Federal Agencies: Every members’ website should answer constituent questions about how the office can assist them with specific federal agency issues, known as casework. Fortunately, most of the drafting of this content need only be done once, and should not require major updating unless office policies change. You can even copy another legislator’s award-winning content for your website. (But don’t make the mistake one Senate office did a few years ago: they copied the content but forgot to change the name of the state.)
The underlying principle in all of this is: include help, not hype. This was best demonstrated to us more than a decade ago. In 2001, as part of the CMF’s first comprehensive grading of congressional websites, we held a series of focus groups with citizens. Participants were shown several websites. One was slick, filled with photos, extolling the accomplishments of the member. The focus group participants wrote it off as being “like a campaign poster.” Then they were shown a “boring” website. It had few photos and a simple, almost amateurish, design. But this member had information on his public schedule, how he had voted on the issues before Congress and how constituents could get problems solved with the executive branch. Upon seeing the second legislator’s website, participants reacted positively. One participant even said, “I’d vote for that guy.” Building great websites do more than win awards — they win the trust and admiration of citizens.
Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.