House, Senate Web Sites Make ‘Rapid’ Improvement

Posted February 28, 2003 at 6:14pm

Dozens of Members of Congress have moved to the top of their class — cyberclass, that is — according to the Congress Online Project, which today will release a new study showing tremendous progress over the past year in the quality and performance of lawmakers’ Web sites.

In an evaluation of the Web sites of 610 Member offices, committees and leadership offices, the Project awarded half of all Congressional Web sites an “A” or “B” — five times more than in 2002.

“I think there was trepidation for the first number of years that this was a foreign tool that presented more problems than benefits,” said Rick Shapiro, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which completed the study with George Washington University.

“In this last year, they really turned the corner. … Congress rarely changes quickly. This is a rapid change,” Shapiro said, explaining that many lawmakers apparently realized they could provide a great service to their constituents and increase office productivity by making their Web sites more useful.

The study — titled “In Congress Online 2003: Turning the Corner on the Information Age” and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts — also revealed some interesting trends among the parties and the two chambers.

In the House, Republicans continued to win more Web site awards — 22 of the 30 awards given there went to GOP Members — while in the Senate, Democrats took the edge. Of the 24 awards given to Senate offices, 17 went to Democratic Members.

In chamber-to-chamber comparisons, however, the study found that “House committee Web sites are dramatically outperforming Senate committee Web sites.” While 43 percent of House committees received an “A,” less than 8 percent of their Senate counterparts received similar high marks.

The study also points out that a “sizable number of Congressional offices continue to perform poorly, maintaining a wide disparity in the quality of Congressional Web sites.”

About 25 percent of sites received a “D” or “F” this year, down only slightly from the 32 percent that received such grades last year.

But for the most part, Shapiro said he’s encouraged by the progress in just one year.

“It’s making government a lot more accessible and building a lot more public trust in government. … They’re creating a whole avenue for people to not only learn about the process, but to get involved, weigh in, give their views,” Shapiro said.

The Coveted Golden Mouse

So what makes for the most effective virtual office?

According to the study, the best Web sites are those that clearly define their audiences and provide up-to-date information targeted to meet the audiences’ needs. They also give visitors an opportunity to interact with the offices, employ innovative features, and provide quick and easy access to information and services.

The less effective Web sites are more hung up on promoting the Members than meeting the legislative and informational needs of their constituents and may be missing online assistance with constituent services.

The Vermont delegation earned the highest grade-point average — 3.75 — with New Mexico as a runner-up at 3.25 and California ranking third at 3.18.

Among Congressional leadership, Republicans did better than their Democratic friends, managing to take all four of the Gold and Silver Mouse awards, which went to Web sites earning “A” grades.

Sen. Tom Carper (D) was praised for gearing his site toward his constituents in Delaware, making it a “one-stop virtual Congressional office.” The site includes a map of Delaware that breaks down local news and resources by county, as well as a section that highlights the achievements of state residents through photos and congratulatory postings.

Jenn Connell, Carper’s press secretary, called the site a “boon” to the Senator’s office that has helped “streamline” the communications process and casework.

The ‘Cyber-Senator’

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — who was the second Senator following Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to go online with a home page — is still getting high marks for his tech efforts.

“Each page seems more interesting and informative than the last,” one evaluator for the project said.

As Leahy spokesman David Carle noted: “He’s known as the ‘cyber-Senator.’ He’s a technophile, he has an avid interest in technology and the Internet and has always pushed for his office to use the maximum available technology to incorporate as many aspects of his work as possible in his home page.”

Important components of Leahy’s site include summaries of his key legislative priorities, detailed information about getting assistance and doing business in Vermont and descriptive links for his news releases and statements that allow visitors to quickly find what they need. Visitors also get to sample the Senator’s own artistic talents, since many of the photos on his Web site are photos he took himself.

Carle said the site — which averages 8,000 to 23,000 hits daily — is “continually updated and redesigned” to make it as useful as possible and at times the ease of simplicity has won out over gadgetry to ensure that everyone can get information quickly.

Other lawmakers have found their own innovative ways to promote their priorities and educate their audiences about their work.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) was singled out for his site’s “Education Resource Center,” a one-stop shop for information for students, families and teachers of all grades. Visitors can easily access information on everything from reading initiatives and programs for elementary and middle-school students to student loans, internships and scholarship opportunities.

Rebecca Kirszner, Fattah’s communications director and policy adviser, said her boss is actively involved in the evolution of his Web site and noted that today the office is going live with a new “Job Resource” section.

Kirszner said the site doesn’t just help Fattah communicate with his constituents, it also helps him in dealings with other Members.

“We’ve reaped the benefits of it too,” Kirszner explained. “We have a whole section of it devoted to his Student Bill of Rights legislation. When we’re trying to get other Members of Congress to sign on to our bill, we can send a link to our Web site. They can look at co-sponsors and read a summary of the legislation. It helps them to understand what this is all about.”

Rep. Kay Granger, a GOP Member from Texas, was singled out for taking a direct, straight-forward approach to her cyberpresence.

Her site lists the names and job responsibilities of all her staffers, and Congress Online praised her “efforts to address constituent concerns and problems online rather than pushing them off to another Web site or directing them off line.”

Golden Mouse Awards

The Congress Online Project gave Golden Mouse Awards to 16 offices and committees that earned “A+” grades for their Web sites.

House

Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)

John Boozman (R-Ark.)

Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.)

Kay Granger (R-Texas)

Melissa Hart (R-Pa.)

John Larson (D-Conn.)

Richard Pombo (R-Calif.)

George Radanovich (R-Calif.)

Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)

Nick Smith (R-Mich.)

Senate

Tom Carper (D-Del.)

Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Others

House Energy and Commerce Committee, majority

House Government Reform Committee, minority

House Republican Conference