High-Tech Challenges

Book Explores Congress’ Use of Electronic Communication

Posted June 14, 2004 at 2:09pm

In “Congress Online: Bridging the Gap Between Citizens and Their Representatives,” Capitol Hill veteran and former political consultant Dennis Johnson seeks to explain what appears to be obvious. Everyone knows that the advent of online communication has forever changed the face of representative government, but the question is how have Members of Congress responded to these new technologies, and how could they do a better job?

Exploring topics that range from the rise of electronic advocacy in grassroots campaigns to the protocol for handling e-mail in Congressional offices, “Congress Online” is the result of two-and-a-half years of research conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation and George Washington University.

An associate dean and professor of the GWU Graduate School of Political Management, Johnson said he was asked by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funded the project, to conduct an analysis of the opportunities and challenges facing Congress and other levels of government in reaping the full benefits of the Internet.

“Pew was trying to figure out: Is there a better way for Congress to communicate with the people?” he explained. “This is the first major study of Congress and how it copes with the challenge of online communications.”

Johnson’s analysis is illustrated with numerous anecdotes and tables, as well as an appendix that includes the full list of the Congress Online Project’s awards for best Congressional Web sites.

The book is divided into three sections: a look at how citizens and advocacy groups have used the Internet and e-mail to further their objectives; an analysis of how Congress has responded to online innovations; and a discussion of the prospects for “online democracy” and how to overcome the “digital divide.”

After a brief history of the early-1990s push to put Congressional resources online, Johnson points out that it is now easier — not to mention inexpensive — for advocacy groups to respond quickly to legislative action by mobilizing supporters through newsletters, e-mails and message boards. As a result, the instantaneousness of electronic advocacy has created a new breed of citizens that Johnson terms the “five-minute activist.”

“Most people are out there just living their normal lives. But once in a while, there’s going to be something they’re really interested in or irritated about,” he said. “What is so valuable about having Web sites now is the transparency — you can find stuff that previously you could only find in Washington.”

Adelaide Elm, a senior adviser and board member for Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan group dedicated to providing unbiased information on candidates’ backgrounds and issue positions, agreed.

The Internet “allows the average citizen to be their own sleuth,” Elm said. “It has allowed us to reach a worldwide audience. But it has also allowed us to present an enormous amount of data and organize it.”

But while increased accessibility has its benefits, Johnson warned that the pressure for transparency could result in more business being conducted off the record. “It’s probably going to force more things behind doors. You’re never going to get away from secrecy and the need for confidentiality.”

When it comes to harnessing the potential of online communication, Johnson says lawmakers are a step behind the public. He identifies the ability to separate the important e-mails from those that are less important or relevant as one of the most significant challenges facing Congressional offices. According to data from the Congress Online Project, Senators received an average of 880 messages per day in 2001, while Representatives received 538.

Can offices really process all this e-mail? “Yeah, they can process it,” said Johnson, who stressed the effectiveness of filtering systems — which 66 Senators and 225 Representatives now use — that either sort by keyword or require senders to enter their ZIP codes. However, “Most offices don’t use the full potential of the software,” he said, citing insufficient technological training. He added that it is legitimate for an office to display a notice on a Member’s Web site informing the public of their limited resources and inability to respond to all e-mails.

The book also discusses the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, which spiked the number of e-mails received, as well as the impact of the anthrax scare which marked the beginning of off-site irradiation for postal mail.

But while e-mail might be the cheapest and quickest form of communication, there is some debate over its effectiveness. At least one anonymous staffer interviewed by Johnson said lawmakers were more likely to take an old-fashioned letter more seriously than an e-mail on the same topic.

“Members will probably see snail mail as more legitimate,” he said. “But from a staffer’s point of view, it’s the originality of the piece — is this a genuine e-mail from someone who needs help or an electronic advocacy group who’s going to send you 10,000 of these?”

Regardless, Johnson said he is confident that e-mails do make a difference, suggesting that offices most likely keep an informal poll of how many messages they receive in support of one side of an issue.

One of the largest portions of the book is dedicated to Congressional Web sites, including an in-depth dissection of site content, user-friendliness and constituent expectations.

“We were the first ones to go out and ask real people what they would like to see on Web sites,” Johnson said of the Congress Online Project research team, which conducted interviews in Philadelphia, Pa., Phoenix, Ariz., Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. He added that most lawmakers interviewed by the team said they neglected to consult their constituents when designing sites.

So what do people want to see on a Congressional Web site? “They wanted to know what their Member was doing, what a typical day was like,” Johnson said. “You had a very cynical attitude out there that [Members] were just goofing off.” The study also concluded that people did not want to see flashy or insincere photo ops of their Representative, he added. “People just did not appreciate those things.”

Researchers also spent a good deal of time comparing sites, ranking the most common Web site elements — contact information, biographies, photos — with features seldomly seen on Congressional sites, such as bilingual versions, daily schedules and vote explanations. In addition, Johnson includes the Congress Online Project’s suggestions for Best Management Practices.

“One of the really nice things about this project is that the Web sites of the Members have improved so substantially over the past two-and-a-half years,” he said. “Virtually half of the Members have really outstanding sites.”

As to why some Members have better sites than others, Johnson offered: “The Member has to be committed to it. If the Member is committed, that means everyone else is committed.”

Throughout the book, Johnson discusses past and ongoing efforts to improve Congressional use of technology, including the debate over the creation of a federal Chief Information Officer and the founding of the Internet Caucus in 1996. He also weighs the possibility of “E-Democracy,” in which Representatives could one day be considered obsolete middlemen.

“I think it would be a tragedy to cut out Members of Congress from any kind of legislative discussion,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for. For good or bad, they are the ones who represent us.”