Few Congressional Web Sites Make the Grade

Posted February 23, 2007 at 6:45pm

The Senate is more Web savvy than the House, and Republicans are superior to Democrats when it comes to maintaining their Congressional sites — but, overall, the legislative branch is performing poorly, according to a report scheduled to be released today by the Congressional Management Foundation.

Working with experts from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the University of California at Riverside and Ohio State University, the CMF studied 615 Congressional Web sites from April to August 2006. Only 85 sites — 14 percent — received an “A” compared with nearly 40 percent that received a “D” or “F” ranking.

The results show little improvement from 2003, the last time the foundation handed out similar awards, said Tim Hysom, the group’s assistant director for communication and technology services.

“We’re a little disappointed in what we found,” Hysom said. “We would have hoped that in the meantime we would have seen Congressional Web sites escalate in the way that private industry, and even other government Web sites, have.”

The CMF, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that analyzes ways Congressional offices can be more efficient, has handed out the awards three times — 2002, 2003 and the current study, which looks at Member, committee and leadership Web sites in the 109th Congress. (Thus, many of the recipients have since left office, and freshman Members of the 110th were not included in the study.)

Past Gold Mouse winners fared particularly well this time around, as more than half of this year’s best have won an award before.

The study ranks Web sites in five key areas: audience, content, usability, interactivity and innovation, which the CMF labels as the building blocks in Web site creation. Above all, offices that knew who their constituents are fared the best, Hysom said.

“They’ve clearly identified their audiences and who is visiting their Web sites,” he said.

Researchers had thought geographic statistics would play into the results (some districts are more tech-savvy than others, for example) but that didn’t turn out to be the case, Hysom said.

“It didn’t matter whether your district was rural or urban, or the education level,” Hysom added.

The awards are broken done into three categories: gold, silver and bronze. Gold winners received an “A+” mark, while silver received an “A” and bronze an “A-.” Only 18 gold awards were handed out, compared with 27 silver and 40 bronze marks.

There are some interesting statistical findings in the report.

Researchers found a correlation between Web site grades and performance in the 2006 elections. Members who received less than 50 percent of the vote in the election had the highest percent of Web sites with an “F” rating. Oddly, those who received more than 55 percent of the vote had the highest percentage of “D” ratings.

Senate sites earned 8 percent more “A’s” and “B’s” than House sites. But the Senate also had more “F’s” than the House — 18 percent compared with 12 percent. And while Member Web sites in the Senate fared better, House committees had higher marks.

As for the breakdown by party, Republicans fared far better than their Democratic colleagues. GOPers had 136 “A” or “B” rankings, compared with just 95 for Democrats. Republicans also had 6 percent more “C’s” and 10 percent fewer “D’s” and “F’s” than the Democrats. The gap between the parties particularly is pronounced in the Senate, as Republicans earned 10 percent more “A’s” and 15 percent more “B’s.” Republican committee sites also scored better.

But in the House, the proportions were fairly even, and while Republicans earned more awards overall, Democrats earned more gold awards — 11 compared with seven for the GOP.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is one of three Members to win a Gold Mouse Award all three times it has been given out, along with Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Honda — who represents a district in California’s tech-savvy Silicon Valley — offers a variety of extensive services for his constituents on his site, according to the report. In addition to regularly updating the site, he provides a number of extras, from podcasts to e-mail updates to a Google search.

“My entire staff contributes to provide constituents timely information on my legislative efforts, constituent services, as well as a list of district nonprofit and government resources,” Honda said. “Because my district is so diverse, we provide information in several languages, including a Spanish newsletter. As the constituents of California’s 15th Congressional district continue to lead America with their high-tech innovations, I will continue working to reflect that innovative spirit in my work in Congress.”

Leahy excels on the Web because he clearly knows his audience, according to the report. He posts a range of targeted information and tries to reach constituents in various ways, from fancy methods such as online chats, podcasts, video and audio clips to maintaining a simple layout, the report reads.

“Al Gore may have been aiming for an Oscar this weekend, but I’ll settle for a Gold Mouse,” said Leahy, the second Senator to start a Web site and the first to blog.

It is interesting to note that Leahy is the only Senator who received a gold award (out of three) who is still serving in the chamber.

Republican Sens. Bill Frist (Tenn.) retired at the end of the 109th Congress, and Rick Santorum (Pa.) was not re-elected.

“Because of the timing of the release, a number of our winners are no longer serving in their respective chambers,” Hysom said.

On the House side, 10 of the 11 gold winners remain in office. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), honored with a gold award for the first time, died two weeks ago following a battle with lung cancer.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said the awards are important because “constituents deserve both a personal and virtual connection with their elected representatives.”

“I consider my Web site an extension of my office, where constituents have access not only to the information they need, but a direct line to my staff and to me,” Becerra said.

Fellow recipient Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) also said he was honored.

“With more and more people connected to the Internet, I recognized early on that my site needed to provide my constituents with information that would be easy to find, relevant and pertinent,” he said.

In coming months, CMF researchers plan to begin a study of Web sites in the 110th Congress. The organization is hopeful that this year’s study — along with an influx of possibly more tech-savvy freshmen — will push Congressional offices to up-the-ante on the Web, Hysom said.