Group Says Web Sites Fall Short

Posted March 23, 2007 at 6:19pm

Ad hoc researchers recruited by an open-government advocacy group were unable to extract even rudimentary information from the Web sites of many Members of Congress such as legislation the Members had introduced or committees they served on, according a report being released today.

The report was compiled by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which recruited 300 “citizen journalists” to troll Congressional Web sites looking for 12 specific pieces of information, ranging from an e-mail address to contact the Member to copies of the personal financial disclosure reports that Members are required to file.

While nearly every office’s Web site offered an e-mail address or other contact form, not a single office posted the financial disclosure forms, Sunlight’s researchers found. Dozens of Members did not have links to the bills they sponsored; half of the Web sites did not provide copies of floor statements the Members had made; and more than 100 did not list the committees on which the Member serves.

The foundation also found no sites at all that provided copies of travel expense disclosures or information about franked mail and only a handful that provided information about people the Member had meetings with or earmarks that the Members has sponsored.

Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, admits freely that the report may not give Congressional offices credit for information that is on their Web site but difficult to find, since the people who were reviewing the sites were not professional investigators. For instance, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) gets a high score from the foundation for having routine information available as well as his personal calendar, but Craig is listed as not having his earmark requests available on the site. In fact, Craig does list the earmarks he has supported, but it is buried on the site.

Allison said that if the information is hard for an average constituent to find, it is not very useful to have it on the site.

Dan Whiting, Craig’s communications director, said “the Internet is a great way to make information available at little to no cost … there really is no excuse not to have a decent Web site.” Whiting said that the point of the Web site is that the Senator wants people in his state to know what he is doing, so the more information he can put out electronically, the easier it is for constituents to find out what he is working on. Whiting pointed out that Craig’s site lists earmarks he has supported going back 10 years, but he acknowledged that it may be hard to find on the site and suggested that the office might move it to make the information more accessible.

Some of the Members may score poorly for other reasons. For instance, the foundation points out that Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) does not post earmarks or franked mail on his Web site. But Flake spokesman Matthew Specht explained that Flake is ideologically opposed to earmarks and franked mail, and he doesn’t generate any, so there would be nothing to report on the site. Nevertheless, Flake’s site also does not list bills the Congressman has sponsored or statements he has made.

“We’d like our Web site to be as useful as possible, so this report is helpful.” Specht said. “I’m sure we’ll incorporate some of these ideas into our Web site.”

In late February, the Congressional Management Foundation did a more detailed analysis of Congressional Web sites but reached many of the same conclusions. In its report, the foundation concluded that “overall, the quality of congressional Web sites is disappointing.”

The foundation found that nearly half of the Congressional sites did not have usable search engines, 41 percent did not have links to legislation that the Member had co-sponsored, and overall, the most common grade for a Member Web site in the foundation’s study was a D.

Allison said the whole point of Congressional Web sites should be to give constituents the ability to keep tabs on their elected officials. One of the citizen investigators recruited by the Sunlight Foundation reported spending 58 minutes on a single Web site looking for the answers to the 12 questions, which is more time than a visitor should have to spend looking for public information from a Congressional office, he said.

“There are some things that clearly nobody is putting up that they may want to think about putting up,” he said, such as financial disclosure and travel documents. “If the idea is that disclosure keeps them honest, the point should be to make the information more readily available.”