Honda Enlists Public in Web Design

Posted June 1, 2009 at 6:07pm

Like many Members of Congress, Rep. Mike Honda Tweets his day-to-day thoughts, posts hearings on YouTube and friends constituents on Facebook.

But the California Democrat recently took new media a step further than his colleagues, turning his Web site redesign into an open forum.

Honda hopes constituents and others will create a viable Web page through “crowdsourcing,— which allows anyone and everyone to submit designs. The winner gets a $1,000 contract.

“It’s entirely open to the public and anyone can do it, which is why we found it so compelling,— said Michael Shank, Honda’s spokesman. “We want to be on the cutting edge of transparency.—

Crowdsourcing is akin to the open sourcing found on such Web sites as Wikipedia, where the public writes the articles and helps police the content.

But in this case, it’s more controlled: Web site designers will upload templates to crowdspring.com that conform to certain parameters. Then Honda will pick the winning design, perhaps tweaking it to fit his needs.

Shank conceded the move is a gamble. No one has submitted anything in the five days since the proposal went up, and Honda risks getting a group of designs he doesn’t want.

But he’s one of several Members who are experimenting with the idea of letting constituents actively participate in certain office decisions. Honda is hoping the public’s feedback will mean a Web site built for them; others hope the concept will catch fire with policy decisions and individual pieces of legislation.

For example, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) once hosted live chats about ideas for broadband legislation on third-party political Web sites. More recently, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) used his Web site to gather input from economists opposed to President Barack Obama’s spending plan.

Others engage constituents using existing tools such as Twitter. Rather than just post one-way updates, Members such as Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) respond to comments on their day-to-day legislative activities.

Ab Emam, who runs a Web design company called GovTrends, said Honda is the first of his clients to solicit constituents on Web design. He’s employing a two-step process: Designers will submit templates by June 10, and constituents will be able to vote on their favorites.

Other Members are watching Honda’s experiment to see if a similar process would work for them, Emam said. Many are also asking about branching out into new directions to connect with constituents.

“A lot of offices ask, What new ways can we get constituents involved?’— said Emam, whose company manages Web sites for about 100 Members. “We’re in the process of building some really cool apps.—

One of those “apps— — or applications — is a system that would allow constituents to send in suggestions on district issues and then vote on those submissions. Emam hopes to offer it to clients in about a month.

Congressional offices are also getting ideas on constituent interaction and crowdsourcing from outside groups.

With publicmarkup.org, the Sunlight Foundation first developed a way to break down a piece of legislation and invite comments on each provision. So far, the nonprofit has opened up the Transparency in Government Act, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and a few other legislative proposals.

In essence, every provision of the bill is turned into a blog, said John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation. That’s far more involvement than constituents get on the typical bill, which is usually just posted on the Library of Congress’ Web site, THOMAS.

“It’s not necessarily Congress’ role to want to host a public debate about— legislation, Wonderlich said. But “individual Members have a role to play on top of how should THOMAS be better?’—

However, Members can only go so far with the technology they have. Asking for input from constituents is a popular idea, but handling all of that correspondence is difficult.

“Folks are very much into the idea, and this is definitely a goal. The issue right now is finding the right tool to effectively manage everything you receive from the public,— said Nick Schaper, Boehner’s new media director. “It’s one thing to say we’d like your ideas, and another thing to turn them around in a useful fashion.—

Tim Hysom, spokesman for the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, agrees. Congress, he said, has a long way to go before it can process the onslaught of constituent input.

Congressional offices are still struggling to handle constituent e-mail. Videos, blog comments and legislative input come with “problematic bridges we have yet to cross.—

“We know in our work with Congress that Congressional offices really want that citizen dialogue and that citizen feedback,— Hysom said. “The challenge with that is Congress isn’t set up in large-scale way to engage in that kind of action.—