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Online Services Improving, But It’s Still No e-Congress

Ten years have passed since Congress took its first halting steps into cyberspace. Led at first by a few forward-thinking Members of Congress and some tech-savvy staff, online access to Congressional offices has become an invaluable tool in the daily operations of the legislative branch.

Now, most Members have a Web presence, but as a pair of recent reports demonstrates, there is much room for improvement.

This week, the Congressional Management Foundation released its annual review of Congressional Web sites. It revealed that such sites are improving, with privacy, usability and accessibility among the primary considerations. But the report also concluded that most sites still fail to fulfill the promise of online constituent communications.

For example, while nearly every office maintains a Web site, only about a third of the sites feature regularly updated content. Similarly, while Congressional offices receive tens of thousands of letters and questions online each year, only a handful of offices make the effort to respond directly via e-mail or send e-newsletters offering updates.

Hurdles to improvement include the high staff turnover rate that is typical in Congress, particularly among technically skilled staff. Constituents share part of the blame as well — their spamming clogs inboxes and makes it difficult for offices to respond individually.

And, not surprisingly, Congress’ own regulations offer roadblocks. For example, there is a rule prohibiting Senators from adding any new content to their Web sites for a two-month period preceding a primary or general election in which they are candidates.

And a report by the Project on Government Oversight points out another instance in which antiquated restrictions hamper online access to vital information. In this case, the Congressional Research Service, which prepares reports for Members and their staffs, is restricted from providing information to the public.

Members are free to redistribute CRS products as they see fit, but previous efforts by some to do so through their own sites, and legislative efforts to allow public access to CRS, have fallen short.

None of these hurdles is insurmountable. Rules and practices can be changed, technology can provide new solutions and cybercitizens can learn better ways to use the Internet. The technology exists for all of these changes to occur. What is lacking is a commitment on behalf of the majority of Members to act on some simple strategies to enhance the constituent-to-Representative relationship online. So what can they do to change?

First, Members must move beyond static sites and develop interactive environments. They should work to understand what interests constituents most and make an effort to construct sites that reflect those priorities.

Second, Members must recognize the value of interacting directly with constituents through outbound e-mail. In addition to building better mailing lists, Members should work to improve their overall correspondence management systems to deliver focused, timely information.

Finally, Member sites need to facilitate a stronger connection between technology and traditional lawmaking. For starters, all Members could provide live coverage of their floor speeches and committee hearings, and constituents could be given the opportunity to offer testimony or feedback on specific legislation.

Recent years have seen attacks against Congress by a mad gunman and anthrax-laden mail. Regrettably, these events have led to increased physical security and the creation of barriers limiting constituent interaction with lawmakers. Improved access to Congress via the Internet, including direct connections to all Members and their staffs, can and will encourage more Americans to learn about and participate in their government in ways not previously possible.

The future success of such improved access depends not only on the will of Congress to develop these technologies, but also on the citizenry to embrace it.

Chris Casey and Brian Reich provide Internet consulting services to Democratic candidates, office holders, party committees, PACs and other organizations.

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