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Technology Redefines Constituent Outreach

When former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) rose to power after the 1994 elections, the House had not yet fully grasped just how to use an emerging technology known as the Internet.

“It was incredible,” Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) recalled. “The system was so bad, it was easier to e-mail the Kremlin than e-mail a colleague down the corridor.”

But that has since changed. At Gingrich’s request, Ehlers oversaw the complicated transformation of the House’s technology infrastructure, setting up the chamber’s e-mail system and ensuring every Member had the option of posting a personal Web site.

By the time the Democrats gained control of Congress after the 2006 elections, it was difficult to imagine life on Capitol Hill without the Internet.

“There’s just sort of been a revolution really since 1994,” said Tim Hysom, director of communications and technology services for the Congressional Management Foundation.

Members and staffers spend much of their day researching legislation online, and constituents send far more e-mails than traditional letters to their Members. (Ehlers, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, estimated that there is a 5-to-1 ratio of e-mails to traditional letters received by Members; that ratio increases to 10-to-1 on hot-button issues.)

But in the past few years, Members have begun to use even newer forms of Internet communications to touch base with folks back home.

“They’re reaching out and holding individual chat sets [and] using blogs and other technologies on their Web sites to stay in touch with their constituents and put a more personal face with their offices online,” said Hysom, enumerating the more recent enhancements.

One common way for Members to let constituents know what is happening on Capitol Hill these days is through electronic newsletters, Ehlers noted.

That’s definitely a change from the 1990s. When Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) first came to Congress in 1993, she relied mostly on traditional newsletters to update constituents. While Maloney still sends newsletters out — noting that “not everyone prefers to get their information from the Internet” — she now typically uses e-mail updates.

“They are free and easier to send, so I can put them out every few weeks to constituents who want to know what I’ve been up to,” Maloney said.

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s electronic newsletter includes video from the Senator himself, according to spokeswoman Maria Najera.

“He’s definitely very much involved,” Najera noted, adding that Bingaman’s Web site features information on a range of local and national issues.

“It’s always changing,” she said. “We’re always adding to it and finding out ways to have things that are user-friendly, or are just useful, to offer more information.”

While technology helped move electronic communications forward in Congress, the anthrax attacks of 2001 really sped things along, experts said. Mail sent to Member offices can be delayed for up to a week to be checked out, Ehlers said, necessitating the use of a faster system.

“I think the word has gotten to the public,” Ehlers said. “We don’t get many letters.”

That’s not to say traditional mail is completely dead. When constituents send “snail mail” to their Members, most will send a mailed letter back.

“I respond to constituents however they choose to communicate with me,” Maloney said.

But using the Internet as a top way to communicate with constituents requires effort from a Member’s entire staff. Take the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Leahy has garnered the nickname “the cyber Senator,” and with good reason — he was among the first Members to blog. Today, Leahy staffers update the “More from the Floor” blog regularly to provide an inside perspective on Congressional happenings.

Leahy also hosts regular Web chats with students at schools throughout Vermont, posts audio and video clips, and provides an RSS feed. Among the pages with the highest hits on the Web site is a section-by-section analysis on the USA PATRIOT Act, first posted in 2001.

“What makes it successful is office participation in updating the content,” said Matt Payne-Funk, Leahy’s system administrator. “And the tools we are getting are better and better.”

While a group of three staffers handle the technical aspects of the site, the entire Leahy team contributes information to it, Payne-Funk said.

“Decentralization is the key,” spokesman David Carle noted. “Sen. Leahy invests authority in his staff to post new content to the site, and he trusts them to work with him in keeping it current.”

Staffers also work to keep Bingaman’s Web site updated, and Bingaman himself stays involved.

The Senator will post responses to hot-button issues on the “What You’re Asking” section on his site. Past topics range from national issues such as: “What are your views on our fiscal policy?” to local matters such as “Will the Ojito Wilderness continue to be protected?”

“We aren’t just trying to get our message across,” Najera said. “We’re also trying to take in theirs.”

Bingaman also recently added a podcast to his Web site, which garnered positive feedback, Najera said. But constituents most often go to the Web site to learn whom to contact to deal with bureaucratic issues, Najera said.

“People really appreciate that you can get on and learn how to contact the local offices if you have a problem with a federal agency,” Najera noted, adding that many constituents have used the site to figure out how to get their passports processed.

But while all Members are online, not all Web sites are created equal, as the nonpartisan CMF has noted.

In its 2006 Gold Mouse Report, the foundation concluded that in the 109th Congress, many offices did not make the grade when it came to Web presence. The CMF labeled 39 percent of Congressional Web sites as substandard or failing in categories such as content, usability and interactivity.

“Regardless of how rural or urban your district is, more and more Americans are going online to get their information,” Hysom said. “If a Member of Congress thinks they don’t have to do [a lot to] their Web site, I think they’d be really surprised.”

Hysom is hopeful things will improve when the 2007 report is released this winter, as the 2006 crop of freshmen should be more Web-savvy. But Members shouldn’t just follow trends to try to up the ante on their Web sites, Hysom said.

The most common place to go wrong is through a blog, he noted.

Blogs written by the Members themselves are “off the cuff and very informal,” he said. For example, many Members have blogged during visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, and “those are always extremely interesting to read,” Hysom said.

“They are sort of boots on the ground, not the usual perspective that you see,” he added.

But others aren’t as personal and can be dull, Hysom said. Many are run by staff members and basically are nothing more than a forum to post press releases.

Ehlers pointed to another problem blogs can pose.

“If you get ahead of the curve and jump on the issue and take a position before the issue has been defined, you might want to change it later down the line,” Ehlers said. “And that’s hard when you’ve been blogging about it.”

Still, it is clear Members must keep up with Web technology, as a new generation of Americans will expect to use the Internet as a primary source of information, Ehlers said.

Ehlers learned that firsthand while visiting elementary schools in his district.

“I don’t really have to say much about myself, because the teachers have already assigned them to look at my Web site,” Ehlers said.

And more than a decade after overseeing the overhaul of the House system, Ehlers has found an personal attachment to the Internet: “I just had my home computer in repair for a few days, and it was the strangest feeling.”

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