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Hill Web Sites Lauded and Criticized

No writers strike is going to stop the unveiling of these awards.

The Congressional Management Foundation officially releases its “Gold Mouse Report” today, recognizing Member, committee and leadership offices that best use their Web sites as constituent communication tools.

About 17 percent of the Web sites earned an A in 2007, garnering a gold, silver or bronze mouse award from the nonprofit, nonpartisan group. But the report also found that the overall quality of Member Web sites continues to be disappointing — one-third of the 618 Congressional sites studied did not have a functional search engine, for example.

“We’re disappointed that there hasn’t been improvement en masse,” said Tim Hysom, CMF’s director of communication and technology services. “The connection hasn’t been made that having a Congressional Web site is a constituent service.”

CMF funded the study with a grant provided by the National Science Foundation and conducted it alongside the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the University of California at Riverside and Ohio State University. It is the fourth time that CMF has issued the review; similar reports were released in 2002, 2003 and 2006.

“It is clear that the Internet has played an important role in mobilizing and informing voters,” said David Lazer, director of Harvard’s Program on Networked Governance at the JFK school. “Most Members have not seized the day.”

It’s not all dire — the 2007 report does show some improvement from 2006, when only 14 percent of sites earned awards. But those that scored badly in the past continued to struggle.

About 63 percent of Member sites that received a D in 2006 got a D or slipped to an F in the 2007 report. Half of the sites that earned an F last year received the same grade this year.

But while most Members’ Web sites continue to lag, what did improve in the 110th Congress is encouraging, Hysom said.

Top-tier Web sites continued to do well, with 44 percent of the 2006 award winners earning another honor this year, and eight Member sites even scored higher than the highest-scoring sites last year.

Freshman Members did particularly well and 16 percent even earned an A.

Things are better in the Senate, where staffs generally are larger and have more resources to manage their Web sites than in the House, Hysom said. The most common letter grade given in the Senate was a B compared with a D in the House.

Party-wise, Democrats fared better than Republicans. Sixty-one percent of Democratic sites earned a grade of C or higher, compared with 55 percent of Republican sites. Those numbers show a big change from 2006, when GOPers had the edge.

“The biggest lesson, and the reason we highlighted the freshmen, is that it’s not rocket science,” Hysom said. “You can come in and in pretty short order develop a quality Web site.”

Members don’t need a bunch of blogs or video feeds, Hysom said (although those features add flash). Instead, Members should focus on uploading accurate, timely content in a well-organized format, he said.

The report shows that about 57 percent of Member Web sites lacked information about legislative issues with a particular local interest, which is arguably the No. 1 reason constituents visit Member sites to begin with.

Twenty-six percent of sites didn’t have links to sponsored or co-sponsored legislation, and of those that did, 23 percent did not reference the current Congressional session.

That is the type of information that can be managed without significant resources, Hysom said.

“It has to be a priority in the office,” he said. “Offices who have good Web sites often don’t think of the Web site as an afterthought.”

CMF officials spoke with staffers in Congressional offices that are the most frequently honored to provide tips for Members on how to create better Web sites, Hysom said. Everybody seemed to agree that the entire office must be involved for a Web site to function properly, he said.

“It’s really important for an office to have somebody from the top who understands the value of online communications, whether that’s the Member itself or a chief of staff,” Hysom said. “There really has to be leadership who is driving that.”

Gold award winner Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) does just that, according to Ryan James, his communications director.

“He’s a very big believer in using as many formats as possible to kind of get the word out,” James said. “He’s a real big proponent of using the Internet, because one of the benefits of it is that it is a direct link to the constituents.”

Boozman is frequently listed among the Members who send out the least amount of mailings because he has developed such a positive presence online, said James, who as communications chief is charged with managing the site.

The focus is clearly on constituents. There is a series of links under the heading “constituent services” in the upper-left corner of the site, a way to help Arkansans via the Web. CMF also honored the site for the amount of legislative content it features, from bills to Congressional Research Service reports to news releases.

All of that has led to “a distinct ramp-up” in people using Boozman’s site in the past several years, James said.

“Electronic is just a cheaper way to do it,” James said. “It can reach people who are truly interested.”

Other Members who earned gold awards were Reps. Tom Allen (D-Maine), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), Bud Cramer (D-Ala.), Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), Randy Forbes (R-Va.), Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), John Linder (R-Ga.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.).

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and John Thune (R-S.D.) all earned gold honors, as did the Web site of the House Republican Conference. The House Judiciary, Science and Technology, and Ways and Means committees, as well as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, and minority Environment and Public Works committees Web sites also earned gold honors.

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