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Judging of House, Senate Web Sites to Start in June

Two years ago, most Members had lackluster Web sites that were hard to navigate, short on information and months out of date.

Since then, new media has swept the Hill, prompting lawmakers to start their own Twitter accounts, display YouTube videos and join social networking sites like Facebook.

But have their Web sites improved during the same time, and are they helpful to constituents?

The nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation hopes to answer those questions by evaluating all 618 House and Senate Web sites, spending close to an hour on each one. Each site will be given grades ranging from A+ to F, accompanied by a personalized report with a set of recommendations.

Officials plan to begin evaluations by the end of June and finish the report by the end of the year. The last time they studied the Web sites was 2007, and the average grade was a D.

“The goal of the entire project is to give Congressional offices a benchmark for what a good Congressional Web site looks like,— CMF spokesman Tim Hysom said. “Just because a Member might be Twittering doesn’t mean they’re using the tool the way it was intended or to its full potential.—

The CMF has produced the report on and off since 2002, sparking competition between offices by handing out Gold Mouse awards to the best Web sites. The winning Web sites excel in legislative content, constituent services, timeliness and usability.

In the past, the organization has described the results as “disappointing.— In 2007, for example, only 17 percent of the Web sites received an A, and one-third of the sites didn’t have a functional search engine.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) was one of the exceptions, earning a Gold Mouse award every year that the report has come out. His staff constantly updates his Web site, adding links to legislation, updates on policy issues and videos of Honda speaking at hearings and on the House floor.

Ahmed Bhadelia, Honda’s online media director, said the Web site’s layout hasn’t changed in years, keeping a simple format that is easy to use. But the office is in the middle of planning for a redesign that will allow more constituent interaction.

“I think that’s something that’s really starting to take off right now — involving constituents in the process,— he said.

Indeed, Capitol Hill has come a long way in the last few years.

Last fall, for example, the surge in Members using YouTube forced Senate and House officials to change outdated rules that prohibited them from posting such third-party videos on their Web sites.

Democratic and Republican leaders have also begun to push Members to be more Web-savvy, hiring staffers who specifically handle new media issues. In the House, the Chief Administrative Officer offers new Members a design template so they can have a running Web site on their first day.

Many Members’ Web sites now look polished and professional. To stand out, more and more are hiring companies that specialize in Web site design and content management systems for Congressional offices.

But that doesn’t mean those Web sites will receive high scores from the CMF. In past reports, CMF officials have stressed the need for up-to-date information such as currently sponsored legislation — a feature that is often either absent or hopelessly buried.

Blogs, Twitter links and videos, on the other hand, are weighed less heavily, Hysom said.

“We’re not evaluating Web sites based on the underlying technology,— he said. “We’re really looking from the constituent’s viewpoint.—

A handful of evaluators spend months studying the Web sites, making it a long and costly endeavor. Hysom estimated that the whole effort costs about $150,000, and the organization hasn’t yet secured all the funding.

The CMF is still pushing ahead as planned and will “re-evaluate— the project if sufficient funding isn’t found in time, Hysom said.

In the meantime, Congressional offices are preparing for the judges.

Sara Lasure, spokeswoman for Rep. John Boozman, said she first began working for the Arkansas Republican in the days after his office won a 2007 Gold Mouse award. The pressure is on, she said, to match her predecessor’s accomplishment.

The office used the CMF’s 2007 recommendations to improve the site, making it more user-friendly and adding extras such as an RSS feed. The site also has a record of Boozman’s votes placed prominently on the homepage.

But the most popular parts of the Web site remain the blog, the news section and the photo gallery, Lasure said.

“We use ours as a 24-hour office,— she said. “If we can’t answer the phone, a constituent can go to the Web site.—

Like many Members, Boozman has also opened accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, including links to them on his official Web site.

Such integration will be a major topic in the CMF’s next report, Hysom said.

“There will be significant discussion in the new report on how Members are using new media,— he said. “There really is this almost palpable sense on the Hill that Members need to be using these tools and using them well.—

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