Congress’ Web Sites Garner Praise, Pans

Gold Mouse Awards Handed to 135 Sites

Posted April 21, 2010 at 6:08pm

Despite strides in the use of technology, many Members’ Web sites still don’t incorporate basic features, a new report on the growing digital divide in Congress notes.

Gold Mouse Awards went to 135 Member, committee or leadership sites Wednesday night from the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that encourages better administrative practices on the Hill. But at the same time, the group released a report grading all 620 Web sites, with 137 sites receiving an F.

“It’s both encouraging and a little disheartening,” said Tim Hysom, the foundation’s director of communications and technology services. “You have a disproportionate number of offices who aren’t putting as much time and energy into their Web sites.”

Since the last evaluation in 2007, more sites incorporate video and RSS feeds and post basic information about Congress, such as hearing schedules, how a bill becomes a law and frequently asked questions. But 20 percent of the sites don’t even have a functioning search engine, the report showed. And most don’t have guidance of how to communicate with an office or links to social media profiles.

“Our guidance to offices is not to feel pressure that they have to be blogging and tweeting and posting to Facebook,” Hysom said, “but choose social network tools that fit the personality of the district … that fit the needs of constituents.”

The group did not name sites that did not receive an A grade, but Hysom said the group gave staffers in each office a 10-page report card with their letter grade and ranking in their chamber and in their party.

“It’s a good-natured Member competition that drives innovation,” Hysom said. “We’ve learned in our 33-plus years working with Members of Congress that one of the best ways to spur innovation on the Hill is to highlight best practices.”

The report also showed that the number of award-winning leadership sites nearly doubled, Senate sites scored better overall than House sites, and Republicans’ sites scored better overall. But Democrats had more winning sites.

The group handed out gold, silver and bronze honors at a ceremony Wednesday night and gave out four Platinum Mouse Awards, one to each top site among House, Senate, committee and leadership sites.

Hysom said the top sites are content-heavy, timely, constantly updated and use different formats to deliver information.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) took home the top House nod — even though he has since redesigned his Web site. But he said it incorporates the same philosophy.

“I designed my site as a gateway to Washington for my constituents,” Israel said. “I view it as my constituents’ first impression of Washington, and we design it so that they leave it with the impression that it’s informative and transparent.”

He embeds video all over the site, links to his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube profiles and has a robust constituent services section and a “sunshine corner,” where he posts financial disclosures, appropriations requests and his voting record.

“We try to be topical. We try to make it visually interesting,” Israel said. “We like to use all the tools in the toolbox. You can’t just use one and expect it to convey a message.”

The House Science and Technology Committee, which took home the top committee honor, takes a different approach, Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said.

“We don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but rather it’s a lot of in-depth content,” Gordon said. He said they take pride in “having in-depth material, being prompt in getting it up and being consistent in the format so it’s easy to use.”

On the committee site, visitors can track research and development funding and link to live RSS feeds, among other things., the House Republican Conference site, was awarded the Platinum Mouse in the leadership category. Visitors can find every conference member’s voting record, active blogging and an application programming interface, which means users can log in and take code to embed content in their own sites.

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said in a statement: “ belongs to every member of the House Republican Conference and it is the high quality work of our members and our staffs that makes the site what it is.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) won the Senate award. She was not available for comment.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) won a silver award, which was significant in that he is now the only Member who has won an award every year, though not surprising since his district includes Silicon Valley. He said it’s important to constantly reinvent the site to keep it fresh and to keep people engaged through honest communication.

“It’s a values system that we’ve established in my office, and it’s really internalized by every member of the staff. They all have to stay on top of what I do and what I say and what we produce in terms of issues,” he said. “All that technology is out there. It’s how you put it together and use it and the value system that you surround yourself with. That’s what’s important.”