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The Benefits of Transparency and Accountability in Online Communications | Commentary

The Internet continues to offer amazing opportunities for members of Congress and constituents to build relationships and communicate in a genuinely constructive way. When the Congressional Management Foundation surveyed congressional staff in 2010, 57 percent said email and the Internet have made members of Congress more “accountable” to their constituents — only 17 percent disagreed.

And yet we still see legislators who fail to embrace the potential of online technology to build trust in government. When the CMF last reviewed congressional websites in 2011, 44 percent of the members did not post how they voted on the floor and 40 percent did not list the bills they co-sponsored. The CMF is preparing for the next round of assessing online communications in Congress, a practice that started in 1998 with the publication of “Building Web Sites Constituents Will Use.” The results of our research will culminate in the announcement of the 113th Congress Gold Mouse Awards in early 2014, recognizing the best efforts by members of Congress and their staff to educate and build trust with constituents.

As members and staff seek to take advantage of online communications, they continue to struggle with the same fundamental forces that have nagged them for more than a decade: the value of using the Internet as a tool to promote member activities versus the benefits of using it to advance transparency and accountability in government. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but sometimes politicians slip too easily into “self-promotion” mode — which, ironically, often does not have the desired effect on constituents.

Constituents consistently report they would much rather see objective information coming from their elected officials. As part of our first round of congressional website evaluations, the CMF wanted to know what the public expected in online communications. We conducted eight focus groups to learn what citizens expected from their members of Congress, both online and offline.

At one session in Philadelphia, we watched constituents from behind a one-way mirror as they offered their opinions on congressional websites. The facilitator first showed participants a well-developed website, with lots of pictures of the legislator. It drew an “oh  . . .  hum” reaction. Then she showed a simple-looking site, with information on how the legislator voted, information on his position on several legislative issues, even some information on his schedule. The constituents spent much more time exploring this site, with one participant finally saying, “I’d vote for that guy.” (Historical note: The legislator with the flashy website is no longer in Congress; the one with the simple, yet informative, one is still serving.) During one meeting with another legislator about how to build better online communications, he said, “Oh, I get it — I need to think like a librarian, not a politician!”

Psychological behavioral research on building trust, and CMF research on online communications, clearly demonstrates that when politicians are less partisan, more transparent and open, they are more likely to build trust among constituents in government. (One CMF study even showed they’re more likely to vote for that legislator.)

As the CMF recalibrates the criteria for its Gold Mouse Awards and review of online communications, the dominant themes guiding us will be transparency and accountability in government. This is not only what the public wants, it’s what Congress needs to gain the public’s confidence.

We also recognize that the Internet has changed dramatically, especially with the advent and adoption of social media. So the CMF will be creating a new, separate set of awards for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This will allow members to emulate the best of their colleagues who are working to enhance communications, understanding and the relationships between citizens and Congress.

The CMF knows that Congress is capable of change and improvement. When we conducted the first round of website assessments, only 10 percent of Congress received an A or B grade. During the next round of assessments, after hundreds of meetings with legislators and staff, the percentage of As and Bs rose to 50 percent!

Those members who embrace the benefits of transparency and accountability in government do more than get a simple award, they are helping to rebuild trust in Congress — something we all know is direly needed in our democratic institutions.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.

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