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Social Media Innovations in Congress Add to Transparency and Accountability | Commentary

A member of Congress answering letters from constituents via YouTube, another staging a Facebook photo contest on the polluted waterways in his state and a senator candidly sharing on Twitter his recovery from a stroke. These were some of the outstanding practices which won the Congressional Management Foundation’s first Gold Mouse Awards for Social Media.

While we wish these examples were pervasive on Capitol Hill, we found in our yearlong research examining online communications in Congress, it was not. In the rush to take advantage of new communications tools, many members of Congress (and staff) have merely adapted old rules of communication to a new century. Websites are the new billboards. Facebook, the new delivery system for press releases, Twitter, just an updated version of bumper stickers.

In fact, social media on Capitol Hill right now look very much like congressional websites did in 2002: dominated by one-way messages promoting a politician or cause. While some legislators are creatively using social media to shine a light on their representational and legislative activities, most are not. Too few are using social media to build trust and understanding of Congress, and too many are employing 1960s-style “Mad Men” advertising strategies — repetitive and simplistic jargon wielded like a hammer to hit citizens on the head  . . .  over and over again.

The Internet has changed immeasurably since the CMF first started our research in 1999, but one fact remains: The practices that succeed are those that provide the most value to the users, not those that are primarily self-promoting. Jay Baer states in his best-selling book “Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is about Help not Hype,” “If you create marketing that people genuinely want, you can dispense with the ‘shock,’ ‘awe,’ and ‘viral’ and focus on solving problems, answering questions, and creating long-lasting customer relationships by doing so.” What this means to Congress is that websites and social media need to focus on being the most helpful possible sources of congressional information for constituents and stakeholders. The idea is to serve and, in doing so, to develop lasting online relationships. For Congress, this begins with accountability and transparency. The winners for the CMF Gold Mouse Awards for Social Media embody this principle. For example:

Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., creates weekly YouTube videos to answer constituent questions. This shows that great social media practices don’t need to be cutting edge, just grounded in the basics of representative democracy. He even answers questions from constituents who disagree with him.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., created real-time updates on Twitter during markup of immigration reform. For five days, Leahy (and staff) tweeted about the schedule; availability of webcasts, key documents and amendments; and other information to help citizens follow the debate.

The day before a scheduled hearing on Bitcoin in the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., queried participants in the bitcoin topic on Reddit and received a range of responses, many substantive, to which he referred during the hearing. This allowed Moran to hear directly from an active community who would be affected by legislation the committee considers.

Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., is the only member of Congress who has won an award from the CMF during every evaluation since the Gold Mouse Awards were founded in 2002. His social media efforts are worthy of emulation because of their comprehensive nature — sort of an Olympic Decathlon winner of online communications. He conducts outreach via paper and email inviting constituents to connect with him online and via social media. He uses telephone town halls integrated with Facebook to respond to constituent questions. He uses Eventbrite — a social-media-connected event management system — to organize in-person events in his district.

Using online communications tools to demonstrate transparency and accountability, as the winners of the Gold Mouse Awards for Social Media do, isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics. Americans need a responsive Congress online. The CMF recognizes this is a tall order to fill, but the members of Congress lauded in our latest report demonstrate it can be done. And the result is more than a few points in a higher approval rating for one legislator. The ultimate benefits are an enhanced democratic dialogue, a greater appreciation of public service, and a better functioning Congress.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation; Kathy Goldschmidt is the CMF director of strategic initiatives and has been studying congressional online communications since 1998.