Ranking of Congressional Websites Shows Iowa Has Some Work to Do
by Jennifer L. Crull
With today’s use of technology when we need to find something out, our first thought is to go check out the respective Website or “Google it.” So if that is how we do our research, then we would expect to find all the information we would need about our elected officials from their Websites. But as is the case with many Websites today, some Members of Congress have much better Websites than others. This newsletter is going to take a look at the evaluation of Congressional Websites and share some of the findings.
The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) has been evaluating congressional Websites since 1998. The goal of the evaluation is to provide Congress “with guidance on how to use this emerging technology to improve constituents’ communications with, and understanding of, the institution.” Over the past 12 to 13 years, the use of Websites has changed dramatically. In the late 90s, Websites were about telling people who you were and ways to get hold of you. This statement from the 2002 report sums up how Congressional Websites were being used by their respective offices:
(T)he large majority of congressional offices treat their Web sites as ancillary to their duties, rather than integral to them. They don’t see them as deserving priority attention and they devote minimal office time to them. They update them haphazardly or when time permits. They post content that highlights the activities and achievements of the Member rather than creating content specifically geared to meeting the needs of their audiences.
With the arrival of 2012, everything we know about the Internet has changed and with this it has changed the way we expect to interact with people through technology. We expect to get online and be able to find a Member’s schedule, see their voting record, know where they stand on the issues, see Facebook and Twitter links, and countless other features. With the cost of technology decreasing and the features increasing, our expectation of Websites has also increased. We expect that Websites should display lots of information, provide transparency, and enhance communications between the Member and citizens.
So what did the evaluation of the 112th Congress show about the use of online communications? The first major finding was that “the overall quality of congressional Websites improved” from 2009 to 2011. The most common grade for a congressional Website in 2011 was a B with 27% receiving that grade, unlike 2009 where the most common grade was a F. When the Websites were evaluated on four key matrices of Readability, Navigation, Issue Information, and Timeliness the average Member’s scores improved in all four categories from 2009 to 2011. Readability went from 3.43 to 3.94; Navigation increased from 3.51 to 3.57; Issue Information rose from 3.40 to 3.54; and Timeliness improved from 3.43 to 3.48, with all scores being on a 5.0 scale.
The review also revealed that “a significant number of Member Websites lack basic education and transparency features and content valuable to their constituents.” Common sense tells us that when you want to know where a Member stands on an issue, you would head to their Website for information about what their position is. If you can’t find it you would start to wonder what they were “hiding” from users. The review showed that 40 percent did not provide information about bills that the Member sponsored or cosponsored in the current session; 44 percent did not provide the Member’s voting record; 47 percent failed to provide information about how a bill becomes a law; and 67 percent did not provide guidance for communicating with the Member’s office.
A not too surprising finding was that House Members elected in 2010 had developed much better Websites in the first year of office compared to their Senate counterparts. Since House Members have to run for reelection every two years, they have to hit the ground running. Another not so surprising fact is that the use of social media has increased dramatically from 2009 to 2011. Links to Facebook pages have risen from 21 percent to 81 percent and links to Twitter accounts have jumped from 18 percent to 71 percent. Along with that is that frequency in updating information has also sharply increased.
After reading about the findings, let’s learn about the criteria for reviewing the Websites. Table One lists the criteria that the Members’ Websites were evaluated on, and it gives you an idea of what each category is trying to evaluate. When reviewing the report online you are able to see an award-winning example of each characteristic. For example, with the area of Information on Issues, the award-winning example is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Table Two lists the criteria for evaluating Committee or Leadership Websites. The report also shares the Websites that are award-winning for Committee or Leadership, as with the category of Innovation; the award-winning Committee example is the House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hasting (R-WA) and the award-winning Leadership example is the House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX).
Table Three shows the Platinum winner for the four categories of Senate Member, House Member, Committees, and Leadership. The Websites that are reported in this study are the Websites that earn Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze Awards. A Platinum is an A+ (#1 Site), Gold is A+, Silver is A, and Bronze is A-. The methodology does share that the most successful Websites follow these core principles:
- Know your audience.
- Provide timely and targeted content that meets their needs.
- Make the site easy to use.
- Foster interaction both on and offline.
- Add value through innovation.
In reviewing the Websites of the winners for the 112th Congress, it is sad to note that not one of the Members of the Iowa Delegation is listed. So we have to hope that they will work to improve that status before the next evaluation of Websites. I would encourage you to check out the different award-winning Websites and compare them to those of our Congressional Delegation.
So now that I have shared a little bit about the criteria to evaluate Congressional Websites, I hope that you will keep some of these principles in mind when you are visiting a Member’s Website. For technology has made us suspicious of the information we can’t find and question the information we do find. So with that, happy searching for voting records, schedules, Facebook links, and Twitter accounts to stay as up to date with all the Members of Congress that you want. “Happy Information Overload!”
 “112th Congress Gold Mouse Awards,” Congressional Management Foundation, p. 5, <http://www.congressfoundation.org/storage/documents/CMF_Pubs/cmf-112-gold-mouse-awards.pdf> accessed on December 19, 2011.
 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Ibid., p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid, pp. 24-30.
 Ibid, p. 31.
 Iowa Congressional Websites: http://loebsack.house.gov/; http://braley.house.gov/; http://boswell.house.gov/; http://www.tomlatham.house.gov/; http://steveking.house.gov/; http://harkin.senate.gov/; and http://www.grassley.senate.gov/ accessed on Dec. 28, 2011.