FEC site emphasizes information, not presentation

Campaign fund-raising has kicked into full gear with the passing of Labor Day, and the Federal Election Commission is doing its best to get information on election spending out on its World Wide Web site.

The FEC site, www.fec.gov, provides all campaign reports on political action committee (PAC) contributions and fund-raising as well as spending reports from candidates and party committees. It also includes tips on how to file reports, information on the contents of the reports, instructions on how to register to vote and information on past elections.

The site provides a lot of useful information, but it was designed entirely in-house, and it shows. Each office within the commission put together, designed and in many cases wrote the Hypertext Mark-up Language code for their sections on the site, according to the FEC. This helps ensure that the correct information is available, but the result is a site with a lot of good information that easily can get lost through lack of presentation.

The FEC has acknowledged the problem and is calling in an outside expert to help. "We're going to have someone come in and talk to us about design issues," said Bob Biersack, supervisory statistician for the Data Systems Development Division at the FEC.

However, that does not mean that the mostly text site will turn into a flashy, 3-D graphics bonanza. "Our job is to present [information] to people in ways they can use it; it doesn't need to sing and dance," Biersack said.

The main page provides seven links to the sections within the site. The last one, View Contributions and Financial Reports Filed by Presidential and House Campaigns, Parties and PACs, leads to the report-viewing options.

Once on the Campaign Finance Reports and Data page, the Imaging System link provides links to search through the scanned-in reports from the 1995-96 and 1997-98 elections. The reports themselves are available only through a search engine, not an index, so users must know exactly what they want to find.

The basic search engine allows users to search for reports by individual contributor, committee and candidate. The advanced search capability, available as a link off each basic search page— one each for individual, committee and candidate— allows users to search by more general information, such as state, amount and party affiliation, and is more helpful.

The Electronic Filings option on the Campaign Finance Reports and Data page provides the reports that have been electronically filed so far this year. These reports are available in a list organized by committee name and date filed.

For the most part, the reports are set up in table format— an easy way to read the financial information. Unfortunately, the FEC is working with a system that is not very compatible with a graphically oriented medium such as the Web, but the FEC is now looking at moving that data to a more modern system. "We've got 25 years of legacy data that's stored on a system designed for [Digital Equipment Corp.'s] VAX, and the conversion process isn't going to be easy," Biersack said.

The FEC also is working to expand the query section of the Reports pages. Because the current search engine brings back only specific information, users have no way to find out how a campaign is going overall, Biersack said. The titles of each of the other six sections off the main page are well-chosen and very descriptive, but it can be difficult to get from one link to another once you are in a section.

The Citizens Guide to Contributions and the Law and Help for Candidates, Parties and PACs sections use frames, with the menu for the main page on the left and the links laid out on the right. They are both easy to get around and always have links back to the previous pages in addition to the main seven links from the front.

The rest of the main sections— Using FEC Services, Financial Information About Candidates, Parties and PACs, About Elections and Voting, and News Releases and Media Advisories— do very little to help getting around the site. The main pages in each section have only a Back to Home Page link at the bottom instead of a full menu, therefore requiring a lot of clicking on Back on your browser. The About Elections and Voting page does not even have a link back to the main page.

The Web site design consultant will not only be helping the FEC improve how the page looks, but also how it is organized and presented, Biersack said. The original design "is what we thought was logical when we first put it together," he said. "But our basic goal is making sure we deliver useful information to people."

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