Hill calls on Web experts

Audio files, video feeds, ever-changing content, chat rooms, e-mail — the variety of features available on the Internet are what make it such a powerful and enticing communications medium.

But examine a typical congressional Web site — say, one belonging to Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). There's no audio, no video, the most recent press release is from last November and the latest photos show the congresswoman posing with President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno when both were still in office.

Keeping the Web site up-to-date is a challenge, said Jerilyn Goodman, Baldwin's press secretary. "We're doing it internally, and we don't have enough staff. We have a million priorities, and we've been concentrating on other areas."

Click through some other lawmakers' Web sites and it soon becomes obvious that Baldwin's Web woes are widespread. But a recent revision in House regulations could change that by allowing members to hire outside companies to operate their Web pages.

First to take advantage of the rules change was Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who hired DotGov Communications to build and manage his site. The company includes former congressional staffers who understand Web technology and the content required for an effective political Web site.

First elected last fall, Matheson started from scratch assembling his congressional staff and office. Although he could have gotten the House Information Resource Center to create and run a Web page for free, his staff decided against it, said spokesman Jeff Merchant.

"We went outside because we felt we wanted something a little more user-friendly and something we could access more quickly," Merchant said. "We wanted to be able to get press releases up in a timely manner." That's not always possible with the resource center, he said.

Matheson turned to DotGov Communications because the company offers its services to House Democrats. Another Web design company, Pixel Head, offers similar services to House Republicans (see box). Others are eyeing the business as well.

Increasingly, the public expects the same sort of sophistication from congressional sites that it finds on commercial sites, said Reynold Schweickhardt, deputy staff director of the Committee on House Administration. Offering basic information and press releases is no longer adequate, but the demand for more sophisticated Web page features has exceeded the House's ability to provide them.

"We have a central staff that maintains Web pages, but it has limited capabilities," Schweickhardt said. Members who want more sophisticated Web sites will have to turn to outside vendors, he said.

DotGov president Adam Solomon said the company charges $4,995 to set up a basic Web site and $200 a month to keep it running. The fee is small compared to the cost of hiring a staff Webmaster, "but you're not just saving money, you're saving time," he said.

Pixel Head charges more upfront — $7,500 to $10,000 to create a Web site, said Aaron Luckette, the company's chief technology officer. But the monthly operating fee is just $100.

"We like the idea of being able to contract the work out," Merchant said. "We're not there to do cool Web site designs, we're there to do legislation."

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