The message is clear: Keep it simple

Forget the video clips, chat rooms, flashy graphics and videoconferencing. When it comes to congressional Internet sites, Web users are much more impressed by simplicity.

A study involving 80 Web users in cities across the country concludes that voters want clear, easy-to-use Web sites that tell how their representatives voted on key issues, what bills they have introduced, what committees they serve on and how citizens can access government services.

Constituents don't want "show-off Web sites" or self-promotion, said Dennis Johnson, who headed the study for the Congress Online Project. "We found out wherever we went that people don't want glitz." Instead, they want members of Congress "to be straight with them."

When shown several congressional Web sites, participants in focus groups invariably favored one that was "decidedly not flashy," but instead "had an almost amateurish feel to it," reported Johnson, a professor at George Washington University.

The finding was somewhat surprising because most of the Web users were familiar with sophisticated commercial Web sites, Johnson said.

What Web users most want from congressional Web sites is information on how their representatives have voted — an ingredient conspicuously absent from most congressional Web sites.

Other desired information: Status reports on key issues. Information on how to solve government-related problems. Phone numbers of district offices. Information on how a bill becomes law.

"They told us they wanted Web sites that are informative and unbiased, that contain information they can use, without any self-promotion," Johnson said.

A number of Web users in the study said they would like to see their congressperson's daily schedule posted on his or her Web site. Constituents seem to want assurance that their representatives in Washington, D.C., are not wasting time.

The study participants did not like seeing a lot of pictures of their representatives. "They criticized photos with legislators at rallies, surrounded by balloons and babies, or even holding press conferences on the steps of the Capitol," Johnson said.

During focus group sessions conducted last spring, the study participants "expressed broad dissatisfaction with Congress overall," Johnson wrote in findings released Oct. 30.

The 80 participants "criticized what they saw as extreme partisanship, policy gridlock, inefficiency, and excessive time spent campaigning for office."

In addition to knowing what their representatives are up to, the Web users want to be heard. "One feature that nearly all of the focus group participants liked was the chance to express their views through an online policy poll offered on a member's Web site," Johnson reported.

Members of Congress "have to learn how to explain themselves to the public online," said Phil Noble, a South Carolina-based consultant who creates political Web sites and operates PoliticsOnline.com.

"The job of a congressman is to represent his constituency and be their voice," and a critical element of that is "listening and communicating with people on street corner, in the barber shops and online," he said.

"We're all at beginning stages of this. No one knows what's the best way to do it," Noble said.

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