Few Web gems found in Congress

Congress Online Project

Their Web sites are slow, the content isn't helpful and they're often not up to date.

That means members of Congress didn't do very well on a new Web site report card. On average, congressional Web sites received a C-minus when an Internet research group issued grades Jan. 28.

Nevertheless, the Congress Online Project did manage to find eight bright scholars worthy of its Gold Mouse Award and 13 more deserving of its Silver Mouse Award. Four committee sites and three leadership sites also received gold mice.

That leaves 514 members' sites and dozens of committee and leadership sites that need remedial help.

The main problem is that congressional Web sites do not provide information Web site users want, said Richard Shapiro, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which oversees the Congress Online Project with George Washington University.

Members' sites, for example, tend to "promote the boss" rather than provide useful information such as voting records, information on issues before Congress and help solving problems such as tracking down late Social Security checks.

Although legislative information changes daily, many congressional Web sites do not. "During our evaluation, we saw many sites that had not been updated in several months or more," the Congress Online Project reported.

And congressional sites are slow. Internet research shows that if users have to wait more than 10 to 15 seconds for a page to load, most will go elsewhere. But half of congressional sites take more than 45 seconds to load, said Kathy Goldschmidt, director of technology services at the Congressional Management Foundation. The sites are overloaded with high-tech features, from pop-up menus to videos, she said.

The best Web sites are those designed to provide information and services constituents want, Goldschmidt said. Web sites should offer information on issues and legislation, explanations of key votes and educational material about Congress. Instead, most congressional sites feature press releases, descriptions of members' accomplishments and photos of members at events, she said.

So what makes a good Web site? Here are examples from a few Gold Mouse winners:

* Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has included links on his Web site to government agencies that provide 11 common constituent services, such as applying for a student loan and solving a military medical insurance problem.

* Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) includes a poll on her site that lets constituents say what the top issues coming before Congress this year should be. She also offers to send e-mail newsletters. Granger's site was deemed the "most interactive" congressional site. Enabling such citizen participation in government is a key benefit of the Internet, Goldschmidt said.

* Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) includes a search box for looking up legislation, useful links to universities and government agencies, and information about how Congress operates. Honda also offers e-mail newsletters on 14 subjects.

* Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) provides a site that serves as a portal with links to a wide range of information and services, including a page for submitting "casework" information so Hutchison's staff can help solve problems constituents are having with federal agencies.

On a 4.0 scale, House Web sites were awarded an average score of 1.67, Shapiro said. On average, Senators scored a little higher, earning a 2.12. Republicans fared better in the House, and Democrats prevailed in the Senate. Senate committee sites scored worst of all, 1.62.

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