Congress' Web development slow

Sen. Jeff Bingaman

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

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

But even a class dominated by dullards is bound to have a few bright scholars. The Congress Online Proj.ect found eight members worthy of its Gold Mouse Award and 13 more deserving of silver mice. Four committee sites and three leadership sites also received gold mice.

But that leaves 514 members' sites and dozens of committee and leadership sites that need remedial help, including sites belonging to members involved in information technology issues (see box).

The main problem is that congressional Web sites do not provide the 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 more useful information — such as voting records, facts about issues before Congress or help with constituents' problems.

Although legislative information changes daily, many congressional Web sites do not. "We saw many sites that had not been updated in several months or more," the Congress Online Project workers wrote.

And congressional sites are slow. Research shows that if Web users must wait more than 15 seconds for a page to load, most will go elsewhere. But half of congressional sites take more than 45 seconds to load, according to Kathy Goldschmidt, director of technology services at the Congressional Management Foundation.

The sites are bogged down by high-tech features, from pop-up menus to videos, she said.

So what makes a good Web site?

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

n Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) offers a poll on her site so constituents can say which issues Congress should tackle this year. Enabling such citizen participation in government is a key benefit of the Internet, Goldschmidt said.

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

n Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's (R-Texas) site serves as a portal with links to a variety of information and services. She also lets constituents submit "casework" information so her staff can help them solve problems with federal agencies.

n Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) provides information related to different regions of New Mexico. To get to it, visitors click on the appropriate region of a state map.

n Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former radio broadcaster, provides a new audio clip on his Web site each day. He also provides information on how to obtain grants, education loans and small business assistance. The best Web sites provide information and services that constituents want — information on issues and legislation, explanations of key votes and educational material about Congress, Goldschmidt said. But instead, most feature press releases, descriptions of members' accomplishments and photos of members at events, she said.

On a 4.0 scale, House Web sites received an average score of 1.67, Shapiro said. On average, Senators scored a little higher, earning a 2.12. But Senate committee sites scored worst of all, averaging 1.62.

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