Congressional Web sites improve

Congress Online Project 2003 report

Congressional office Web sites have significantly improved during the past year, according to a report released March 3 by the Congress Online Project.

The report, which evaluated 610 congressional Web sites, gave 50 percent of the sites an A or B grade, five times the number of high grades given last year. The report also recognized 75 sites with Congress Online Mouse Awards for outstanding usability and design.

"We found that Congress had turned the corner on the Information Age," said Kathy Goldschmidt, director of technology services for the Congressional Management Foundation. "At every step of the evaluation, we were impressed with what we saw. In a short amount of time, hundreds of congressional offices have come to view their Web site as an important tool."

The Congress Online Project was a two-year effort funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by The George Washington University and the Congressional Management Foundation. By outlining criteria for ideal Web sites, examining sites and grading them, the project was intended to improve communication between Congress and the public.

The project graded Web sites based on five criteria: audience, content, interactivity, usability and innovations.

In 2003, 12 percent of the sites received A grades, up from 2.5 percent last year, and 38 percent received B grades, five times as many as last year. Nearly 30 percent received a C, down 20 percent; and 25 percent received a D or F, down from 32 percent.

"As you can see, not all offices have embraced the Internet," Goldschmidt cautioned, referring to the slight decline in low grades.

Among the Mouse Awards, 16 sites received Gold Mouse Awards for an A-plus grade, 26 received Silver Mouse Awards for achieving an A and 33 sites won the first-ever Bronze Mouse Awards for an A-minus. Last year, Gold Awards were given to sites that received an A and Silver Awards were given to sites that earned a B-plus. The shift in award requirements reflects the dramatic improvement in sites.

One example of a Gold Mouse-winning Web site belongs to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). Carper's site was "geared more toward the constituents than most other sites," said report co-author Nicole Folk. For example, in addition to offering statewide news and resources, the site features a map that users can click to find local news and resources for each Delaware county. It also includes links to resources for areas of interest to parents, students and educators, senior citizens, and nonprofit groups seeking grants.

The report also outlined mistakes congressional offices are making with Web sites, such as seeing the site as an advertisement of the office, rather than an extension of it.

The Congressional Management Foundation will be offering briefings and training in the coming weeks to help congressional offices rebuild their sites.

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