Despite Standouts, New CMF Study Reveals Growing Digital Divide in Congress
The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) bestowed four Congressional member offices with Platinum Awards—the highest honor for its annual Gold Mouse Awards, which recognizes the best Web sites on Capitol Hill. The awards were released as part of CMF’s “Partnership for a More Perfect Union,” a report that found an increasing “digital divide” in the quality of Web sites on Capitol Hill with an almost equal number of sites scoring either an “A” or an “F.”
The 111th Congress Gold Mouse Project evaluated 620 congressional Web sites, including those of all Senate and House Members and Delegates, committees (both majority and minority sites), and official leadership sites, and selected 131 offices for a Gold, Silver or Bronze Mouse Award. From these, CMF chose four offices for the highest honor—a Platinum Mouse Award. Presented at a first ever gala held at the Willard Hotel in DC, CMF presented these new awards to: Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY)—top House; Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—top Senate; House Republican Conference, Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN)—top leadership, and the House Committee on Science and Technology, Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN)—top committee.
“These four stood out from the rest and serve as examples for others to follow. Overall, we found the good sites are getting better and the bad are getting worse,” said Beverly Bell, executive director of CMF, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded 33 years ago to promote a more effective Congress. “It looks like half of the Congress is racing to the top while the other half race to the bottom. The outstanding sites follow best practices, leverage the power of social media, and serve their constituents well. Those offices falling behind are losing a great opportunity to interact with their constituents in ways the public has grown to expect.”
Web sites were evaluated on how well they incorporate five core principles identified by CMF through extensive research as critical for effectiveness: knowing the audience, providing timely and targeted content, ease of use, fostering interaction both on and offline, and adding value through innovation. Other factors included the quality and tone of the information presented; the usability and navigability of the site; its look and feel; and the degree to which the information meets visitor’s needs. Research partners from the Harvard Kennedy School, Northeastern University, the University of California–Riverside, and the Ohio State University assisted in developing the methodology and analysis of data.
“The Internet has transformed the connection between citizens and their representatives. While it is clear that advocacy groups, the media, and candidate Web sites have used the Internet to mobilize and inform voters, too many member sites don’t carry through that same urgency into their official online offerings,” said Dr. David Lazer, director of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard University and associate professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University.
For the first time, CMF examined the extent to which social networking is being adopted by congressional offices. At the time of the evaluations, only 21 percent of member offices had links to their Facebook profiles from their congressional Web site, and only 18 percent of member offices linked to a Twitter account. These low numbers can be attributed partially to House and Senate rules that have not always kept pace with changes in technology.
“Use of social media has not only expanded across all demographic groups, but it is increasingly one of the preferred methods of interaction for the newest wave of constituents reaching voting age,” noted Lazer. “We expect to see even more adoption of these tools by savvy offices. However, we expect much experimentation and guidance will be needed in order for them to use these tools effectively.”
CMF examined the data to determine if any environmental or demographic patterns might explain the differences between high performing and low performing Web sites. “Neither party, member age, tenure, constituent demographics, nor any other variable studied revealed any significant pattern for the success or failure of a Web site,” said Bell. “Simply stated, any office can have a successful Web site if they choose to do so.”
Key findings from the report:
- For the first time, “A’s” and “F’s” were the most common letter grades given. Twenty-two percent of the offices earned one or the other. In 2007, the most common grade was a “D.”
- Forty percent of sites scored an “A” or “B” and 42% scored a “D” or “F.” * The number of award-winning sites increased from 17% in 2007 to 22% in 2009.
- The most common letter grade in the Senate was an “A” compared to an “F” in the House.
- Senate Members in particular outperformed House Members; 34% of Senate Members received an “A” (up substantially from 24% in 2007) compared to 19% of House Members.
- Republican sites scored better overall with 62% of Republican and 54% of Democratic Web sites scoring a “C” or higher. However more Democrats won Mouse Awards, earning twice as many Gold Mouse Awards, and the Platinum Awards were evenly divided among the parties.
- The number of award winning leadership sites doubled from 3 of 13 in 2007 to 6 of 14 in 2009.
- Committee Web sites showed the most dramatic improvement with 93% scoring a “C” or better compared to 65% in 2007.
Among the report’s major criticisms of member Web sites:
- Two-thirds of congressional Web sites lack guidance on how best to communicate with their office
- Nearly half provide no guidance on how citizens can get assistance with issues with federal agencies (casework)
- Nearly half (46%) still lack access to a full accounting of the member’s voting record
- Twenty percent of congressional sites still do not have a functional search engine, an improvement over one-third from three years ago.
CMF has studied congressional Web sites since 1998, producing four previous reports starting in 2002. Only Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district covers much of the Silicon Valley, has received awards in all five evaluations. The full findings from the 111th Congress Gold Mouse Project are available on the CMF’s Partnership For A More Perfect Union Web site at www.pmpu.org.
The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to helping Congress and its Members meet the evolving needs and expectations of an engaged and informed 21st century citizenry. CMF has pursued this mission for more than 30 years by working internally with Member offices, committees, leadership, and institutional offices in the House and Senate to foster improved management practices through staff training, office consultations, publications on best practices, and technology research.
CMF’s Partnership For A More Perfect Union is a research center dedicated to enriching the relationship between citizens and Congress by addressing the deteriorating relationship and communications challenges faced by both sides. For more information about CMF or the Partnership, please visit us at www.pmpu.org or www.cmfweb.org.