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Making the Grade: Congressional Web Sites

The overall quality of congressional Web sites improved significantly during the last year, according to a report released Monday by Congressional Management Foundation. The study determined that 50 percent of congressional office Web sites received a grade of A or B, compared to only 10 percent of the sites in 2002.

However, the percentage of very poor Web sites, receiving grades of D or F, declined only marginally from 32 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2003.

The study evaluated 610 Web sites in Congress -- all member office, committee and leadership sites -- to determine which sites were the best and to assess how well Congress was using the Internet to communicate with the public. This research is the second annual report to combine a comprehensive analysis and grading of all congressional Web sites.

The report found that several of the key findings from last year's study stayed constant this year. Most notably, there continues to be major differences among the best sites when broken out by chamber and party. House Republican offices won 73 percent of the awards in the House, while Senate Democratic offices won 71 percent of the awards in the Senate.

House committee and leadership Web sites also continued to dramatically outperform Senate committee and leadership sites. More specifically, 43 percent of the House committee sites received an A, compared to just 8 percent of the Senate committee sites. Similarly, Republican leadership sites received a combined grade point average of 3.14 compared to a 2.0 GPA for Democratic leadership sites.

The 2003 report, Congress Online 2003: Turning the Corner of the Information Age, also highlighted some new research and findings not previously reported. In the House, for example, there is a clear decline in the quality of Web sites as tenure and age of the Member increase. Freshman members in the 107th Congress received an average GPA of 2.49, compared to 1.94 for members who have served six terms or more. Similarly members under age 45 had Web sites that received a GPA of 2.47, compared to 1.95 for members over age 60.

In addition, there is no correlation between the performance of congressional Web sites and state demographics usually assumed to contribute to Internet sophistication. The top 20 state delegations included both sparsely populated rural states, such as North Dakota and Vermont, and large, populous states, such as California and Pennsylvania. It also includes states not typically considered "wired," such as New Mexico and Arkansas, as well as highly wired states, such as Oregon and Maryland.

The Web sites were graded using the five essential criteria: audience, content, interactivity, usability, and innovations. The best Web sites included such features as extensive issue sections on legislation pending before Congress; well-organized background on the member's position on key issues and voting records; online assistance with constituent services, such as setting up tours in Washington, or requesting aid from federal agencies; and interactive elements, such as online polls, e-newsletters, or online chats with the member.

The less effective Web sites are making common mistakes such as promoting the member rather than meeting the legislative and information needs of their audiences; failing to provide the accountability that the public desires (e.g. vote information, member schedules); focusing too much attention on graphics and design; failing to provide online constituent services; and failing to give constituents opportunities to interact online.

The Congressional Management Foundation is a partner in the Congress Online Project with The George Washington University. The project is primarily funded through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. ChevronTexaco and the Microsoft also provided funding for the study.