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Report

Improving Congressional Websites

Kevin M. Esterling, David Lazer, and Michael Neblo

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This summer, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are hitting the road hoping to convince voters of their legislative accomplishments over the past two years, accomplishments that include, in their view, health care reform, economic stimulus averting financial disaster, stemming job losses, and financial reform (see Michael Sheer, “White House Searching for a Way to Reconnect with Voters over Economy,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2010).  The citizens with whom the Democrats would like to connect remain frustrated, however, with the seemingly stalled economic recovery and slow job growth.  As is usually the case, this frustration has fostered something of an anti-incumbent mood in the electorate,[1]making the Democrats’ election year pitch an unusually hard case to make (see Dana Milbank, “Are Democrats Painting Themselves as the Lesser of the Evils?” The Washington Post, July 14, 2010, page A2).

Of course, this need to communicate messages to constituents is nothing new, and all legislators, whether of the majority or minority party, on or off the election cycle, feel it is important to communicate effectively with their constituents.  While the motivation to do so might be rooted in politicians’ self-interested search for re-election, political philosophers remind us of the importance of these sorts of explanations for accountability and democratic legitimacy.  In either view, effective communication is of central importance to democratic representation.

Members of Congress have long practiced the art of communicating with constituents in face-to-face settings (Fenno 1978), and with print and broadcast news reporters (Arnold, 2004; Lipinski, 2004).  With the growth of the Internet, website technologies enable new and different forms of legislator-constituent communication.  And indeed – at least in principle – these new technologies can enhance the quality and amount of communication within legislative representation, beyond what has traditionally been available in face-to-face interactions and in the print and broadcast media. For example, when members of Congress place information about themselves, their accomplishments and voting records on their website, any interested constituent will have ready access to that information, at low cost and effort, and can direct their attention to whatever content is of most interest to them. 

Indeed, members’ web presence has improved dramatically over the past two decades, starting with a handful of gopher sites in the early 1990s to the present day official webpages for every member (see, www.house.gov and www.senate.gov).  But as Jane Fountain notes (2001, 88), in today’s “virtual state,” new communication technology must be enacted by government officials, as would be true for any other aspect of institutional design.  Politicians often don’t have a technical background to know the capabilities of new technology or sufficient knowledge to evaluate the risks and benefits (Ferber, Foltz, and Publiese, 2005, 144; Owen et al. 1999, 27).  As a result, the quality of the designs of congressional websites has tended to lag behind those in industry, entertainment and e-commerce (Burden and Hysom, 2007).  As is generally true in other governmental settings, communication technology has developed at a faster pace than legislative offices can accommodate, which often use only very limited range of the functionality of their IT hardware and software (Dawes et al. 1999, 21). 

In 2004, we received funding from the National Science Foundation (IIS #0429452) to study the processes that drive legislative adoptions of website technologies.  This study involved extensive coding and analysis of data from every House and Senate website, for two different years (2006 and 2007), and extensive interviews with the webmaster in 99 different offices.  In this paper, we summarize our findings and arrive at the conclusion that effective institutional mechanisms that drive technology adoption in Congress simply do not exist. 

Despite the practical and normative importance of communication for representatives and for representation, website design often appears to be at most a secondary priority, best practice standards do not appear to drive existing design practices, and there appears to be few attempts to learn about best practices within the institution, either top-down from the leadership or in a decentralized way through social networks.  As a result, the institution itself seems to be stuck in a suboptimal equilibrium with respect to communication technology. Given the unrealized potential for this technology to enhance legislator-constituent communication, and given the importance of this communication for the health of our democracy, the extent to which legislators fail to better exploit these technologies reflects a failure of our democratic institutions themselves.




[1]

In a recent Washington Post-ABC news poll, while only 43 percent felt that President Obama is making the right decisions for the country’s future, even fewer thought Congressional Democrats (32 percent) or Republicans (26 percent) were making the right decisions (The Washington Post, July 13, 2010, page A1).  By comparison, in a recent California Field Poll, only 22 percent approved of Governor Schwarzenegger’s job performance, and only 16 percent approved of the state legislature’s performance (San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 2010, C1)

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