Researchers slam lawmakers' websites as failing constituents

Poor design, lack of interaction and a paucity of pertinent information keep elected officials from enriching democracy, a report concludes.

Most congressional websites lack input from constituents, are not created with the visitor in mind and are at most a second priority in politicians' offices, according to a report the Brookings Institution recently released.

"The extent to which legislators fail to better exploit these technologies reflects a failure of our democratic institutions themselves," said the study's authors, Kevin Esterling, an associate professor at the University of California at Riverside; David Lazer, an associate professor at Northeastern University; and Michael Neblo, an assistant professor at Ohio State University.

The researchers interviewed 99 congressional staffers who had responsibility for their office's website in 2006. The researchers also ranked all House and Senate sites for nearly 100 points of operational criteria, including tracking issue information, constituency services and use of technology such as blogs. The criteria were developed in collaboration with the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group that works to make Congress more effective.

Although much of the research was conducted nearly four years ago, Esterling said the results are still valid and the sites "don't change that much." Congressional staff in 2006 did not think it was worthwhile to communicate with each other, an attitude that continues today, he added. While the sites have improved, they still are not as well-designed, user friendly or interactive as websites operated by some news organizations and e-commerce, Esterling said.

"Congressional websites lag the ones you find elsewhere," he said.

Communication technology has the potential to enhance democracy, according to the report, but congressional staffs haven't taken advantage of the tools, and being skilled in emerging technologies has not given politicians a particular advantage in elections.

Incumbents are locked into a website design, and sites that were rated as high quality one year typically dropped the following year, according to the report. Congressional offices also tended not to ask constituents what they want to see on their representatives' or senators' sites. "The problem with most political websites ... is they are producer-focused," said Marc Cooper, associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California.

The sites carry information about elected officials, but they don't provide a way for the constituents to communicate with them, he said. The Web pages also don't offer a lot of incentives to visitors to explore the online information. "They don't have a reason for you to continue to be there as a participant on the site," Cooper said. "Once you get the information, there's nothing left for you to do."

While congressional members often believe their sites are cutting edge, the sites often are not engaging or transparent, he added.

Calls to House and Senate offices were not returned.

"Effective communication is of central importance to democratic representation," the report noted. "Congress as an institution fails to harness any collective process for adopting Web technology innovations or for learning about and using best practices."