Views from the Hill

Congressional Web site managers don't seek user, peer feedback, study finds

Marching to 535 different drummers. A Harvard study found little consistency ' and a lack of best practices ' in congressional Web sites.

Congressional Web sites typically are not customized to meet the needs of citizens who could use them, nor do the site's managers confer on best practices, according to a new study.

'Strikingly, we find that there are relatively few efforts by offices to evaluate what constituents want or like on their Web sites,' state the researchers in their paper, 'Members of Congress Websites: Diffusion at the Tip of the Iceberg.'

David Lazer, the lead researcher for the project and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, presented the results at the annual conference of the Digital Government Society of North America recently in Philadelphia.

'Little effort'

The research team interviewed 100 individuals who held primary responsibility for maintaining official Web sites for individual members of the House or Senate. They found 'strikingly little effort' on the part of managers to find out what features or information constituents wanted and what elements of the Web site worked or did not work.

Only one office sent out a survey form asking what features users would like to see. Other offices relied on what they called informal feedback such as e-mail.
Lazer said the lack of a formal feedback mechanism could be problematic if it leads citizens to view the sites as of little help and could even cause them to become more disengaged from the political process.

Moreover, few managers consulted one another to discuss best practices, though they did occasionally look at other congressional Web sites.

'There are 435 small businesses here, and each 'CEO' can do what they want,' one participant told the researchers, referring to his colleagues in the House. 'Every congressional office just runs...their organization...in their own way,' another said.

Lazer noted that this lack of internal consultation could cause a lot of needless work in the offices because they don't learn about shortcuts they could use to save time.

Each office has a different management system, Lazer said. 'Each of these offices [has] managers coming in from the outside world, and they may have very different ways of how to manage, which is probably one of the reasons you don't see too much knowledge sharing.'

At least one employee of a federal government agency did not miss the irony in the group's findings, considering that Congress has been slow to fund cross-agency e-government initiatives, devoting dollars instead to individual projects that might not be used outside their missions.

'To get them to understand why [e-gov] may have some value, one might hope that they would use e-government themselves. But in fact, they are not,' the individual said during the question-and-answer period following Lazer's presentation. 'That is very distressing.'

Party leader

The study also looked briefly at whether there were differences among the political parties in how much effort they put into Web sites. They quoted earlier analyses that indicated that Republicans may have had the edge for a while, thanks to J.C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican who served in the House until 2003, who urged other offices to update their sites.

More recently, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been encouraging Democrats to make better use of their Web outlets. She also drove development of a number of popular cross-site Web applications, such as the Social Security Calculator, which is used on a number of Democrats' Web sites.

The study is part of a larger, ongoing project called 'Connecting to Congress,' a collaboration among researchers at Harvard, Ohio State and the University of California in addition to the Congressional Management Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization devoted to improving the management of Congress. The National Science Foundation also supported this study through a grant.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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