Lessons from the Best Web Sites on Capitol Hill: The Gold Mouse Report

The information below is from the Press Release announcing the Report, followed by a link to the complete Report:

Washington, D.C. – A new report from the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) on congressional Web sites says the overall quality “continues to be disappointing,” with more than 40% of congressional Web sites earning a substandard or failing grade. The report also contains recognition and praise for the best Web sites on Capitol Hill with the announcement of the winners of the 2007 Gold, Silver, and Bronze Mouse Awards.

“The good news is that 19 more offices won awards in 2007 than did in 2006, including 16 freshmen Members. The bad news is that there were 20 more D’s and F’s,” said Beverly Bell, Executive Director of CMF, a non-profit, non-partisan organization founded 30 years ago to promote a more effective Congress. “We were glad to see good sites getting better, but discouraged to see the bad getting worse.”

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, The 2007 Gold Mouse Report: Lessons from the Best Web Sites on Capitol Hill evaluated 618 congressional Web sites, including those of all Senate and House Members and Delegates, committees (both majority and minority sites) and official leadership sites. Providing invaluable assistance for the 2007 report were research partners from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the University of California-Riverside, and Ohio State University.

“The Internet has the potential to transform the connection between citizens and their representatives. While it is clear that the Internet has played an important role in mobilizing and informing voters, most Members have not seized the day. Surprisingly few Member sites offer much content on where the Member stands on the issues of the day,” said Dr. David Lazer, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Program on Networked Governance at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“There certainly are outstanding Web sites. A full 17%-or 104 sites- earned “A” grades this year, up from 14% in 2006. These sites not only serve constituents well, they illustrate best practices, and they should serve as templates for other congressional offices,” Bell said. However, noting that the most common grade is a “D,” Bell added, “Many congressional offices are simply missing terrific opportunities to interact with and inform constituents and other politically engaged citizens.”

CMF has been studying congressional Web sites since 1998 and produced three previous reports in 2002, 2003, and 2006. Only three Members received awards in all four evaluations: Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). A complete list of this year’s winners is available at www.cmfweb.org.

“The most important reason we give the Mouse Awards is to highlight best practices and inspire and motivate other offices to improve their sites by learning from those doing a good job,” said Bell.

Key findings from the report:

Half of the sites that earned “F”s last year received the same grade in 2007, and a full 63% of Member sites that received a “D” in 2006 received the same grade or slipped to an “F” in 2007.
The most common letter grade in the Senate was a “B” compared to a “D” in the House. In the Senate, 33% fewer sites received a failing grade in 2007, whereas in the House, the percentage of failing sites jumped from 12% to 21%-an increase of 75% since our 2006 evaluations. The number of substandard or failing committee sites increased to 44%, and the percentage of House and Senate committee (both majority and minority) Web sites scoring an “F” doubled between 2006 and 2007.

In 2006, Republican sites performed slightly better than their Democratic counterparts. In 2007, Democratic sites now hold a slight edge, with 61% of Democratic sites earning a grade of “C” or better, compared to 55% of Republican sites. A surprising number of the 110th Congress freshmen excelled out of the gate-16% of the new Members received “A” grades, garnering them 2007 Gold, Silver, or Bronze Mouse Awards. The top-tier congressional Web sites continued to excel in 2007, with 44% of the 2006 award-winning Member sites winning a Gold, Silver, or Bronze Mouse Award again this year. In fact, 8 Member Web sites scored higher than the highest-scoring sites last year.

Among the report’s major criticisms of Member Web sites:

One third of congressional sites still did not have a functional search engine.
Information about legislative issues with particular state or local interest was not available on 57% of Member Web sites.

A full 26% of all Member sites did not have links to sponsored or co-sponsored legislation. Of the ones that did, 23% did not reference the most current session of Congress.

Web sites were evaluated on how well they incorporate five basic building blocks which extensive research identified as critical for effectiveness: audience, content, usability, interactivity, and innovation. Using these building blocks, an evaluation framework was developed which would be fair and objective while still taking into account important qualitative factors that affect a visitor’s experience. The qualitative 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.

Click here to see the complete 2007 Gold Mouse Report as a pdf file.

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