WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Research into how Congress uses the Internet's potential shows 90 percent of member and committee Web sites rate no more than fair, according to a report issued Monday.
The Congress Online Project, a joint effort of George Washington University and the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation, spent the past year studying 605 Web sites for senators, House members, committees in both chambers and party leadership. Rick Shapiro, the CMF's executive director, said Congress earned an overall grade of C-minus for its Internet presence.
"We're optimistic that in the near future Congress will become a leading force in e-democracy, both in this country and around the world," Shapiro told reporters. "The bad news is that an objective assessment of the state of Congress online today leads us to conclude ... it is missing an ideal opportunity to both better serve the public and enhance confidence in the legislative branch."
Only 10 percent of the sites studied ended up with an "A" or "B" grade, Shapiro said, indicating the U.S. gap between Internet haves and have-nots extends to Capitol Hill. That divide can and should be bridged quickly, he said, since Web technology can give constituents valuable information around the clock.
"If politicians have something to say, they're going to have to learn to say it effectively on the Internet or face the reality that their message will be muted," Shapiro said. "Members of Congress who ignore the public expectations for online communication will soon find ... their political effectiveness limited."
The report points out the excellent sites created by lawmakers who've grasped the Net's promise, Shapiro said. Fifteen members and committees earned the project's "Gold Mouse Award" for their sites, with another 20 being named silver award winners. All the sites boost public confidence in government by increasing members' responsiveness and making their actions more transparent to the public, he said.
The top Senate sites were primarily Democratic, with the majority of the best House sites coming from Republican members, Shapiro said. There's no clear connection, however, between effective sites and specific regions of the country.
The House Republican Conference's GOP.gov site was singled out for keeping the most timely and relevant information highlighted on its home page, said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla. "We've done some pretty innovative things with technology, (linking) the entire conference with an organized, central and searchable electronic clearinghouse," Watts said in a statement.
The House Science Committee's majority site earned a silver award, pleasing Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the committee chairman. "I'm thrilled that the staff members responsible are being recognized for their efforts," Boehlert said in a statement. "We'll continue working to enhance and improve our site, for the benefit of all citizens."
The award-winning offices benefit by freeing up staff resources through Web sites that can handle many routine constituent requests, said Kathy Goldschmidt, CMF's director of technology services. The sites avoid common problems such as outdated content and an over-reliance on images and graphics that slow down access for users with slower connections, she said.
"There's very little spin on these sites," Goldschmidt said. Poorly ranking sites often devoted more content to promoting the senator or congressman instead of informing the public, she said.
Creating an effective site doesn't have to mean spending a lot, Shapiro said. Many of the sites were developed and designed by staff members, he said, although some Web design companies were consulted for fees generally less than $10,000.
"We're confident that the benefits from the models the best offices have developed ... will soon motivate and inspire many other offices to follow their lead," Shapiro said.