When freshman members of the 110th Congress built their official websites, Kevin Esterling lost a bet with himself. The political science professor at the University of California (Riverside) had expected the lawmakers to approach the task with the energy and vision that got them elected, creating sites that were, frankly, better—more interesting, more user-friendly, more current—than those of their incumbent colleagues. But that's not exactly how things turned out.
"If you think of it as a deck of cards, we expected freshmen to come in with kings, queens, and aces," Esterling says. Instead, what he and his fellow researchers found was more like "someone shuffled the deck of cards and just pulled out 20 cards at random." The newbies acted no differently than other members; some of their websites were good, many were mediocre, and some were downright terrible. And things haven't changed much since.
Part of the problem? Fear, says Esterling, who authored a 2010 report on the topic. "Freshmen would come in and think, 'I've never been a member of Congress before, so let me see how everybody else is doing it.' It's almost as if freshmen were coming in and looking at random on how to design their website," he says.
Congressional websites do seem to have their own collective gravitational pull, dragging even savvy-seeming newcomers into the same old swamp of waving state flags and stock-art stethoscopes. But while first-time jitters may be one reason members tend to default to sites that are both generic and unhelpful, nerves are far from the only cause. Class of 2015, take note: Building a decent-looking, well-organized, effective congressional site—never mind one with a bit of personality or flair—is a lot harder than it looks.
Websites of Fred Upton and Martin Heinrich. (Courtesy of Rep. Upton and Sen. Heinrich)
Challenges emerge almost from the start. When a new class of legislators arrives on Capitol Hill, each member is given an interim, bare-bones site that allows him or her to provide the basics: address, bio, contact information, how to request a flag. To get a fully functioning site, congressional offices have to ask for one, either from the House or Senate technology office, or from an approved outside firm.
Having a site built by an outside vendor typically costs around $10,000, not including maintenance—a sum that's prohibitive to most House members and unpalatable to most senators. This option appeals most to those who view their website as a crucial communication tool and as an extension of their public identity. Sen. Martin Heinrich, the chamber's only engineer, fits the profile. Heinrich went through an outside vendor called Creative Engine, and the New Mexico Democrat's website stands out among his Hill colleagues' not only for its aesthetics but also for its functionality and transparency. "The senator wanted the site to be an extension of his office," says Whitney Potter, Heinrich's communications director. Potter says the office looked at media and private-sector sites—not other House and Senate pages—for inspiration.
Lawmakers who go through their chamber's technology office can have a custom site built for free, if they're willing to wait—sometimes for a significant fraction of their first term. The customized option can also create some longer-term maintenance challenges. It can be tough enough for an office to keep even a basic site looking dynamic and current—security procedures and firewalls can turn uploading a photo or adding a new press release into a 15-minute process. Managing a more complex site requires more knowledge, and more staff time.
Nonetheless, it is possible to make the most out of the in-house option. When she came to Congress in 2013, Rep. Joyce Beatty was put into a queue through the Chief Administrative Office and waited more than a year to get a new website. It wasn't until this past April that her office got itschance to design a site beyond the basic one she got after being sworn in. But when it was their turn, the Ohio Democrat's staffers did something most lawmakers don't even know is an option—they sat down with people from the CAO design shop and started sketching out ideas with paper and markers. They wound up with a site that is both visually interesting and easy to navigate.
But most members don't want to wait that long, or to devote the staff time to creating and maintaining something that's outside the box. So they stay in the box, which still means waiting several months for a site built from one of a few, fairly rigid templates.
At that point, there's not much a member can do to personalize his or her page, although some still try: Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat from California, has "Bill" from Schoolhouse Rock! at the bottom of his page. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, has a debt clock in the middle. Republican Rep. Richard Hanna's page includes the weather report for his New York district. Departing Democratic Rep. John Dingell has not one stock image of his Michigan district but six, blended into a collage.
For the rest, it's flags and seals and slide shows, and services that are buried three clicks deep.
Ken Ward, the CEO of House vendor Fireside21, says a lawmaker's website should reflect his or her priorities and goals for outreach and communication. "Whatever it is for you, whatever it is for your boss, whatever it is for your constituents, let's start with those goals, and then everything else is derived from them," he says. "You don't necessarily need to have your 'Recent Votes' widget front and center, but maybe if your boss is really into transparency and communication and what's happening in D.C., then putting that 'Recent Votes' widget front and center makes the most sense."
Fireside21 built Rep. Fred Upton's site, for which the Michigan Republican won a Gold Mouse Award from the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, which recognizes what it considers to be the best congressional websites. (Heinrich's site won one, too.) But lawmakers who can't afford to go for the gold via an outside vendor should take heart: Bradford Fitch, CMF's president and CEO, says that a boring website that clearly displays a lawmaker's voting record—something that's within the reach of all—is better than a flashy one that doesn't. "Even though many press secretaries think the promotional is what works, actually it's transparency and a demonstration of accountability," Fitch says. "This is a public-service job. And—oh, by the way—if you do it well, people will probably vote for you."