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New Podcast: Social Media, Internet Provides Opportunities, Challenges for Lawmakers

When it comes to citizen engagement, members of Congress have to worry about than just making their presences known on Capitol Hill and in their home districts. They also must do so virtually or risk having their legislative influence and popularity stomped on by more tech-savvy peers. The ubiquity of the Internet, though, shouldn’t be seen as a burden. Instead, it can be a way to provide information faster and in more engaging ways than ever before.

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) offers the Gold Mouse Awards annually to members of Congress who make the most of the opportunity the digital world offers them. Winners are chosen in two categories: Best Congressional Website and Citizen Engagement on Social Media. This year’s recipients included 70 websites in the former category, divided into Gold, Silver and Bronze, and 17 members of Congress in the latter.

According to the CMF,  a commonality among the winners is an effort to use online communications as a tool to further transparency, accountability, and constituent services, rather than as a one-way advertisement for member actions and accomplishments. In the report announcing the award winners, CMF says, “using online communications tools to demonstrate transparency and accountability isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics. Rightly or wrongly, citizens want their elected officials to be accessible in all media: answering their questions; responding to their needs; and reflecting the values of representative democracy… The ultimate benefits are an enhanced democratic dialogue, a greater appreciation of public service, and a better functioning Congress.”

The awards are more than just an opportunity for legislative offices to pat themselves on the back; they’re also intended to serve as a guide for best practices so others can learn from example. CMF lays out 10 characteristics of effective member websites and lists samples of each. For example, the websites of Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Indiana), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Rep. Rick Larsen’s (D-Washington)  are listed as award-winning examples of the fifth characteristic: “Help Constituents Resolve Problems With Federal Agencies.”

Similar explanations are given for the winners of Citizen Engagement on Social Media. CMF recognized Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) for using the popular website BuzzFeed and its ‘listicle’ format to promote his platform. His article, 11 Reasons Why Congress Needs To Fix Student Loan Rates Now, generated 40,000 views in the first 24 hours of its posting. Using the website BuzzFeed was particularly savvy, since its predominately young readers are the same people who are most affected by student loans.

Of course, no congressional website or social media account is run by the legislator alone. Most have at least one, if not a team of, communications staff. How well these staffers tackle the ever-evolving online landscape, though, has a lot to do with whether their boss makes doing so a priority, according to Robert Lucas, Director of Technology for Rep. Mike Honda (D-California). Honda won the Gold Mouse Awards in both categories this year, and is the only member of Congress to win the award every year it has been offered since 2002.

“The congressman has represented Silicon Valley for 14 years now, and he’s won this award every time it’s been offered because he’s focused on looking at the changes that have happened with what constituents use, so the website’s now more responsive to their needs,” Lucas said. “People come to work for Honda because they believe in his progressive vision but also because people understand that representing Silicon Valley we’re going to lead Congress in technology and providing services on the web.”

I spoke with Lucas and Honda’s New Media Director Seth Stein recently about the Gold Mouse Awards and how effective online communications promote greater government accountability.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman At the time of publication Avery Kleinman was the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Podcasts, Information Access

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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