Freshmen take their sweet time putting up websites

“This Web page has been set up to provide my constituents with an immediate Internet address for my newly elected office. Stay tuned for my full-featured Web site in the first session of the 109th Congress. In the meantime, I hope you will contact my office if you have any questions or would like assistance with a Federal Agency.”

Some five months after being elected and three months after taking office, these words — or words like them — begin and end the non-websites of most new members of Congress.

They are accompanied in most cases only by a photo, Washington and district contact information and a series of links to other congressional and legislative sites.

Of the 39 new House members, 18 are still using this form homepage, provided by the House Information Resources (HIR) office. Six others have modified the form in some way — by adding an extra picture or updated personal statement, for instance. Fifteen have a fully functional site up and running.

So why the delay in the House, when so many Americans now turn to the Web first for their information? Many current and former staffers familiar with the process cited the numerous responsibilities, priorities and time pressures of a new member and his or her staff.

Sometimes, a site is the “eighth, ninth or even 20th priority” of a fledgling House office, said Jeff Mascott, a former Web consultant to the House Republican Conference and a Web strategist with Rightclick Strategies, which is designing websites for about a dozen Republican House freshmen. “It shouldn’t be, because this is their public profile.”

An aide to a House freshman who asked that his name not be used explained, “It is important, but there were so many other things to decide right at the beginning, it got pushed back a week or two.”

This year, many offices waited until late January or early February to begin the process. By then, Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) already had a functioning, interim website up and active. Jim Jeffries, a spokesman for Drake, said the office adapted a “skeleton” of her predecessor Ed Schrock’s (R) site.

“It’s one-stop shopping for constituents,” he said of the site, which was the first freshman site to go live. Drake’s office focused on constituent service and an e-mail listserv at the outset, with further bells and whistles provided by Rightclick.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) had a functional site up after three weeks. “Even in the first week, people called and asked about the website,” said spokeswoman Rachel Leed. “From day one, people expect your office to be accessible.”

But even in the case of fast-acting members like Drake and Schwartz, building a site can be a lengthy, arduous process. Neither site is in a final form.

At the outset, new members have two choices: they can rely on HIR to design and build their complete site, or they can contract an outside Web design vendor.

Since www.house.gov first went live in 1994, HIR has provided Web services to members. The office will host sites on its local server, and its team of designers offers templates to work from as soon as the new office provides the relevant information.
On the HouseNet intranet site, HIR walks users through the steps in establishing and updating a Web page. HouseNet also offers a frequently-asked-questions page and information on security policies.

The House Learning Center holds classes on Web design and HTML programming. “They encourage offices, especially new offices, to take advantage of these resources,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees HIR.

Some staffers, however, say initial design and updating press releases and other information takes significantly longer when working through HIR instead of a private vendor.

“We chose not to” use an outside vendor because “the House will do it for free,” said the chief of staff to a freshman member. “They are overburdened with numerous requests,” which is the main reason for the delay.

In fact, HouseNet states: “A custom Web site will require several months of development time. … If a custom Web site is needed quickly, contract with a web development firm or vendor.”

One former Hill staffer remains critical of HIR: “They like members to hire outside firms because it’s less work for them.” He knows of several offices that thought “they could save a few bucks by using HIR” and regretted it later.

Walsh disagreed with that characterization, stating in an e-mail that the office is as busy as it’s ever been. Since December of last year, HIR has begun 43 new Web design projects and 14 redesign projects and expects to handle 10,000 work requests this year.

The average turnaround time for a website designed by HIR was 101.9 days last year. “HIR Web Systems has completed websites in as little as a couple of weeks, while other sites have taken several months,” Walsh said. “A measure such as this is difficult to quantify, as website design is not a homogenous product” and members are becoming increasingly particular about design.

Outside vendors charge in the range of $10,000 to $15,000 for Web design. They first started seeking work on the Hill about four years ago, and now about 15-20 vendors design member sites.

In the end, Schwartz opted for the outside contractor. “We considered both options but went with an outside vendor,” Leed said, citing the ability of the firm, DemNet, to offer more services, such as an online newsletter and interactive forms. Schwartz’s site will be fully functional in May.

DemNet’s Marin Hagen said the firm is working with “five to 10” Democratic offices. “What slows down the process is the back and forth on site design,” she said.

She said that Schwartz’s office responded immediately and knew exactly what it was looking for but that it appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

Michael Gaines of GovTech Solutions, which has worked on one new House site and four new Senate sites, said, “The chief of staff or the member will often want to have approval” over content, which can slow down the process.

The eight new senators have a better record than their House counterparts. Seven have some type of “transition” site posted, typically with access to press releases. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has a full-service website, including a blog.

“The Senate [transition] sites are much more complicated than the House transition sites” and have more features, Gaines said.

Senate sites are hosted by the Senate server. That is, if one goes down they all go down.

House sites, on the other hand, are typically hosted on the server of the vendor who built the site. “If you comply with security, it allows you to host your servers on HIR. If the site goes down, it’s your responsibility,” Gaines said.

Those security concerns provide the final stumbling block to launching a site. “Every single site has to go through an audit with HIR for security, usability and compliance,” said Hagen. “It can take up to two weeks.”