Connecting to Congress
The Internet has the potential to transform our democracy—a
potential that has begun to receive substantial scholarly attention.
This attention has focused on the potential transformational effects
of the technology on civil society, and, in the political realm,
how the Internet might transform political discourse.
Researchers have devoted little attention, however, to how the Internet
might transform existing institutions for connecting citizens to
elected officials. This relationship is the fundamental building
block of a representative democracy, and it has come under increasing
strain as our country has grown from a few million to a few hundred
million; as congressional districts have swelled from a few tens
of thousands to well over six hundred thousand; as the number of
matters the state is involved in has multiplied; and as policy problems
have grown more complex. Contemporary Washington politics is now
almost exclusively the domain of entrepreneurial legislators, highly
trained committee staff, legal counsel, agency heads, lobbyists,
and expert policy analysts. Today, it is difficult for interested
citizens to even understand the policy process, much less have their
voice heard in it . As
a consequence of this and other trends, citizens have become increasingly
disengaged from the work of Congress.
The Internet offers a set of tools that might help to arrest this trend, and to fundamentally alter the level of participation of citizens in the consultative process with their Representatives. A well-designed Internet strategy by Members of Congress can provide citizens with information useful for understanding a policy as it develops, while also allowing citizens to interact more symmetrically with both their Member of Congress and with each other. Wisely used, the Internet can re-connect citizens and Congress.
Strikingly, this potential for change has largely been unrealized and unstudied. While there has been a considerable amount of scholarship on the impact of the Internet on government, governance, and society, we have identified no systematic research on how Members of Congress use or should use the Internet to provide information to their constituents.
This lack of scholarship is matched by a lack of progress by Members in using their websites. Figure 1 summarizes some of the features commonly used by Members of Congress. Notably, only a minority (37%) of Members provide the most minimal capacity to find out how they voted. Further, essentially no offices have interactive features such as e-townhalls, bulletin boards, and the like.
This lag is unsurprising, and significant. Members of Congress are accustomed to, and tend to be very good at, interacting with constituents face-to-face. Digital interaction, however, is inherently new terrain for many Members, and any new activity entails uncertainty and risk; and further, implementing and making effective use of innovations requires new knowledge and new operating procedures. As a consequence, adoption of web technologies is neither automatic nor effortless.
For an overview of Members of Congress' websites see:
> House.gov <
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0429452.
Publications and Presentations
Lazer, D./Esterling, K./Fountain, J./Neblo,
M./Mergel, I./Ziniel, C. (2005): Connecting to Congress Project
Highlights, presentation, dg.O 2005, The National Conference
on Digital Government Research, May 15.-18. 2005, Atlanta.
Lazer, D./Esterling, K./Neblo, M./Mergel, I./Ziniel, C. (2005):
Style Conscious: How Members of Congress Learn Ways to Communicate,
presentation, dg.O 2005, The National Conference on Digital
Government Research, May 15.-18. 2005, Atlanta.
Lazer, D./Esterling, K./Mergel, I./Neblo, M.(2005): How Congress
is Connected: The Diffusion of Web Technologies among Congressional
Offices, conference paper and presentation, MPSA Midwestern
Political Science Conference, Annual Meeting 2005, Chicago,
April 07-10, 2005.
Lazer, D./Esterling, K./Mergel, I. (2005): How Congress is
Connected: The Diffusion of Web Technologies among Congressional
Offices, conference paper, WPSA Western Political Science Association,
2005 Annual Meeting, Oakland, California, March 17-19, 2005.
Lazer, D./Esterling, K./Neblo, M./Mergel, I. (2005): Congressional
Connections: The Diffusion Of An Innovation Among Members Of
Congress, conference paper, INSNA International Social Network
Analysis Annual Conference, Redondo Beach, February 16-20, 2005.
Esterling, Kevin M., David Lazer, and Michael
A. Neblo. "Home (Page) Style: Determinates of the Quality
of the House Members' Web Sites." International Journal
of Electronic Government Research 1.2 (April-June 2005).