Congress Jumps on the Web 2.0 Bandwagon

There’s a cultural shift happening on Capitol Hill. Thanks to President Obama and newer Members of Congress who have demonstrated how to successfully connect with supporters using Web 2.0 tools, more and more Congressional Members are diving into the Web 2.0 world.

According to Ellen Miller, Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation, "Government is among the last groups of people to figure this out, but the change is coming fast now. Soon enough, it will seem quaint for a lawmaker to not fully engage with constituents using the communications tools available. I'm sure none want to wind up like former Senator Jim Exon, who was the last Member of Congress with an office filled with typewriters."

In the winter of 2008 the Republicans launched The Republican New Media Caucus to assist House Republicans in ramping up their Web 2.0 efforts with briefings and recommendations.

"By engaging both Members and staff, we are working to bring awareness to everyone and emphasize Web 2.0’s importance. Providing both education and tangible skill development we hope to make it easier for Members and staff to transition in these new mediums. Our constituents have also reciprocated this effort by responding to our efforts, further encouraging us to expand the use of Web 2.0 and online tools to directly communicate with them," said Congressman Bob Latta who represents Ohio’s 5th Congressional District.

Miller says it’s important for lawmakers to understand the benefits of using social media and their own official websites to improve transparency and communication and citizen engagement in their work.

Latta agrees and adds "Real time communication applications, like Twitter and Facebook, provide Members of Congress an ability to receive feedback from their constituents even as the debate is taking place on the floor of the House."

Although there is a lot of excitement around Web 2.0 there is a learning curve, particularly for Members and some staffers who are unfamiliar with the Web and with the rules that govern lawmakers' Web use. "The latter has a kind of chilling effect, out of uncertainty regarding compliance with rules and fear of unintended consequences (e.g., hecklers commenting on blog posts)," said Miller.

Miller raises an excellent point. Just yesterday the Twitter community got a chuckle out of one tweet that read "Can you fax this to Twitter?"

As Congress attempts to play catch up and adapt to the rapidly changing world of technology and Web 2.0, it will be vital for them to invest in New Media staff.

"With so many people now getting their news strictly online, we are constantly finding new ways to promote our agenda and communicate directly with constituents though interactive avenues online. President Obama set the bar high with this online communications effort, and House Republicans are now working to establish a strategy that is organic and engaging in order to allow us to rapidly define our vision for America as demanded by the 24-hour news cycle," said Congressman Latta.

The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, uses a blog to highlight legislation and the daily work of Congress. The blog also includes YouTube videos of floor debates. She is also on Twitter and joined by about 50 Members of Congress.

Representatives Tim Ryan who represents Ohio’s 17th District and John Lewis who represents Georgia’s 5th District use Google Maps to highlight important locations in their districts, including hospitals, airports and their district offices.

Representative George Miller who represents California’s 5th District asks constituents to send video questions about important public policy issues, which he answers in his own video responses.

One of the slickest Web 2.0 tools that Congress uses is the US House of Representatives channel on YouTube which is comprised of a google mashup of state districts and links to Congressional Members videos on YouTube.

The bottom line is that Congress has no choice but to embrace Web 2.0. It’s a cheap and easy way to connect with constituents. Furthermore, through Web 2.0 "members can foster a more dynamic and productive relationship by sharing their work in a way that creates an ongoing, public conversation," said Miller.

Allyson Kapin is the Founding Partner of Rad Campaign and the Founder of Women Who Tech. You can follow her on Twitter.

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