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The Modern Online Candidate: Part 2
American vs. Canadian Political Web Sites

by Scott Proudfoot, Principal
March, 2003

Both Canadian & US politicians need to become more effective online but there will be major national differences in the strategies candidates will choose and the types of political sites they will create. 

The Congress Online Project (COP) was set up to help Members of Congress improve their online communications with the public. A few months ago, the COP reviewed and rated every US Senate and US Congressional Web site along with the major committee web sites. They then picked the top sites.

While the methodology appears a tad subjective, their study did identify some excellent and innovative political sites. We have provided links to their ‘Gold Award’ Winners below.

Congress Online Gold Mouse Awards:

Senate Member Offices
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)

House Member Offices
Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX)
Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA)
Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN)
Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA)

Standing Committees
Senate Budget Committee (majority)
House Committee on Energy and Commerce (majority)
House Committee on Energy and Commerce (minority)
House Committee on Rules (majority)

Leadership Offices
Speaker of the House
Office of the House Majority Whip
House Republican Conference

What can a politician do with a good web site?

 
The COP suggests

  • Improve Constituent Services/Increase Office Productivity
  • Raise Image and Visibility
  • Target & Recruit Specific Audiences/Build Coalitions & Grass Roots Support
  • Have Unfiltered Communication with the Public
  • Demonstrate Accountability & Earn Public Trust
  • Increase Public Feedback
  • Encourage Greater Participation in Government

And, while the people at the Congress Online Project are much too polite to suggest it, executing a number of these tasks well should help a politician get re-elected. It takes time to grow an audience for a web site. Any incumbent with a four-year head start has a built-in advantage over a challenger. A successful on-line strategy can actually enlist and motivate supporters and volunteers.  Online accountability for Members of Parliament in Canada would seem to be more connected to explaining how you spend your working time or explaining/defending your party’s stand on particular issues.

However, despite these incentives, effective American political sites are the exception rather than the norm. Only 10% of the 605 Congressional sites surveyed received an A or B rating. The overwhelming majority got a score of C or less. Most political sites in the US, and one suspects in Canada, are little more than digitized electoral brochures. They are not very interesting or engaging for viewers, and consequently not that helpful to the politicians themselves.

The slow adaptation to the new technology is not a big surprise. Some politicians are more comfortable pressing the flesh and less comfortable with technology.  There is skepticism about the payback from a virtual presence. The web site is perceived as a ‘Nice-To-Have’ but not a ‘Need-To-Have’. 

As politicians and political parties gain more experience and find more uses for the technology, this will change over time.
 
Canadian politicians, who want to do better online, should certainly benchmark themselves against the best in the US. However, they also have to recognize some national constraints and differences.
 
Accountability
 
Surveys repeatedly show US citizens want to know which legislation their member is sponsoring or how they vote on specific bills.
 
US politics has a large element of individual entrepreneurship. US Senators and legislators have significant legislative muscle and do not always vote the party line. Showing and explaining how you vote is part of the accountability expectation in the US system. Americans want to see this information on their member’s web sites.
 
Canadian politics is more of a team sport with tight control at the centre. Preponderant legislative power resides with the executive. Government members are expected to support the government's legislative agenda. Having Canadian Members of Parliament talk about their voting records online may not be highly relevant. At the same time, Canadians are very interested in hearing about how their elected representative is working on their behalf. They like to hear about accomplishments. They want to hear about how citizens can get involved. Just as a householder can be effective in getting these messages out, a proactive on-line strategy can help.
 
Resources
 

A typical member of the US legislative branch routinely raises and spends far more money than the average Canadian Member of Parliament.
 
Consequently, US politicians have more money to support an online strategy and we can see this reflected in some of the better sites.
 
US legislators also have more staff to help them generate fresh content for the site. Since good content is the value proposition of any web site, having these staff resources is a significant advantage.
 
With far less money and staff, Canadian politicians have to eschew expensive online designs and elaborate functionality and, instead, concentrate on effective web site ‘message delivery’ models. This does not have to be an obstacle to a strong web presence.  Some of the most effective US sites are simple low cost site designs that make the most of well-conceived information architecture and some basic list serv/ subscribers options.
 
Audience
 

A member of the US House of Representative represents approximately 600,000 constituents. A US Senator can represent up to 35 million citizens. The average Canadian Member of Parliament answers to 100,000 voters, more or less.
 
It has been suggested a good political web site in the US might attract 3,000 to 5,000 visitors a month and more at particular times. In Canada, 300 to 500 site visitors a month might be a reasonable expectation.
 
The major deficiency in almost all studies analyzing political web sites (whether from Canada, the US or elsewhere) has been the lack of discussion about selling the site, particularly at a constituency level.
 
The implicit assumption of most studies is that a great political web site will find an audience. Not so!  Lots of great sites, political or otherwise, perform sub-optimally when it comes to attracting their desired audience.  If traffic is good but too few visitors are voters in the Member’s constituency, the site’s fails to meet its core objective.
 
Any web site has to be sold.  Individual legislator’s sites have to be sold effectively to those within the boundaries of a defined electoral constituency. Other audiences will be secondary in importance. To achieve that type of market penetration requires a well thought out online/offline site marketing strategy and techniques to measure and track this key performance requirement.

Forward-looking politicians recognize their web site is becoming an essential strategic communications channel to assist and engage their constituents.  But the options and choices available to Canadian and US politicians are different. Resource constraints and the need to tightly target their audiences require Canadian politicians to be more selective and smart to reap the benefits.

Readers who enjoyed this article might also enjoy:

The Modern Online Candidate, Part 1:Political Brand & Campaigns





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