Esterling Receives NSF Grant to Study Congress, the Internet, and Constituents

Kevin Esterling, Assistant Professor in Political Science, is part of a $1 million multi-institutional grant awarded to University of California, Riverside, Harvard University, Ohio State University, and the Congressional Management Foundation. The grant, entitled “Connecting to Congress: The Adoption and Use of Web Technologies among Congressional Offices,” will be used to study how Members of Congress use or should use the Internet to provide information to their constituents. The award will provide $1 million over three years among the partnering institutions. The study has received unprecedented support from Congress with 20 Members committed to participate in the research.

The potential for the impact of Internet technologies on legislative representation has been largely unstudied. To date, there has been no systematic research on how Members of Congress use or should use the Internet to provide information to their constituents. As our country has grown, the number of matters the state is involved in has multiplied and policy problems have grown progressively more complex. Congressional members are beginning to rely on new and innovative technologies to increase the level of participation of their constituents and maintain a connection with the issues and concerns of their districts.

There is a significant lag in Congress’ use of innovative and interactive web technologies on their individual websites. Most sites offer basic information such as biographies, photographs, and e-mail links. However, to date, no offices incorporate interactive features like message boards or e-townhalls. As citizens become increasingly Internet savvy, this lag and gap in communication significantly limits constituents’ ability to participate and build trust in government, increasing the gap that exists between the people and the process.

This research will contribute to the practical knowledge within Congress on how best to use the Internet to engage, involve, and inform citizens by facilitating the adoption of innovative interactive Internet tools, such as e-newsletter subscriptions, bulletin boards, and e-townhalls. Ultimately, it will provide benefits to scholars, Members of Congress, and aid their constituents in understanding the decisions congressional offices make. The project incorporates a two-pronged study: 1) a statistical analysis of how and why Members of Congress choose one Internet tool over another; and 2) in-depth studies of 20 offices to identify and understand the factors influencing adoption of tools, the impact of the adopted technologies, as well as the impact of decisions not to adopt, on congressional office routines and procedures for managing feedback from constituents.

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