The Politics of State Legislature Web Sites—Who Gets Left Out?




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RIT study points to digital divide



Not all state legislatures’ Web sites are created equally. A recent study comparing legislative Web sites reveals a wide range of quality across the 50 states and further evidence of a digital divide.

Three professors from Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Liberal Arts presented their study, The Politics of State Legislature Web Sites: An Evaluation of Content and Design, at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Boston earlier this month.

The study looked at the content available to the average citizen and the "expert" user-the journalist and lobbyist who would use such sites to track legislation, committee meetings, press releases, etc.-and how easily information could be accessed, says Paul Ferber, professor of political science at RIT.

Ferber and his co-authors, Franz Foltz, professor of science, technology and society, and Rudy Pugliese, professor of communication, analyzed and rated the state legislatures’ Web sites based on content, usability (including site design, ease of navigation and accessibility of information), interactivity (features promoting user/government communication) and identification of the sponsor who owns and controls the content of the site.

According to the study, the states with the highest quality Web sites were New Jersey, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and Connecticut.

"New Jersey received a lot of praise for the excellent organization of its site and homepage," Ferber says.

Features that make New Jersey’s Web site a valuable resource for citizens, lobbyists and journalists include:

  • An easily found daily calendar of legislative activities
  • Video and audio of live proceedings, and an archive of past proceedings
  • "Bobby approval" (At the time of the study only New Jersey’s Web site was considered user-friendly for disabled individuals, according to a Web-accessibility software owned by Watchfire Corp.)
  • Spanish, available on the homepage
  • Bills and state laws that can be searched by keyword
  • An interactive district map for searching for members and contact information
  • Educational material for children and adults
  • Privacy policy

    Ferber notes that any one of the top contenders offers users an excellent site. The real difference comes by comparing the top five with the bottom five: Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California and Rhode Island.

    The Illinois site does not provide e-mail addresses for its legislators. And Mississippi’s last-place rating reflects a lack of useful features. Noticeably absent were:

  • District maps
  • Privacy statement
  • Press releases
  • Video or audio feed of floor proceedings
  • Members’ votes
  • Site search engine or site index
  • Access to state law

    Data from the 2000 census indicate that various political and demographic characteristics of the states correlate with the study’s ratings, such as Internet access, education, income, voting participation and size of legislative staff.

    "In states where the population is more likely to want to use the Internet and its contents, those legislatures have more likely met the demand with a higher quality," Foltz says. "You can form a theory that demand drives quality."

    The study points to evidence of a furthering of the digital divide, which the authors extend to include a citizen’s ability to participate in civic life.

    "Citizens in states with higher rates of voting participation appear to be the same ones having more opportunity to participate through their legislature’s Web site," the study states.

    Adds Pugliese: "Although cyber pessimists argue the ‘digital divide’ will produce an audience gap between the haves and have nots, the powerful and the powerless, cyber optimists anticipate a new age of digital democracy allowing audiences greater input to the decisionmaking process in our government. Our research concerns not just the gap between audience members but the gap between the Web sites that work and those that do not."

    A surprise finding in the study revealed that some of the states associated with high-tech industries and universities offered the weakest Web sites. For instance, Texas, New York, California and Illinois all ranked in the bottom 15.

    "We thought more high-tech states like California with Silicon Valley and even New York would have some of the better Web sites," Pugliese says.

    The study also highlights other idiosyncrasies: New York and California are the only states that have separate Web sites for their assembly and Senate, making it difficult for users to gather information on both houses.

    New York’s Assembly site barely mentions the existence of the state Senate, and it does not have a link to the Senate site, something Ferber found "confusing and incomplete." (The New York Senate’s site links to the Assembly’s.)

    The study also noted a lack of Spanish content on the majority of the Web sites, and that no site offered a full Spanish translation.

    To talk to the authors of the study, contact Paul Ferber at 585-475-2938 or phfgss@rit.edu. For a digital photograph of the authors, contact Susan Murphy at 585-475-5061 or murphy@mail.rit.edu.

    For the past decade, U.S. News and World Report has ranked Rochester Institute of Technology as one of the nation’s leading comprehensive universities. RIT is also included in Yahoo Internet Life’s Top 100 Wired Universities, Fisk’s Guide to America’s Best Colleges, as well as Barron’s Best Buys in Education.

    For breaking news stories, hot-topic trend pieces and interesting perspectives visit RIT’s news site and online experts database. To connect with RIT subject matter experts, searchable by name and expertise, go to www.rit.edu/news and click on "RIT Experts."