On Jan. 31, the Republicans in Congress launched a new website to forward their agenda. A little over three weeks out, how are they doing? At first glance, GOP.gov looks promising—but the devil lies in the proverbial details.

Catching up with new media is a big topic among Republicans these days (sample headline from GOP.gov: "GOP Surpasses Dems On Twitter"), and the site does its darnedest to get new technology right—it has a blog, a video page, and nerd-core extras like an RSS feed and an API (don't ask). It advertises functions that would seem to hit the spot, including official talking points, information about legislation and a "Solutions" section that highlights policy alternatives. Plus, the site even solicits stories from people hard-hit by the current economy, a nice social media touch. And it has press releases. Lots and lots of press releases.

Those press releases illustrate the biggest problem with GOP.gov—it has potential as a framework, but what good is it unless people actually fill it with good content? The Legislation section currently contains one bill, a Republican version of the budget. The blog? Three entries, two of them substantive, none of them signed by an author or otherwise "bloggy" in any way. The "What They're Saying" section does a decent job aggregating columns, op-eds and other material produced by
Republicans in Congress, but again this is all material produced for other purposes and just reprinted here.

And much of the content is presented oddly, without context—for such a small site, I had a strangely hard time figuring out exactly where I was! Part of the problem is that GOP.gov offers several paths to the same store of content, which is an advantage on a large site but can be confusing on a small one. But really, much of the content just needs a little bit of explanation—something as simple as a one-sentence intro for each of the various reprints on the site, to answer basic questions about what the piece is and why someone should read it. Same with the video section—the site displays several C-Span/YouTube clips of Republicans speaking on the floor, but with no text or description, meaning that a reader has to actually play them to have any idea what they're about.

How about the equivalent Democratic sites? The one for the House Democratic Caucus hasn't been updated since the Fall (oops), but the Senate Democrats (democrats.senate.gov) provide a better model. They don't have an API, RSS or an email distribution list, but they do have a clear (and filled-out) Agenda section, an obvious list of members and committees (and hence some actual potential user value), and an obvious and functional navigation system. Their "Journal" is no more bloggy than its Republican counterpart and hasn't been updated since early February, but the video section is vastly better—each clip is presented as part of an overall story, with Google-friendly (and reader-friendly) text framing the presentation. Once again the site is far from perfect, but at least it has some potential as a communications tool.

Overall grade for GOP.gov? Let's be kind and give them a chance for a redo—but next time, focus on usability and content over tech-geek details.


Colin Delany is a 13-year veteran of the online politics space, an online communications consultant and the founder and editor of Epolitics.com.