The snail's-pace negotiations about raising the nation's debt ceiling are a good reminder that Congress rarely does anything quickly. But the House and the Senate have managed in recent years to move forward with relative speed on at least one front: joining Facebook and Twitter.
That's the finding of a study being issued Tuesday by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), a nonprofit group that studies and works to improve the way congressional offices operate. The report, titled "#SocialCongress: Perceptions and Use of Social Media on Capitol Hill," offers the results of a survey of Hill staffers about how they and their bosses use -- or don't use -- these tools.
"While congressional offices may lag behind some leading private-sector organizations in their use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube," the report says, "the legislative branch has adopted social media much more quickly than it adopted other technologies, such as fax machines, email and websites."
Brad Fitch, president and chief executive of CMF, recalled that the Senate's first website -- that of the late Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. -- was hosted by MIT when it launched in 1993, because the Senate hadn't created senate.gov yet.
"Contrast that with now, where you have institutional offices openly supporting members using social media … even offering guidance. That's a real sort of institutional shift [in the] culture," Fitch said.
CMF has worked with Congress for more than three decades, and began its Communicating With Congress project in 2003. For this report, CMF conducted an online survey from October through December 2010, with a total of 260 aides participating from the House and the Senate.
The recent scandal involving indecent tweets sent by resigned congressman Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., reminded people on and off the Hill of the potential perils involved with using social media. And it shed light on the fact that many lawmakers use these sites.
Yet it turns out that on Capitol Hill, the Brave New World of social media is not quite as new or as brave as advertised. Facebook is useful, staffers say, but it's no substitute for a firm handshake or kissing a baby. Lawmakers are still hitting the parade and luncheon circuits, and their offices are still cranking out old-fashioned letters.
Senior managers and social media managers, according to the report, "say they rely most on the more tangible and verifiable forms of interaction with constituents, such as attending events in the district or state, receiving personalized messages from constituents, and holding town hall meetings. However, it is clear that congressional offices are taking Members' Facebook friends seriously."
Although 56 percent of those aides called Facebook a "somewhat important" tool for communicating with constituents, just 8 percent called it "very important." For Twitter, the numbers were 38 percent and 4 percent, and for YouTube, 30 percent and 4 percent.
By contrast, 77 percent considered attending events in their districts or states "very important," while 70 percent said the same of personalized messages from constituents such as email, regular mail, faxes -- yes, some people still send faxes -- and phone calls.
The survey suggests that social media are more useful for getting the word out on basic issues -- for one-way, rather than two-way, communications. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter scored well for communicating lawmakers' "views and activities."
One unnamed member quoted in the report noted that delivering a speech on the House floor reached a certain number of people just via C-SPAN, "but take that video, put it on your YouTube site or put it on Twitter, put it on Facebook and then you're getting that multiplier effect."
Even in the Weiner era (though this survey was conducted before that story broke), staffers are willing to take their chances online: 55 percent said they thought social media "offers my office more benefits than risks," while just 14 percent said the opposite. Younger aides were slightly more brave -- 61 percent of respondents age 30 and younger thought social media were worth the risks, while that number dropped to 50 percent for everyone older than 30.
Not surprisingly, the survey found that "early adopters" of social media saw them as a more useful tool than those offices that waited. In offices that were late to the party, 77 percent of aides said social media "caused staff to worry more about information being leaked prematurely or taken out of context."
It's common on the Hill to find members and staffers alike with their noses stuck in their BlackBerrys. Yet some aides think their offices actually spend too little time on online communications. Democrats, in particular, were more inclined than Republicans "across the board" to believe their offices needed to devote more hours to maintaining the official websites and using Facebook.
And here's more proof that Congress really can move fast: Just since the CMF survey ended in December, Fitch noted, the number of senators using Twitter has roughly doubled.