Note to Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Website NEEDS Overhaul


Senate Foreign Relations Committee Website TWN.jpg
It may take an Act of Congress to overhaul that Senate Committee on Foreign Relations website, but the Senate desperately needs to do it. With all due respect to the webmaster on the Committee and to Committee Chairman John Kerry and Ranking Member Richard Lugar, the SFRC website sucks!
I have been looking at this site for years and years, and it just doesn’t change. This is the way the site looked during the 2005 John Bolton hearings – and it is probably the way it looked in 1995.
In contrast, the State Department has given its website a spiffy new look. So, to the White House which has imported those sweeping blues from the Obama campaign site.
Maybe Joe Biden wanted to get into the Executive Branch so badly because he wanted to escape his bad website on the Committee he previously chaired. (joking)
I once compared what one could then surmise about the executive skill sets of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in how they deployed their resources as legislators. I was surprised to learn then that now President Obama had not chaired a European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but found that Clinton had been active during her presidential campaign efforts in chairing a number of hearings of the Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health of the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. Clinton’s hearings were all posted as digital video clips on the site.
Compare the Environment & Public Works Site to the Foreign Relations Committee site.
Something has to be done.
To give some credit, it is great that the Committee and John Kerry have arranged for live, real-time viewing of hearings over the website, but honestly — where are the digital files for later viewing??
The hearings for James Steinberg and Jacob Lew were quite interesting. I attended and would really like to review a statement that Steinberg made, but unless the tape is hidden in a Members only, secret access section of the Committee site, that live streaming that we taxpayers helped pay for is not accessible.
So, time for an overhaul. This is a friendly nudge to friends on the Committee, both sides of the aisle, who should use the SFRC site to create a bigger platform and chamber for their work.
In fact, if I don’t hear from the Committee this week that SOMETHING different is in the works, I’m going to organize a Facebook page “A Million Strong Against the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Website.” Seriously. . .I will.
— Steve Clemons
Update: This from a staff friend of mine who knows some of behind the scenes stuff on a number of cool US Senate committees

Good post today. That website has indeed remained the very same since at least 2001. What I always found the most amusing was the photos of the Members – Biden’s photo was from the late 70’s when he had a full head of hair, and the photos of the other Senators are also incredibly dated.
Please note, however, that the Committee has no “Webmaster”. The website is maintained by an early 20s staff assistant who has not been given direction by his/her superiors that the website should be a priority. Hopefully, your post will provide some motivation.
P.S. There is no secret, Members-only section. Some of us staff would also enjoy the ability to review tape of past hearings …

— Steve Clemons


25 comments on “Note to Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Website NEEDS Overhaul

  1. Akhtar Kassimyar, M.D. says:

    February 21, 2009
    Akhtar Qassimyar, M.D.
    16829 Silver Crest Drive
    San Diego, CA 92127
    Subject: Letter concerning the upcoming Presidential Candidates and Election in Afghanistan
    President Barack Obama, and the Obama Administration of the United States,
    Dear Sir:
    I would like to bring to the attention of your administration that there are multiple candidates running for the next presidential election in Afghanistan. Based on my personal knowledge and 30-year experience about Afghanistan, I just briefly wrote the following facts regarding the candidates:
    1- Afghanistan is in war with America and its ally forces, for this reason Afghanistan needs a president who has strong personality, military experience, and who is a popular politician from inside Afghanistan who has the support of Afghan people to run the country in this volatile situation. All the current presidential candidates in Afghanistan are either outsiders, or notorious warlords. Among all the candidates, the only candidate who can make a difference is the former defense minister, General Shahnawas Tanai, who has a strong personality, military experience during war in the country, and he is a popular politician from inside Afghanistan who has support from the Afghan people and can run the country in the present unstable situation better than any other person in Afghanistan.
    2- In the present volatile situation, Afghanistan needs a president who has a strong political party which is well-connected with the Afghan people throughout the country. All the current presidential candidates in Afghanistan are either individuals, or warlords who have armed groups, limited to either few districts or few provinces in Afghanistan. Among all the candidates, the only candidate who has a multi-ethnic political party which has thousands of members throughout the country is the former defense Minister, General Shahnawas Tanai. His Peace Movement Party is the only party in Afghanistan which has members in villages, towns, cities and provinces throughout the country, from Kandahar in the South to Mazar-i-Sharif in the North, and from Jalalabad in the East to Herat in the West. The registered and photo ID members of the Afghanistan Peace Movement party (APMP) are around twenty thousand people throughout Afghanistan. Each of the registered members have many family members, relatives and friends who support the party even if they are not registered members of the Peace Movement Party. All these people collectively will be supportive of the Afghan government and will be cooperative with the Afghan government without getting any salaries. There is no other candidate even close to General Tanai to offer such massive support for the Afghan government in this volatile situation in the country. The members of his party are educated and have long-term experience in Afghanistan, both in war and administration of the Afghan people. The Afghanistan Peace Movement Party was not involved in any violence for power in the last 15 years in Afghanistan.
    3- In the present economic recession, Afghanistan needs a president who has a clean and transparent history in Afghanistan. All the current presidential candidates in Afghanistan are either high officials of Hamid Karzai‘s government, or warlords who have been collectively involved in stealing billions of dollars in the past eight years from the International Aid poured to Afghanistan. Among the present candidates, the only candidate who has a clean and transparent political history is the former defense Minister, General Shahnawas Tanai. The obvious fact to prove this claim is the reason that he does not have a house in Kabul, despite the fact that he had been working in higher public offices as a military general including the Army Chief of Staff, and defense minister of Afghanistan. He is famous and popular for his anti-corruption history for the reason that there is no evidence that a small amount of public money was abused when he was the defense minister of Afghanistan.
    4- The Pashtun ethnicity is majority and makes up over sixty percent of the population of Afghanistan. Afghanistan have been ruled by the Pashtun majority in the past 250 years since the birth of Afghanistan in 1747, except 10 years which was ruled by Habibullah Kalakani (9 months), Pre. Babrak Karmal (5 years), and Pre. Burhanudeen Robani (4 years) who were tajik Afghans. The Pashtun ethnicity is key to stability and peace in Afghanistan. The British Empire was defeated by Pashtun Afghans in all three Anglo-Afghan wars. The USSR was defeated by the Pashtun Afghans. There were seven Afghan Mujahideen parties headquartered in Peshawar, which were involved in fighting against the Soviet Red Army to liberate Afghanistan in 1980’s. Six of the Afghan Mujahidden parties were predominantly Pashtun Afghans, except Rabani-Masoud’s Jameiat party which was predominantly Tajik Afghans. Later, the Northern Alliance minor ethnicities including commander Masoud had changed their positions and were collaborating with the Soviets. In the present time America and its ally forces are fighting only against Pashtun Afghans. The Northern Alliance were collaborating with the USSR during the Soviet invasion in 1980‘s. Although the George Bush administration spend and gave seventy million dollars to the Northern Alliance warlords in bribery to collaborate with the USA during the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001, in the present time the Northern Alliance are more pro-Russian and pro-Iranian than pro-American, because Tajik-Uzbek-Hazarah have close relations with Russia and Iran.
    For changes in Afghanistan, it is necessary for your administration to use intensive diplomacy to influence the Pashtun ethnicity and to normalize relations with them in Afghanistan which was alienated by the Bush administration. Pashtun Afghans are not only the key to stability in Afghanistan, but also they are anti- Russian and anti-Iranian, so the USA will not lose anything in supporting the major Pashtun ethnicity like the USA lost in Iraq for the reason that Iran has more influence in the Shie-iat majority in Iraq than the USA. Although, the Bush administration used to purport Karzai as Afghanistan’s Gandi in early 2001‘s, I wrote at the very beginning the reasons that Karzai and his Northern Alliance government would fail in its entirety. The Bush administration was being misled by the Karzai government which is made of the Northern Alliance, anti-Pashtun elements.
    General Shahnawas Tanai is a patriotic and dynamic person and will really be able to make changes and make a difference in Afghanistan. Most of the candidates including Hamid Karezai himself are multi-millionaires who made a lot of money during the Karzai government. General Tanai has no money, but he is the man of moral and popularity. The USA can prove in Afghanistan what I stated in this letter
    For the foregoing reasons I, highly recommend your administration to support General Tanai in his presidential campaign in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a mountainous country and war is very hard and expensive in Afghanistan, especially in the present world-wide economic recession. If the present Karzai government is replaced by another corrupted government in Afghanistan, the USA and its allies could not afford the heavy expenses of war in Afghanistan. As a result, the USA and its allies will have no option but to withdraw from the country, and will have the same fate just like the former USSR which was defeated in 1989, and pulled out from Afghanistan after a decade-long war. The Soviets in Afghanistan’s occupation had two problems. There was a lot of International pressure on the USSR to end the occupation, and the Soviet image was seriously damaged in the world. Secondly the USSR was not able to consolidate its power for almost ten years in Afghanistan, and the continuation of the wide-spread Soviet-Afghan war was economically very expensive for the Kremlin to pay for the cost of the war.
    My interest in this letter is to decrease the on going violence and bloodshed amongst the Afghan people, women and children who have been suffering in the past 30 years. I have a moral obligation to write, from my experience, what would be the right path for Afghanistan because I know what is the right in Afghanistan, and your administration has the option of whether to accept it or not. My book about the present situation in Afghanistan will be published in the iUniverse publishing company in the next few months, if ready, I will send you the first book for the reason that I believe it will be helpful. Thank you.
    Akhtar Kassimyar, M.D.


  2. pauline says:

    A very good friend of mine has been doing web design for the past 8 years. He’s attracted a wide variety of clients as his artistic and computer skills meld into artistically creative and functional sites.
    He might be willing to offer his services on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations website, even though he’s fairly unpolitical.
    Isn’t it amazing with all the taxpayer money potentially available for an inexpensive website upgrade, the feds can’t even get that done right! They can’t do much of anything correct for this country when it involves money. How about if they propose legislation the people can then e-vote on whether its yea or nay? They debate, citizens can then e-vote how much the taxpayer dollars go to their proposed legislation.
    We can send people into outer space with a high degree of accuracy, just don’t ask the feds to explain where all the baillout money went. Both sides are clueness, maybe by design.


  3. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Thank you, AnonStaffer.
    As a citizen, I’m heartened to know that committee staff
    recognize the website is a public embarrassment.
    You might have fun showing your new webmaster a few cool
    ideas like this one at Gapminder, which mixes data displays
    with narrative explanation:
    Not that I care to watch Sen Kerry, or anyone else from SFRC, in
    Hans Rosling’s role as narrator; perhaps they could have
    someone from a think tank or university cover the presentation
    element. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see more emphasis
    on clear data.
    If the Swedes and can pull it off, the US SFRC
    ought to be able to move toward this standard of
    communication excellence.
    Who knows – something like that might even translate into
    better decision making and more coherent discussions.


  4. Paul Norheim says:

    Steve Clemons: the cosmetic hero of the day -:)


  5. AnonStaffer says:

    Dear Steve:
    You rock. I am posting here anonymously as a staffer near/next to/possibly at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and ALL OF US HERE HATE OUR COMMITTEE WEBSITE.
    Your piece made all the rounds today, and I’m sure Senators Kerry and Lugar both saw your post. Some staffers were reading it at their desks and erupted in spontaneous giggles.
    You lit the fire man. And change is on the way. Thank God.
    John Kerry himself hates this website.
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
    Everyone here now knows that this is going to happen now, and the new team here are positive and loved your piece.


  6. ... says:

    steve, you continue to hold my respect and admiration.. thanks for the post on the other thread..


  7. Steve Clemons says:

    JohnH — I thought there were few in the country who could beat my natural cynicism. 😉 you did it. My friend, fixing a website and expressing a civil society call to do it is not anything like an argument about needing a war. You are a long time poster here and know that I think very few wars are needed — but better transparency and efficient portals into government are. I also believe in laughing now and then — and having fun — even though I know that there is drama out there enough to depress us 24/7. But I, like most, compartmentalize. Hope all is well – and thanks for the comments…best, steve


  8. JohnH says:

    This whole discussion makes me laugh. It’s so characteristic of how Washington works–the pervasive mentality of ready, fire, aim.
    Someone proposes something–the need for a new website, the need to invade Iran, etc. etc. Then everyone runs around cheering, “Yes! We need to do that! We really need to do that!”
    Only later do you find out what the real problem was and why we “needed” to do something. Of course, sometimes you never find out why it was so urgent that we do something–like occupy Afghanistan, Iraq…
    Naomi Klein covers this whole syndrome well in “Disaster Capitalism.”


  9. Steve Clemons says:

    Change is coming Tahoe….change is coming!
    😉 steve


  10. Tahoe Editor says:

    It may take an act of God to overhaul TWN.
    Spiffiness is as spiffiness does.


  11. Steve Clemons says:

    JamesL — Thanks for your note. Spiffiness does not equate to
    funcationality for sure — but spiffiness and functionality often
    happen to co-ride the same track when there is vision about what
    a website can achieve. The video links at the site are terrible.
    There is the worst form of labeling and archiving I have seen on a
    major website. So, sorry you feel dismay — but I’ll stand where I
    am on this. That site is an important portal in the work of the
    Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Very little new functionality
    has been added in years — no search function, no RSS feeds, lousy
    archiving — and yes, the visuals suck. It’s all a package — and it
    needs to be updated, overhauled and enhanced. Thanks for
    weighing in (but you are wrong). best, steve


  12. JamesL says:

    I seem to be alone in dismay at your posting, Steve, specifically your criticism that the site wasn’t “spiffy” enough. Spiffy doesn’t matter. Spiffy in no way equates to content, or ease or speed of navigation and loading. Some of the spiffiest sites are absolutely some of the most vacuous, frustrating, and time-wasteful. Though I pick a bone with “antiquated” being a useful word, Kervick comes closest: “We’re not just talking about cosmetic changes here. How many people give up every day on getting important information … faced with the frequently confusing and very inconsistent and much antiquated web presence….”. Clarity, navigation, page-space control (TPM’s lack), speed, content, archives. Those are the issues. If one has to have the latest, fastest computer to effectively access a site, a lot of citizens are effectively excluded, which should be considered counterproductive and a stain on site design.


  13. JohnH says:

    Kervick–if Steve wants substantive changes in the site to make it more user friendly, then I agree. Mostly, though, Steve was complaining about the LOOK of the site. He was also complaining about accessibility of information, which has nothing to do with the design of the site but with permissions granted.
    It reminded me of the company I worked for that desperately needed a new revenue stream. A new CEO came onto the scene. His first action was to redo the brand and the website. Of course, it would have been nice to know what products and services we would be selling before we rebranded…


  14. Michael Miner says:

    Right on Steve! This has bugged me for YEARS. There is so much potential for the committee to not only better display it’s efforts and responsibilities, but also more face time and communication directly to the people at home and around the world.
    It’s win-win to give it a fair shake.
    PS As someone who can relate to being an early 20’s staffer, I have to back up the webmaster in that you need the tools and direction from above to make something happen. Hopefully that happens sooner than later!


  15. Dan Kervick says:

    We’re not just talking about cosmetic changes here. How many people give up every day on getting important information from their government when they are faced with the frequently confusing and very inconsistent and much antiquated web presence of many government offices and agencies? The government on the web still looks like a Byzantine, redundant and grossly inefficient bureaucracy, not an efficient system.
    Web and web application design plays an important role throughout the business world in enhancing efficiency, intelligibility, rationalization and productivity, and in stimulating and facilitating value-generating interactions. Citizens’ access to their government should be seamless, simple and easily intelligible. More thought should be given to uniformity in design elements, layout and applications. Skills the citizen acquires in interacting with one branch of the government should be easily transferable to their next interaction, even if that is with a different branch or level of government.
    I know there are some terrific government web sites out there. But my sense is that right now thee is a haphazard process with each department taking care of its own web business, and not enough work on integration across the entire government.
    There should be something like a common platform across the entire federal government, and a central agency that handles the integration of government interaction and communication with the public, so that if one agency develops a new tool for handling video, for example, or other citizen queries of any kind, that innovation can be submitted as a suggestion for general use to agency, approved, and propagated quickly and seamlessly across the government’s integrated web platform.
    This seems like a very Obama-like thing to do. It fits into his plans for “bottom-up” approaches to governance.


  16. long island girl says:

    It is advisable that their website would be updated once in a while and improve it’s functionality as well because it’s an information website. The site gets a lot of visits everyday and it would be frustrating if what the people will see is not worth it.


  17. JohnH says:

    I agree with Steve–we DESPERATELY need more COSMETIC change!!!!


  18. Ael says:

    I compared the two sites (foreign relations/public works)
    There really is little or no functional difference.
    Except that, if you were blind, the public works one would be almost impossible to navigate.
    Why not suggest concrete improvements, rather than say “do something”. I rather liked your suggestion about archival access to past hearings.
    More suggestions like that would be helpful.


  19. Dan Kervick says:

    Maybe the new infrastructure component of the stimulus package should include an item to put newly unemployed IT professionals and designers to work across the country to bring the communications infrastructure of our government – federal, state and local – into the 21st century. Seriously.


  20. rich says:

    Sign me up for that Facebook page. I can’t stand not being able to access archived hearings—can’t always watch live, and it should’ve been standard 5 years ago. Minimum.
    Great work, Steve, across the board, in range, detail and scope.
    Any chance you can plug mass transit? Paving everything in sight will install the same structural inefficiencies that prevent America from competing effectively in the global economy. You saw China’s high-speed rail: we need a Manhattan Project-scaled effort here. Upgrading the NorthEast Corridor is wholly inadequate–it’s a sop and targets those who need it least.
    Obviously we need an immediate stimulus, but we can’t confuse that imperative with the very short-term thinking that’s gotten us into this mess. Apparently, though, short-term greed has a narcotic power that prevents long-term thinking or sound investment. We need infrastucture projects that have an actual product. Resurfacing is necessary, but it’s just maintenance. Top-of-the-line high-speed rail will pay off for a century.


  21. Steve Clemons says:

    Caitlyn – Wouldn’t you agree that a marker called “NOMINATIONS” does not lead one to think that that might be the button push to get to video clips??
    Overhaul needed.


  22. Steve Clemons says:

    Caitlyn — thanks for the good counsel. I am going to look now — but that won’t dial down my strident call for “Change” by more than half a decibel.
    best, steve


  23. Lurker says:

    You sure know how to yank a chain and have fun doing it. I bet your friends at the Foreign Relations Committee move their overhaul forward now.
    Fun to see how DC works.


  24. Caitlyn says:

    Steve, the SFRC video files for later viewing are accessed by
    going to the page for the hearing you are interested in and
    clicking on the title of the hearing. For example, go to the page
    for Susan Rice’s hearing. In big blue type is the title
    “NOMINATIONS”. Click on that and the viewer will play the
    hearing. Unfortunately, it includes the dead air before the
    hearing started, and it is in Flash format and not as easy to snip
    clips from as MP4 files, but it is there.
    Obviously, this is not clarity personified (is there a greek
    goddess for clarity?), but it is there.
    I am not sure if they post all the the videos for business
    meetings even though they included active links.
    Right now I am watching the archive of James Steinberg’s
    hearing on Jan.28th, which is listed as a business meeting.


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