Some Short Notes on Policy Research Using Government Sources

Mark Giangrande
August 6, 2009 — 1,561 views  
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One of the best ways to research public policy issues is to use government created reports.  There are various agencies that research and advise Congress and the Executive Branch.  Typically Congress will make a request to the General Accountability Office (GAO) or the Congressional Research Service (CRS, a division of the Library of Congress) to examine a policy, a budget impact on implementing that policy, or alternatives that Congress may consider in place of that policy.  The President may turn to the Office of Management and Budget.  The various cabinet departments have their own staffs for different studies they may conduct.

Take, for example, the Cash for Clunkers program.  Current events suggest that this is something recent, partly as a reaction to stimulate the economy, and partly as a way to enhance air quality by getting older cars off the road.  Cash for Clunkers as a concept has been floating around since at least 1996.  The Congressional Research Service issued a report called "A Clean Air Option:  Cash for Clunkers" on September 16th, 1996.

Another current topic is reformation of the health insurance industry.  The Clinton administration approached the topic early in the President's first term.  Much of that debate is recorded in government reports from the time.  Much more information has been developed in later investigations of the industry and its practices.  The GAO has approximately 1,000 or more reports alone related to the topic of health care insurance.  Adding specific terms to a search can narrow the results to a more focused set.

These types of reports are useful for identifying trends and developments in current affairs and policy directions by the federal government.  Both CRS and GAO enjoy a reputation for unbiased analysis in the reports they issue.  That is an important consideration when using these relying on the underlying information reports to support a position. 

One of the problems with locating CRS reports is that there is not one official web site that contains a searchable archive.  There are, however, various libraries and organizations that recognize the significance of this public research and have made efforts to collect and organize CRS publications.  These include the National Council for Science and the Environment, the University of North Texas Libraries, the Federation of American Scientists, and Open CRS.  Many more archives exist.  An easy way to find them is to search the phrase "CRS Reports" in any search engine and examine the results.  The first two pages should include links to many more archives than mentioned here.  Another strategy is to add specific topics such as "campaign financing" or "health care" to the search.

Other major sources for policy reports are the government agencies that regulate a particular policy area.  Examples include the Federal Trade Commission (competition and consumer rights), the Environment Protection Agency (Air, Water, Waste, Pollution, and enforcement) and the Federal Communications Commission (telephone, television, broadband Internet access, and wireless services).  Sometimes agency responsibility overlaps.  The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have overlapping jurisdiction on many projects. 

One way to sort out the purpose of an agency or to even find out what agencies exist is to consult the United States Government Manual.  It is published by the Government Printing Office and available from the web starting with the 1995-1996 edition.  PDF downloads are available.  GPO describes the book this way:

As the official handbook of the Federal Government, the United States Government Manual provides comprehensive information on the agencies of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. It also includes information on quasi-official agencies, international organizations in which the United States participates, and boards, commissions, and committees. The Manual begins with reprints of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The new edition of the Manual is available annually in late summer.

Many libraries have copies of the Government Manual in their reference collections.

Another related publication is the Statistical Abstract of the United States.  This title has been in continuous publication since 1878.  It is available at the United States Census web site and contains, among other things, federal agency statistical reports.  There is also an historical edition that accumulates and analyzes U.S. and state statistics beginning with 1789.  PDF files are available for all editions.  More recent statistics are available as Excel spreadsheet files which can be edited.

There is an attempt by Google and other search engines to have the government tag their data so that it is recognized by search engine crawlers.  This means that Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others can definitely be of help when locating government materials.  Federal web sites sometimes can be hard to use and search.  The current web site for the Federal Communications Commission is a good example.  Searching even obvious terms at the site will result in a jumble of results, some of which may be relevant to the research project.  Sometimes it is better to use a general search engine for results rather than the native search which the agency provides.  Their algorithms tend to focus the most relevant and likely results within the first returned pages.

Keep in mind that the more specific terms that are searched, the more likely the right information can be quickly located.  One strategy is to accumulate information from general results to create subsequent searches that are more focused.  The idea is to locate accurate about a searched item to provide enough information in a search to retrieve the item.

One other site worth noting is the new FDsys page created by the Government Printing Office (GPO).  The standard page for GPO listed as many government publications the agency published.  However, not every other agency used GPO to publish their documents.  FDsys is designed to bring as many of these non-GPO documents under one site for easy search and download.  According to notes on the page, the transition from the old page (GPOAccess) to the new site should be complete by the end of 2009.  The federal and state governments offer many documents for free download.  Consider using them for researching policy initiatives.

Mark Giangrande


Mark Giangrande is a legal research expert at DePaul University. He has created and managed the law school's computing facilities, and taught advanced legal research at the DePaul University College of Law Library. He has practiced law librarianship since 1976 and written numerous articles on a number of subjects, including the use and management law school computing and electronic legal research strategies. He is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries and the Chicago Association of Law Libraries.