Suggested Free Sources to Learn the Basics of Public Policy Issues
Facts do matter. And so do sources.
However, finding trustworthy sources of primary information can be tricky. Wikipedia can be a good source of secondary information and a guide to find primary sources of information. But in the end, if you stop at Wikipedia, you are only relying on Wikipedia and not your own research.
With the caveat that all things are political to one extent or another, below is a list of recommended sources of information that provide neutral credible information.
These have been chosen because they include non-technical explanations to foster understanding of the issues under consideration. And they are free.
Government Accountability Office (GAO): www.gao.gov
The GAO is an investigative arm of Congress and is one of my favorite shortcuts to get background information on just about any public policy topic involving the federal government. That covers just about everything. The nonpartisan office describes itself as examining “how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, reliable information to help the government save money and work more efficiently.” But this office is occupied by far more than only talented accountants.
Federal Register: www.federalregister.gov
The Federal Register is the daily journal of the federal bureaucracy and takes a little more work than the GAO to find specific information. Among other things, it contains announcements about regulatory policy and publishes advanced notices of rules, proposed rules and final rules.
Don’t be daunted by the legal language. Advanced notices of rulemaking and notices of proposed rulemaking contain simple English explanations of the regulatory activity as well histories of how they came about.
Notices of proposed rules and final rules that are considered major also include regulatory impact statements that provide information on the numbers and types of entities that will be affected by the rules. It also includes estimates of how much entities should expect to spend to comply with the rules. These economic numbers are usually seen as estimates and are often subject of significant debate among competing interests.
Congressional Research Service (CRS) crsreports.congress.gov
A good place to start looking for the truth about federal legislation and legislative proposals should start with CRS. CRS provides nonpartisan briefing materials for members of Congress. These reports generally offer excellent summaries of how and why laws were crafted. The briefing papers analyze current policies and discuss the effects of proposed policy alternatives.
National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL): www.ncsl.org
The NCSL is a good place to start researching how state governments are responding to public policy issues. The nonpartisan organization tracks state legislation and provides briefing papers outlining. For example, you can track how states are responding to calls for police reform or reproductive rights or climate change or data privacy — to name but a few of the issues states confront.
U.S. Census: www.census.gov
The U.S. Census provides a wealth of demographic data and a wide variety of topics. While the Census is conducted once every 10 years, it does conduct and release surveys and statistics regularly on a wide variety of topics. Like the Bureau of Labor Statistics mentioned below, Census data can put a human face on research. Its work is often used by policymakers in estimating how regulations will affect individuals and organizations.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) www.bls.gov
The BLS is housed within the Department of Labor and generates a large flow of data including the well-known Consumer Price Index. However, it also offers a wealth of statistical information about employment by economic sector which can put a human face on your analysis.
National Academy of Sciences (NAS): www.nasonline.org
NAS is a private, nonprofit organization of the nation’s leading researchers. Through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the NAS provides objective, science-based advice on issues affecting the nation. Its reports offer some of the most in-depth discussions of topics you will find anywhere. The reports – as the organization’s name suggests – focus on science and technology. But it is not unusual to see social science reports as well. For example, it issued a report entitled Practical Resources for Recruiting Minorities for Chief Executive Officers at Public Transportation Agencies. Many of the publications and reports and proceedings can be accessed on line for free.
Access to legal opinions can cost money, but there are ways to access these opinions for free. The U.S. Supreme Court’s website (www.supremecourt.gov) lists many of its decisions for free downloading,
Legal decisions – above and beyond their inherent value – can be useful in learning about the history of many topics as judges often summarize the history of laws or explain technical issues in simple terms as part of their decisions.
There are some websites that provide free access to case law (such as Google Scholar – https://scholar.google.com) with some basic search functions.