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Guide to Federal Public Policy Research

Back to Public Administration and Policy

GUIDE TO FEDERAL PUBLIC POLICY RESEARCH

by
Richard Irving

Updated: July 10, 2008

"Public policy is an abstract concept that describes the formal expression of intention by a governmental unit through whose written documents and actions it is communicated.  Public policy indicates what beliefs and values are currently accepted and important to each governmental unit" (Survey of Social Science: Government and Politics Series, p. 1633).  Public policy research can be viewed as having three components:

Description of the policy and implementation mechanisms

Historical development

Analysis of the effectiveness

This guide attempts to describe the basic information sources which may be helpful in researching each of the three components.  We have focused on sources and techniques which may prove helpful regardless of the substantive area of any specific federal public policy.  There may be excellent sources, e.g. books written on a particular policy, which may prove to be extremely helpful to the researcher of that topic.  However, this guide will not attempt to describe sources relevant to particular substantive areas, although we do describe where you can find references to those sources.  With each area weprovide references to both official (laws and other documents published by a government entity)  and unofficial ( journal articles, books, privately generated research reports) sources of information.  A few General Reference  sources are listed first.

Location Codes:

ULIB   -  University Library
DEWEY - Dewey Library
INTERNET - Web site openly accessible
ONLINE - Subscription database

General Reference

The Digest of Social Experiments. 3rd. ed. Washington, DC: The Urban institute Press, 2004.
  Contains brief summaries of 240 social experiments intended to evaluate proposed changes in public policy.
DEWEY: REF HN 59.2 G74 2004

Encyclopedia of Policy Studies.  2nd ed.  New York:  M. Dekker, 1994.
  Provides an overview of the field of public policy in general and of specific substantive policy areas.
DEWEY: REF H 97 E6 1994

International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.
  Encyclopedia of concepts and terms arranged alphabetically.  Brief bibliographies often accompany entries. Vol. 4 has an index.
DEWEY:  REF H 97 I574 1998

The Dictionary of Public Policy and Administration.   Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.
  Provides succinct definitions to the essential terms and concepts pertinent to public policy.  Arrangement is first by thematic area and then alphabetical.  General index.
DEWEY:  REF H 97 S483 2004

There are many works in the reference collection which deal with particular topics and which contain public policy information pertaining to that topic, e.g. The Encyclopedia of Housing, DEWEY REF HD 7287 E53 1998,  would be a starting place for policy research dealing with housing issues.

Description- Almost all federal public policy has as its foundation some type of legal authority.  In most instances statutory law which gives the broad outline of the law, and then administrative law which deals with the implementation of the policy , and case law which interprets the policy as it applies to particular circumstances, constitute the legal foundation for a public policy.  Official legal sources tend to be cryptic for non experts to interpret.  Unofficial sources may provide a better overview of the policy and its purpose.

Unofficial Sources:

West's Encyclopedia of American Law.  St. Paul, MN:  West Group, 1998.
  Written for the layperson, this encyclopedia provides brief overviews of federal public policy topics.  Information is updated through the use of a yearbook.
ULIB:   LAW  KF 154 W47 1998
DEWEY:  REF KF 154 W47 1998

Landmark Legislation 1774-2002, by Stephen W. Stathis. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003.
Provides an overview of major legislation from each Congress and references to sources for additional information.
ULIB: REF KF 68 S73 2003

Major acts of Congress, Brian K. Landsberg, editor in chief. Mew York, NY: Macmillan Reference, 2004.
Provides brief summaries of significant federal legislation (262 entries). Short bibliographies are included at the end of each entry. ULIB: REF KF 154 M35 2004
DEWEY: REF KF 154 M35 2004

Law Reviews




Law reviews are periodicals published by law schools.  They contain articles published by legal professionals, law school professors, and law school students.  The articles are well researched and documented, and can provide excellent overviews of public policy issues.  The University Libraries subscribe to over 100 law reviews, most of which are located at the Dewey Library.  In addition, the full-text of many law review articles can be accessed through the Lexis-Nexis Academic electronic database.  The best sources for finding references to law review articles are:

Index to Legal Periodicals & Books.   Bronx, N.Y. : H.W. Wilson Co.,  1929-.
  Provides references to law review articles from a variety of access points including, author, title, subject, statute name, case name.
ULIB:    REF / KF 8 I54x
DEWEY:    REF / Index KF 8 I54x
ONLINE:  http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type Index to Legal Periodicals in the search box   (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus)

LegalTrac. Menlo Park, CA: Information Access Corp., 1980-.
 Provides references to law review articles from a variety of access points including, author, title, subject, statute name, case name.
ONLINE:  http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LegalTrac in the search box  (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus)

LexisNexis Academic.  Reed Elsevier Inc.
Full-text of law review articles accessed by author, title, or keyword.
ONLINE:  http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis in the search box  (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus)

Westlaw Campus West Group
Select "Journals and Law Reviews" and a jurisdiction from the pull down window and search by author, title, or keyword. Select "Find a Document" and search by citation.
ONLINE: http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type Westlaw Campus in the search box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus)

Other Unofficial Sources

Public Affairs Information Service (PAIS). Bulletin. New York: Public Affairs Information Service.
    Indexes resources in public affairs and policy for use by the government, the business/financial community, researchers and students.  Emphasis is on factual  and statistical information. 1400 periodicals as well as books, reports, and federal and state documents are arranged by subject and indexed by author.
DEWEY:  REF  INDEX H 1 Z999 P83, V. 1; 1915+
ULIB:  H 1 Z999 P83, V. 1+; 1915+
ONLINE:  http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type PAIS in the search box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus)

For public policy related to a specific field of study, e.g. criminal justice, check the reference sources associated with that field of study by going to Research A Subject ( http://library.albany.edu/subject/ ) and clicking on the appropriate subject area.

Books, although they tend to not be as current as journal articles, can be valuable sources of information on public policy issues.  Both Index to Legal Periodicals and PAIS provide references to books as well as journals articles.  The University Libraries online catalog,  Minerva (http://minerva.albany.edu), should be checked as well.  When searching for books dealing with the public policy aspect of a topic it is important to realize that the title of a book may not always be indicative of whether the policy dimension of the topic is covered.  Many books may contain a chapter or two dealing with the public policy issues even though that is not clearly indicated by the title of the book.  If you restrict your search results to titles which also have the subject terms "law and legislation" you may get better results.  Ask at the reference desk for assistance in constructing a search strategy to be used  with Minerva.

Search WorldCat  (http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp -- enter WorldCat in search box--off campus access for University at Albany students and faculty only) for references to books not owned by the University Libraries.  You can use the same basic search strategy in WorldCat that you used in MinervaAsk at the reference desk for assistance in constructing your search strategy.

Official Sources:

United States Code

The  United States Code  (http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/) is a subject compilation of existing federal statutory law.  Most federal public policy is ultimately traceable to statutory law, i.e. public laws passed by the U. S. Congress.  The code provides the current text of the law.  There are two commercial versions of the law which because of their updating and reference features,  which lead to additional information sources, may be preferable for research.  They are:

United States Code Annotated.  (USCA) St. Paul, West Pub. Co.
  Access is provided through a multi-volume subject index and a popular name index.  In addition to the text of the law, references may be provided to sources for legislative history, summaries of court decisions relating to the law, and in some cases unofficial sources including law review articles.
DEWEY:    LAW  KF 62 1964 A3
ONLINE: Westlaw Campus
http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp
type Westlaw Campus in the search box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus)

United States Code Service.  (USCS) Charlottesville, VA : LEXIS Publishing.
  Access is provided through a multi-volume subject index and a popular name index.  In addition to the text of the law, references may be provided to sources for legislative history, summaries of court decisions relating to the law, and in some cases secondary sources including law review articles.
ULIB:    LAW  KF 62 1972 L38
ONLINE:  LexisNexis Academic   http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis in the search box; click LexisNexis; click Legal Research, click Federal Code; make sure U.S. Code appears in the Source box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)

Federal Regulations

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) contains executive orders of the President as well as the rules and regulations promulgated by federal agencies regarding the implementation of federal laws.  It is a multi-volume set which is published on a staggered basis each year.  During the course of the year, it is updated by information published in the Federal Register (FR).

Index to the Code of Federal Regulations.   Bethesda, Md. : Congressional Information Service, 1990-.
  provides comprehensive subject indexing.
 ULIB:  LAW  KF 70 A3 INDEX

Code of Federal Regulations.  Washington,  DC:  U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1949-.
    The print set includes a single volume subject index.
ULIB:       LAW / KF 70 A3
DEWEY:      Law KF 70 A3; current year
INTERNET:  Current Code of Federal Regulations http://www4.law.cornell.edu/cfr/   interface provided thru Cornell Law School
ONLINE:  LexisNexis Academic    http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis  in the search box; click LexisNexis; click Legal Research; clickFederal Regulations; make sure Code of Federal Regulations appears in the Source box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)
ONLINE: Westlaw Campus http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type Westlaw Campus in the search box; click Westlaw Campus click GO at bottom of sign on agreement; select Code of Federal Regulations.

Federal Register.  Washington, D.C. :   U.S. G.P.O., 1936-.
  Published each weekday except for national holidays.  Cumulative monthly index.
ULIB       GOVDOC / J 85 AE 2.106:
DEWEY      J 85 AE 2.106: current year
INTERNET: Federal Register Online     http://www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/index.html
ONLINE:LexisNexis   http//library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis in the search box; click LexisNexis; click Legal Research; then Federal Regulations (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)
ONLINE: Westlaw Campus http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type Westlaw Campus in the search box; click Westlaw Campus click GO at bottom of sign on agreement; select Federal Register.

Historical Development of Public Policy - Accessing the legislative history of the federal statute, providing the legal foundation for the policy, is an important element in the historical research process.    Federal legislative history consists of congressional hearings  regarding the policy, congressional reports regarding the underlying act, and congressional debate.  The University Library is a selective depository for federal publications including the publications of the United States Congress. The University Libraries' online catalog, Minerva, includes cataloging records for congressional reports and hearings in our collection.  Also, the University Libraries has printed a brochure, Legislative History: a guide to library research, which lists and describes many of the sources for federal legislative history located within the University Libraries.  A few key print and electronic sources are described below.

Official Sources:

CIS Annual.  Bethesda, MD:  Congressional Information Service, 1970-.
  This index to the publications of the U.S. Congress is published monthly with an annual cumulation.  It has three parts; index, abstracts, and legislative history.  The abstracts include a description of each document and the Su.Doc. number if available.  The Su.Doc. number can be used to locate the document in the University Library's government document collection.  It is also available online through LexisNexis Congressional ,
ULIB:  GOVDOC  REF Z 1223 A252X
DEWEY:  REF  Index Z 1223 A252X
ONLINE:  CIS Index is available thru LexisNexis Congressional , http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis Congressional   in the search box; click LexisNexis Congressional (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)

LexisNexis Congressional.  Congressional Information Service, c1998-.
  Information by and about the United States  Congress including an index (CIS Annual) of congressional publications since 1789, legislative histories since 1970, testimony from congressional  hearings, bill tracking, text of the Congressional  Record and Federal Register,and information about members and committees.
ONLINE:  LexisNexis Congressional    http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis Congressional   in the search box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)

Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications. Issued by the Superintendent of Documents, Washington, DC: U.S. GPO, 1951-.
  The major bibliographic reference source for publications from all branches of the federal government.
ULIB: GOVDOC  REF  J 85 Gp 3.8:
INTERNET:   Catalog of U.S. Government Publications http://www.gpoaccess.gov/cgp/index.html
ONLINE: GPO MONTHLY CATALOG   http:/library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type GPO  in the search box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)

Thomas-Legislative Information on the Internet
 The official web site of the United States Congress. Includes the full-text of hearings, reports, and congressional debate.
INTERNET:  Thomas  http://thomas.loc.gov/

Major studies and issue briefs of the Congressional Research Service.  Washington, D.C. :Library of Congress,  Congressional Research Service,1978-.
  The Congressional Research Service provides Congress with research and analysis of issues being considered by the Congress.  This series includes its published reports.
ULIB:  GOVDOC Film JK 1108 M35 1978-2008
ONLINE: GalleryWatch CRS Reports   http:/library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type CRS in the search box (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)
INTERNET:  Congressional Research Service reports on the web  http://zfacts.com/p/576.html ; a Google search engine limited to finding CRS reports

Congressional Research Reports for the People
Site, maintained by the Center for Technology and Democracy, provides access to over 3,000 CRS documents.
INTERNET: Congressional Research Reports for the People http://www.opencrs.com/

Congressional Research Service Reports, Hosted by UNT Libraries
Search or browse by subject selected CRS reports at this site maintained by the University of North Texas Libraries.
INTERNET: Congressional Research Service Reports, Hosted by UNT Libraries http://digital.library.unt.edu/govdocs/crs/

Major studies of the Legislative Reference Service .  Arlington, Va. : University Publications of America, 1916-1977.
  The predecessor to Major Studies and Issue Briefs of the Congressional Research Servic.  There is a print guide to the collection.
ULIB: GOVDOC Film JK 1108 M35 1916-77

United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) St. Paul : West Pub. Co. 1951-.
Includes the text of all public laws and selective congressional reports.
ULIB: LAW  KF 48
DEWEY: LAW  KF 48

Congressional Record.  Washington : Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1873-.
Record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress.
ULIB:  GOVDOC J 85 X/A CONG/SESS
INTERNET:  Congressional Record   http://www.gpoaccess.gov/crecord/index.html
ONLINE:  Congressional Record  http://library.albany.edu/databases/search.asp type LexisNexis Congressional in the search box; click LexisNexis Congressional ;click Publications (University at Albany affiliation required for off campus access)

Congressional Record Index Washington, D.C. : Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1873-.
Semimonthly, includes a subject index.
ULIB:  GOVDOC  J 85 X/A.CONG/SESS.:INDEX BldgOnly
INTERNET: Congressional Record Index (online)  http://www.gpoaccess.gov/cri/index.html

Unoffical Sources:

CQ Almanac.    Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1948-.
An annual compendium of the most recently completed congressional session.  Provides summaries of legislative action, roll call votes, analyses of members' voting patterns, interest group ratings, and the text of presidential messages to Congress.
ULIB:    REF  JK 1 C66
DEWEY:  JK 1 C66; latest two years shelved in REF

Congress and the Nation.  Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1945-.
Five year compilations of the activities of Congress.  Excellent source for tracing the development of an issue over a period of time. There is a separate index volume covering the years 1977-2001.
ULIB: REF  KF 49 C65
DEWEY:  REF  KF 49 C65

The CQ Researcher. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1991-.
Provides an overview of current major public policy issues with references to quality sources of information. References to articles can be found in Ebsco Academic Source Premier.
ULIB: PER H35 E352x; 1991-2008.
ONLINE: CQ Researcher 1991-. http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/

CQ Weekly.  Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1945-.
Provides a summary of the events having taken place in Congress that week.  Includes texts of important documents, summary of action on major bills, and the voting record of members.  There are quarterly and annual indexes.  Much of the information later appears in the CQ Almanac.
ULIB: Per  JK 1 C15; print holdings end with 2005.
DEWEY: Per  JK 1 C15; print holdings end with 2005.
ONLINE: CQ Weekly 1983-. http://library.cqpress.com/cqweekly/

National Journal.  Washington, DC: National Journal Group, Inc., 1969-.
Weekly journal providing news and analyses of federal policy making and politics.
ULIB:  Per  JK 1 N28
DEWEY: Per - CurDisplay  JK 1 N28
ONLINE: National Journal January 2000- 14 day delay for current issue
Link provided through the University Libraries' online catalog, Minerva.

Analysis of the Effectiveness of the Policy - One method of finding analyses of the effectiveness of a particular public policy is to check the literature dealing with the substantive area of that policy. Check for books written about the policy by searching either the University Libraries' online catalog, Minerva, ot the database,Worldcat.  Look for journal articles by consulting the bibliographic databases associated with the substantive area of the policy.  If you aren't sure of the appropriate databases, consult the Research a Subject page; click Databases & Online Journals; click Indexes from the choices at the top of the screen.  The sources listed below can be consulted regardless of the subject area of the policy.

Official Sources:

Congressional hearings and reports can be important sources of information regarding the analysis of a policy as well as providing legislative history regarding a policy.  Congressional committees may conduct hearings investigating its effectiveness and ways on improving its effectiveness.  Thus, the same sources which proved useful for accessing legislative history may provide, at a later time, analysis of the policy.

The United States Government Accountability Office reports - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the investigative arm of the Congress.  It publishes reports of audits and evaluations of government programs and activities.  references to the reports may be found in the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications.  Many of their reports  will be in the GOVDOC section of the University Library and most published after 1995 are available from GAO's web site, http://www.gao.gov/ .

Federal departments and agency publications - Federal departments and agencies charged with implementing a particular policy may publish reports of their activities and experiences with the policy.  Published reports will be referenced in the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications and many of the referenced documents will be found in the GOVDOC section of the University Library.  In addition, most federal departments have web sites where at least some of their publications may be accessed full-text.  The governments web site, USA.gov, http://www.usa.gov/ , provides easy access to the web sites of the departments and agencies.

Unofficial Sources:

Publications of Think Tanks - Think tank is a popular term used to describe organizations conducting public policy research. Almost all U.S. think tanks are privately funded, although some, such as the Rand Corporation, may also rely on government funding to support their research activities. During the last few decades the number of think tanks has proliferated as they have become important players in the policy making process.  While most think tanks have an ideological perspective, their research tends to be scientific and they don't directly lobby for particular policy positions.  Think tanks can be contrasted with advocacy groups which also conduct research on policy issues but which openly lobby the government arguing that their positions be adopted.  The distinction between think tanks and advocacy groups may not be readily apparent to the novice researcher.  Most think tanks and advocacy groups  have web sites which may also provide access to at least some of their publications.  The NIRA World Directory of ThinkTanks , http://www.nira.go.jp/ice/tt-info/nwdtt99/ , provides Internet access to think tanks. A listing and brief description of major US think tanks can be accesserd at the Public Administration and Policy  Internet Resources web page (http://library.albany.edu/subject/glpp.htm).  Links to the homepages of each of the think tanks is also provided from that web page.  The two publications described below provide information on United States based think tanks.

Think Tank Directory.  Topeka, KS : Government Research Service, 1996-.
  An alphabetical listing of United States think tanks.  Each entry includes the policy areas of interest.  Subject access is limited to broad public policy topical areas.
DEWEY:  REF H 96 T48

Public Interest Profiles, 2001-2002.  Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc. 2001.
  Contains descriptions of major national think tanks and advocacy group.  Advocacy groups are divided into eleven broad topical areas.  Each entry includes the policy area(s) of interest to that particular organization.
DEWEY:  REF JK 1118 P8; earlier editions are in Dewey's oversized collection

Internet site - The Almanac of Policy Issues http://www.policyalmanac.org/ is a web site which provides information from various perspectives on major United States public policy issues. It contains links to the full-text of publications, including some think tank publications, dealing with particular public policies. The quality of information accessed at this site varies from news and opinion articles to scientifically based research.


This page is maintained by Richard Irving
Comments to rirving@uamail.albany.edu