Rick McGahey, former staff director of the Joint Economic Committee in Congress and a past economic advisor to Sen. Edward Kennedy, is now a senior fellow at the Center for National Policy, a policy research group in Washington, D.C., where he heads up a project on the American standard of living. A few months ago, three hours before broadcast, he was asked to appear on CNBC to discuss the Dole-Clinton welfare reform packages.
In years past, such short notice would probably have resulted in something of a mad scramble to bone up on the latest facts and figures. But in the new era of the information superhighway, McGahey did what many might now do. He turned to the Internet.
A quick search of the World Wide Web brought him to the home page of the Electronic Policy Network (EPN), where he found the full text of a number of recent, authoritative studies on welfare reform. These allowed him to rapidly prepare for the appearance. "Fantastic," he wrote EPN afterwards. "Truly a marvel, and great information."
The nonprofit Electronic Policy Network serves as a good example of the kind of quality information which the Internet potentially puts at the fingertips of anyone involved or interested in government and social policies, whether at federal, state or local levels.
Browsing through the EPN site , which admittedly is still in its infancy, one finds a wealth of information on health, welfare and economics, the high-interest topics which the nonprofit organization concentrated on first to launch the project.
There are reports, for example, on the impact of Medicaid reform and on which states would be hardest hit. There is a comparison study on the various proposals for Medicaid reform and an analysis of the range of options open for achieving federal Medicaid savings. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there is a state-by-state breakdown of the effects of Medicaid cuts and the unanticipated costs these will force on states.
There is also material on the impact of information technology, welfare policy and health care, on privatization and economic policies, broadcasting and public television, and an increasing amount on important issues of defense, intelligence and foreign policy. There is even an interesting paper by Paul Starr, professor of Sociology at Princeton University, co-founder of American Prospect magazine, and founder of the Electronic Policy Network, on policy as a simulation game.
And more material is appearing every few days.
As natural as it might seem that such information would be available through the Internet, the truth is that many of the policy research organizations which routinely conduct in-depth studies of social policy issues have been relatively slow to adapt to the new possibilities offered by the emerging information superhighway.
"In the past, many think tanks or policy research organizations have imagined that their product is a book that goes into the library. Or if they have prepared a report, that this would go to a very small number of people," said Starr.
A number of the better known think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution, now have individual Web sites. However, these by and large tend to lack content and consist almost entirely either of brochure material or catalogue-style listings with brief descriptions of books and reports which one can buy. (Notable exceptions include the Heritage Foundation, and to some extent, the RAND Corp. .)
EPN set out on quite a different tack altogether. Launched last year with a small grant from a small foundation (Citizens Vote), it sought not only to provide a common site through which the work of many different policy research organizations might be accessed, but also to make the site content-rich by providing as much material as possible
directly through the Web.
To accomplish this, Starr has been working to persuade many different policy research groups that they can reach a larger audience through the World Wide Web and that this new technology also allows them to present their material in a more digestible form.
"A lot of different policy research organizations produce excellent, relevant studies, but they often have no way of promoting these to many of the people who would most want to read them," Starr said. "These things aren't in book stores. They aren't on the newsstands. So if you are in the middle of Iowa, how do you find out about them?
"We saw the World Wide Web as a way of bringing material together from different policy research groups and organizing it both topically and also by organization. By making the site as user-friendly as possible, we would help people, both in and outside government service, to find the kind of material that is most relevant. Also, by getting new material up in 24 hours if we could, we saw the Web as a terrific channel for organizations to get their work out in a very timely fashion. It would be easy for others to check in and pick up the latest data and analysis on any topic."
One of the organizations now associated with EPN is the Twentieth Century Fund. They produce much the same kind of material the Brookings Institution does. In initial meetings with the Twentieth Century Fund, Starr said their first impulse was to take the same approach as Brookings -- to put up a catalogue of their books which they now produce at a rate of about one every two weeks.
"I had to convince them that they were not thinking of the potential the Internet offered. It was a whole new avenue to communicate to many people who would not otherwise see their material. Even if they didn't put up a whole book or report, they could put up extracts or a chapter -- something which represented worthwhile material that readers could immediately use. And this is the approach which they are now starting to take through EPN."
Starr believes that the Internet will rapidly change not just who policy research groups reach with their work, but also, to some degree, the way this research is presented.
"The typical product of many policy research organizations is a book of 400 pages," Starr said. "This is a lot of material to go through. The thing about the World Wide Web and the Internet is that you are not limited to one version of a study or article. At the American Prospect, for example, we often get manuscripts from academics that are 40 or 50 pages long. We cut them down quite significantly. Our typical article is 4,000 words and these are from manuscripts that might be typically 15,000 words.
"On EPN we can electronically put up both versions and we can allow the reader to choose between the 4,000-word version or the 15,000-word version. And we can also sometimes persuade authors to do a 750-word summary. I envisage increasingly an electronic table of contents where readers specify whether they want the 750-word, the 4,000-word, or the 15,000-word version, depending upon their particular information needs."
Down the line, Starr hopes that EPN will even carry audio background interviews and oral presentations of some of the papers, extending reader options even further.
"Let the reader decide what he or she needs," Starr offers as the fundamental principle of building information-rich Web sites.
EPN does not pretend to be completely nonpartisan in its political agenda. "It is fair to say that EPN is, by and large, on the more liberal side of the political spectrum, but it is not
meant to be exclusively that," said Starr. "There are some conservative policy organizations who do quality research which I would be glad to include in our site. What we are after is quality research and analysis on all topics of concern at all levels of government and also to the American public at large."
So far, organizations which have chosen EPN as the place to maintain their Web pages include:
* The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
* The Center for Law and Social Policy
* Citizens for Tax Justice
* Economic Policy Institute
* Families USA
* The Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy
* The Jerome Levy Economics Institute
* The Russell Sage Foundation
Other policy research organizations which maintain their own Web pages, such as the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, are also joining EPN as affiliates so that their material can be topically indexed and accessed through EPN.
Much as been written about ways that local and state government is utilizing new technology to reach, involve and better serve the citizen in a cost-effective manner. But on the other side of the coin, new technologies such as the Internet and World Wide Web also allow those in government service to have information resources at their fingertips which they previously have not had.
This can only mean better government at all levels of American society. While anyone can point the Web browser at EPN and obtain the same information, it is those involved in formulating governmental policies and solutions for whom the site might prove most useful.
Comments from some of EPN's users are already starting to reflect this. "This site is excellent," said Lynn Hutton, with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. "It is a great source of information now and looks like it will get even better in the future."
"The best thing about EPN is that it consolidates what other groups are publishing and it arranges these by topic," said Matt McClure, assistant to the director of public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "We are thinking of putting Conference material on EPN because it is a very good avenue to get this material out there and make it available to the general public."
Meanwhile, the general public is already starting to flock to EPN as a worthwhile site to visit. "EPN is one of the best Web resources I've found so far for substantive discussions of economic and other issues facing us today," stated Dave Robbin of GTE Laboratories Inc.
"The Web site looks like it will be a great resource," said Patricia McGrane from Children Now. "I will definitely be adding a link to the page from our listings."
Comments like these highlight one of the fundamental changes that the Internet is expected to precipitate. The general public will have access to almost as much detailed policy information as policy makers themselves. Checking EPN and other similar Web sites in the future might be as natural as following the media is today, not just to rapidly find relevant research from diverse organizations, but also simply to keep up with what the general public knows.