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

Blake Harris  |  Editor