July 6, 2011 – Individuals consider several factors when selecting websites for research. Those factors could include currency of the data, whether clear bias exists, if the site is user friendly, and the authority or source of the information. From this list, I consider authority the most important. Is the data from a trustworthy source? Is the author an expert on the topic? To ensure good authority, I often start my search with government websites. Here are a few of my favorites.
The Government Printing Office recently launched the Federal Digital System, a new redesigned website. The site includes access to the Code of Federal Regulations, Congressional hearings and reports, the Federal Register, and the U.S. Code. A nice feature of this website is the ability to retrieve documents by citation.
Researchers visit the data-rich Bureau of Labor Statistics to gather current and historical Consumer Price Index data. The site, however, also contains data on inflation, mass layoffs, unemployment, employment projections, pay, and benefits. Use this site to build customized reports based on these various datasets of information.
The Federal Judiciary is an excellent resource for federal court statistics, court rules, and forms. The website’s clean interface allows individuals to conduct a keyword search or select topics from the menu options. This is a must visit for those who practice in federal court. For an example of what can be found on this site, check the section on post judgment interest rates.
Many people are familiar with the portal USA.gov. This site provides website links, organized by topic, to all government websites. The interface is quite simple, but using the pull-down menus to search is a bit overwhelming. I recommend running a keyword search.
Starting with a relevant government website can simplify your search. Find sites specific to your practice areas. For environmental attorneys, it may be the Superfund Site Information website. Aviation attorneys may turn to the National Transportation Safety Board’s Accident Investigations page, where they can review dockets and accident reports. Others may rely on the IRS Written Determinations page.
Government websites in the future
The variety of online information and searchable databases offered by the government is invaluable. However, the ever-changing world of technology, along with budgetary issues, requires the federal government to constantly evaluate its online presence.
On April 27, 2011, President Obama issued Executive Order 13571, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Customer Service.” The order’s goal is to provide better customer service via new technologies, as well as, reducing unnecessary and duplicative websites. Implementation of the order includes a freeze on new government websites and a review of websites currently available. According to a recent memo by Jeffrey Zients of the Office of Management and Budget, “more than half of all Americans accessed a Federal website in 2010.” He goes on to say that many websites are “redundant, outdated, hard to use, or [have] poorly maintained content.” A White House blog post summarizes the expected changes.
Federal News Radio reports that a few government transparency websites may go dark due to lack of funding. It appears this may include websites such as Data.gov, USASpending.gov, and Paymentaccurancy.gov. As of the writing of this article, however, the sites are still active.
The federal government remains a key resource for information. The recent executive order should reduce duplication and make websites more user friendly, all while maintaining the quality data.
About the author
Bev Butula is the manager of library of services at Davis & Kuelthau, Milwaukee. She is a past president of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin. Butula has written articles and spoken to numerous groups on issues such as effective Internet research, evaluation of Web sites and legal research. Prior to obtaining her Master’s Degree in Library Science from UWM, Bev was a litigation paralegal.