Do you know CRS, BJS and GAO? If not, you should. The giant alphabet soup of federal agencies can be confusing, but when you really sift through, there are a select group of institutions that really deliver independent, research-oriented information that is useful for media purposes.
For journalists looking to deepen their coverage with facts and figures about the United States, the Census Bureau has long been the traditional go-to source. But the U.S. government has a wide range of nonpartisan agencies that gather data and produce statistics and reports that can shed crucial light on national as well as local public-policy questions. Whatever the subject you’re reporting on — be it health care in your community, rates of incarceration, and more — there’s a government agency that can provide key data and insightful reports.
It can seem overwhelming, but there are actually only 13 officially designated “principal statistical agencies,” each covering a specific area such as education, transportation, criminal justice and economics. (Eighty-five other smaller agencies also do statistical work, while Data.gov is attempting to aggregate key datasets across the government.) Taking the time to review the offerings of each principal agency is well worth it. The major agencies collecting and synthesizing data are:
- Bureau of Economic Analysis
- Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics
- Census Bureau
- Economic Research Service
- Energy Information Administration
- National Agricultural Statistics Service
- National Center for Education Statistics
- National Center for Health Statistics
- National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (National Science Foundation)
- Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics (Social Security Administration)
- Statistics of Income (IRS)
Three prominent sources for government reports and data merit being singled out and distinguished up front: The Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Government Accountability Office (GAO). All are part of the legislative branch and conduct research, but have distinct roles within the government. The CRS assists U.S. representatives, senators and congressional committees throughout the legislative process. Much of what it produces isn’t available outside Congress, but many reports surface in the public domain and are available through sites such as Open CRS. The CBO supports the Congressional budgeting process by providing independent analyses of budgetary issues. Finally, the GAO is charged with overseeing federal spending: It audits agencies’ operations and reports on the performance of government programs and policies.
In addition to these three, there are dozens of major agencies that conduct research, generate reports and data, and make some or all of their work publicly available. All the agencies listed below are nonpartisan, and strive to produce reliable information without regard for any political point of view or agenda. The staff members working on this research are largely comprised of career professionals, not political appointees. Their work is invaluable to members of the government, and equally useful to the journalists, policymakers, educators and the public at large.
Congressional Research Service
Part of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service supports the U.S. government’s legislative process. Its staff work at the request of members of Congress, analyzing current laws and assessing the impact of proposed alternatives from a strictly nonpartisan perspective. The CRS assists during the drafting process, testifies before Congress and provides oversight of laws after they’re enacted. Because much of the CRS’s works is conducted during the legislative process, there are rules restricting publicity, and not all reports make their way outside Congress. However, the Open CRS portal, among others, makes reports available as they come into the public domain.
For example, in November 2013 the CRS released “Impacts and Costs of the October 2013 Federal Government Shutdown.” The agency found that the shutdown cut fourth-quarter real GDP growth by 0.2-0.6 percentage points — approximately $2 billion to $6 billion in lost output, and that the annualized cost could be as much as $24 billion. Other recent CRS reports have included “Expiration and Extension of the 2008 Farm Bill” and “Proposals to Eliminate Public Financing of Presidential Campaigns.”
Congressional Budget Office
As its name suggests, the Congressional Budget Office focuses on providing financial-related information to Congress, including analyses of policy options, effects and costs. It also prepares reports on federal programs, the U.S. tax code, and broader budgetary and economic issues. As with the CRS, all work by the CBO is objective and nonpartisan.
Other than informal analyses provided to Congress, the majority of CBO’s reports are publicly available. They cover many areas of federal policy, including health care, economic growth, income security, education, taxes, energy, the environment, national security, financial issues and infrastructure.
All the latest CBO research is available on their publications page, and you can filter by topics (from “agriculture” to “veterans issues”), type of publication, congressional session and budgetary function (050 is “national defense,” for example). The “Our Products” portal is a good landing page to find reports on major initiatives, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the economic stimulus).
The Government Accountability Office is charged with overseeing how the federal budget is spent. Like the CRS and CBO, it is a non-partisan, independent agency that assists Congress by conducting independent audits, investigations, and evaluations of federal programs. The agency produces hundreds of reports a year, on everything from infrastructure protection to Internet pharmacies.
The GAO’s Key Issues page provides a top-down view into the work of nearly 50 U.S. government agencies, including the newly established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Forest Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission. You can also search information by 30 topics, be it energy, housing or science and technology, and drill down from there. For example, through the Key Issues page you can find reports on Native American issues, disaster management and the energy-water nexus.
Department of Justice
As with many Cabinet-level departments, the Department of Justice is a massive agency with numerous sub-agencies. Data and reports available from the DOJ include crime statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); weapons trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); arrests and drug seizures by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); and inmate statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is an authoritative research arm that produces highly useful reports — frequently authored by academic statisticians — on topics ranging from hate crimes to homicide.
Department of Justice reports and data are available through their Open Government portal and publications page. Searching on publications is currently by keyword only, and reports cannot be filtered by date or type, but if you know what you’re interested in, this is the place to come. The Bureau of Prisons has a research links page that brings together FBI and BOP resources on crime, sentencing and incarceration.
Inspectors General — brought together under the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency — operate within U.S. departments, agencies and initiatives to promote efficiency and effectiveness as well as detecting and preventing waste and fraud. There are Inspectors General at the Department of State and Department of Education as well as the Social Security Administration, National Endowment for the Arts and Afghanistan reconstruction, nearly 70 in all.
The best process to find reports from the Inspectors General is to go to the directory page and then find the agency or initiative that interests you. While the websites of the individual Inspectors General are unique, there’s generally a “reports” button that will take you to a list the agency’s publications. Recent work from the Inspectors General has included a report on the management challenges facing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and investigation of a hantavirus outbreak traced to visitor cabins in Yosemite Park, and an assessment of the 2013 performance of the Federal Trade Commission.
Because part of the mission of the Inspectors General is uncovering waste and fraud, their research can spark significant coverage. For example, a March 2014 report from the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office found that between 2010 and 2012, less than half of the insurance companies administering Medicare’s drug program submitted reports about potential fraud and abuse. Using the report as a key document, Charles Ornstein of ProPublica researched and wrote “Medicare’s Drug Program Needs Stronger Protections Against Fraud, Watchdog Says.”
Federal Reserve system
As their website says, economists at the Federal Reserve conduct “innovative research on a broad range of topics in economics and finance.” The research spans many social science topics — frequently ranging far beyond just financial markets — and it is presented at academic conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals. The economic research and data landing page presents the organization’s latest research. To cite just three examples, in March 2014 the Fed issued “Using Data on Seller Behavior to Forecast Short-run House Price Changes,” “The Interplay Between Student Loans and Credit Card Debt: Implications for Default in the Great Recession” and “Finance and Productivity Growth: Firm-level Evidence.”
The regional Federal Reserve banks also house their own research arms and scholars, and produce many important papers. Of particular interest to financial journalists is the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s FRED database, which offers vast datasets and even tools to visualize them.
The Census Bureau provides a wealth of past data on the U.S. population and American society as well as future projections. Central to the Census Bureau’s work is the American Community Survey, a yearly survey of U.S. residents. The ACS gathers information on basic demographics as well as health insurance status, disabilities, residents’ cost of living, language, poverty levels and more. Data is available for the past as well as one-, three- and five-year future estimates. The American FactFinder tool provides a top-down view of the Census Bureau’s surveys, including the ACS, American Housing Survey, Economic Survey, and more. It offers both a guided and advanced search, and all data can be downloaded. The Census Bureau offers a range of publications and working papers — for example, the potential effects of the Affordable Care Act on the insurance plans that employers offer.
The Current Population Survey — a joint product of the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) — is the primary source of U.S. labor force statistics. Data provided include the national employment and unemployment rates, earnings and more. ACS and CPS data can be accessed using the DataFerrett tool.
The agency provides some data in graphical form, with more anticipated to come online over time. The data visualization gallery provides a range of images that bring data to life, from the distribution of the U.S. Hispanic population by origin to the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa. You can also get a quick geographic view of some ACS data with the Census Explorer tool, which displays statistics such as education levels, occupations and employee pay on an interactive U.S. map.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
The BLS Data Finder allows users to drill down into agency data based on topics (area, commerce, demographics and occupation) and measures (employment and unemployment, labor force, and earnings). For information in graphical form, the Editors Desk — referred to on the BLS’s site as TED (not the same as TED Talks) — provides data on subjects such as major U.S. work stoppages over the past 60 years to changes in real average hourly earnings from 2007 to 2013.
Agency reports and working papers are available through the Office of Survey Methods Research. Recent publications include “Are Gender Differences Emerging in the Retirement Patterns of the Early Boomers?” (the research suggests that the answer is yes). The search tools are pretty basic, however — keywords are the only choice — and some of the material is not as recent as one would want.
Other agencies and sites
Part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts a substantial amount of research, and also produces information on health and safety topics. CDC Wonder is a database of public health data that can be searched or browsed by topic, from mortality statistics to aging, cancer, fatal accidents and more. The Education Department’s ERIC database aggregates much of the leading research on topics in that field.
For journalists interested in getting directly into the numbers, more than 1,000 data sets are available through HealthData.gov. The Science.gov website also provides links to authoritative scientific documents, reports and position papers from a variety of federal bodies.
Related research: “Government-related Research Websites; Transparency, FOIA and Data Projects” provides a list of places to look when conducting research at the national and state level. Some are intrinsically partisan in nature (Whitehouse.gov, for example), but all provide a wealth of information and insight, particularly on issues related to the Freedom of Information Act.