Web Site Seeks to Show What Drives National Policy Debates

An interactive online database is making it easier to map the rise and fall of policy debates on Capitol Hill, and it is beginning to be used as a teaching tool in college.

The Policy Agendas Project—which got an updated user interface in September—lets users track a wide range of national political issues with detailed data on congressional hearings and voting records, press coverage, and public opinion data. Visitors to the free database can download full data sets or use Web-based software to instantly generate trend graphs. According to Bryan Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin and a founder of the project, it attempts to answer one central question: “Why is it that Congress focuses on some policies rather than others?”

Researchers are beginning to answer that question by looking at the apparent link between public-opinion polls and what’s actually happening on the Hill, for instance. According to Mr. Jones, the number of congressional hearings and bills being passed in Washington tends to correspond closely with what constituents are talking about back home.

For instance, Mr. Jones found that public interest in education peaked in the late-1990s, just before passage of the vast No Child Left Behind education bill. Increased public awareness of education issues, he said, may have created “a window of opportunity” for major Congressional action on the issue.

Mr. Jones started the Public Policy Project in the mid-1990s with colleagues from the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina while researching a book on the development of policy ideas. With so much available data, he said, the researchers “were just lost when we had to put together our own measurements and story lines.”

Adopting ideas from economics researchers, they developed rudimentary software to help them quickly compare data sets. The project—which spawned similar databases in 11 countries—has since undergone a number of upgrades to its user interface and added new data sets. The still-growing project also receives financial support from the National Science Foundation.

Making the database freely accessible online has also made it an attractive research tool for political scientists, policy makers and even members of the general public. “We thought that we could make it available and generate interesting projects,” Mr. Jones said. “We did it out of our conception of what social sciences ought to be like.”

The database is also being put to use in college classrooms. Josh Sapotichne, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University and Mr. Jones’s former student, has worked the database into the curriculum for a Ph.D. research seminar and an undergraduate political-science course. The database, he said, allows students to get a comprehensive picture of policy history without having to track down and organize the raw data themselves.

“It’s not going to do all the work,” Mr. Sapotichne said. “But it’s a fantastic starting pont.”

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