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US Government Documents Fundamentals

A guide to basic information about finding, evaluating, and using government documents for assignments, research, and your own information.

Evaluation Criteria

Government information can be evaluated by the same criteria used for other types of information.  These are some commonly used criteria:

authority - if there is a personal author are credentials provided?  Does the topic seem within the purview of the authoring agency?  Does the document include a statement about why it is published?

reliability - is the information dependable?  Are the conclusions well-supported?

accuracy - is the document free from error?  Do any watchdog organizations dispute the agency's stand or findings?

balance/objectivity/bias - is there perspective or a sense of impartiality?  Are diverse sources cited?  Does a hearing draw on testimony from a variety of experts? (Remember, sources with a clear perspective are valuable - you know where the perspective is coming from and can provide context for it as you discuss it in your paper.)

timeliness - has the document been published in a timely manner related to content, data, or events?

Addressing Source Accuracy and Reliability

  • Consult and cite more than one source. If you have a government source, look for other research or discussion to support it or to provide a different viewpoint.  
  • Check author or witness credentials. For authors or witnesses look for biographical information that includes education, training, and previous positions.  What other publications are credited to the person? What type of publications have they appeared in? What is their stakeholder role?
  • Is the topic one of partisan debate?  Have FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests been involved?  Be aware of particularly contentious issues and who is speaking to them.

Keep in mind that government information comes in many different forms and is used for many different purposes. An example: information included in the testimony of someone participating in a congressional hearing can be very different from government agency-generated scientific research or statistics. It's important to understand the context surrounding the publication, and ask yourself questions such as: does the authoring agency/committee/etc. have a particular agenda or mandate? Who is the intended audience for this information? etc.

Watchdog in the Government

There are many watchdog agencies, such as those below, that the government has set up to monitor itself.  Do you know of others?

Citizen Watchdog Organizations

Another way to form an opinion on government reliability is to see what is being written and reported by government watchdog groups.  Many organizations have been formed out of the desire of citizens to keep an eye on government policy, spending, and integrity. 

Do these example watchdog organizations have their own bias?  Find out about them before you trust them!

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