Introducing PolicyAtlas – An Encyclopedia for Public Policy

Guest post by Neil Reilly, GovLab Academy Coaching Programs Alumnus.


  • Project: an online, wiki-based, encyclopedia of public policy concepts from which policymakers can find ideas.
  • How it Works: individual, genericized policy concepts receive their own, user-contributed entries that cover issues like: What is the policy? What are its tradeoffs? Who are its supporters and opponents? What does research say about how and when the policy is effective?
  • Audience: policymakers, advocates, researchers, journalists, candidates and the general public.

As the U.S. presidential campaign season brings on increasing stakes, larger TV ratings, and lower standards of civility, millions of Americans remain unhappy with their political process. According to a recent Gallup poll, a mere 34% of Americans are satisfied with the U.S. system of government. That indicates that there are problems not just with how politics is practiced, but also with how policies that affect us every day get made.

In the United States alone, there are more than 90,000 distinct governments. Although all of these governments operate in different contexts, they actually face very similar, fundamental policy concerns: education, public safety, and economic growth, to name a few. There is tremendous untapped potential for governments to harness each other’s policy ideas and systematically learn from successes and failures everywhere. Yet this does not effectively happen, to the detriment of society.

MAPScreenshot of category page outlining different issues in transportation policy

PolicyAtlas sets out to address this problem. By crowdsourcing a non-partisan encyclopedia of public policy solutions, it provides a dearly-needed platform for aggregating knowledge and puts a catalog of best practices at governments’ fingertips. Driverless car allowances, participatory budgeting procedures and micro credentials: PolicyAtlas covers provocative innovations that policymakers might consider for their own cities or states if they only knew (or knew more) about them.

Consider a local transportation official seeking to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths in her town. By browsing PolicyAtlas’s list of transportation policies or directly searching for proposals that share her goal, she will immediately find options such as traffic calming devices, pedestrian bridges, and Woonerf streets. Each policy is presented in an individual entry that outlines key questions: What are the goals of this policy? How does it work in practice? Where has this policy been adopted? What are its tradeoffs? Who are the relevant stakeholders? What does research say about its effectiveness?

WIKIScreenshot of “Woonerf street construction” policy page

PolicyAtlas intends to address the systemic challenges that we believe limit the progress that policymakers can achieve together. It will help build institutional capacity, which is sadly lacking. It will bridge gaps between government institutions that do not engage in collective knowledge-sharing. And it will tap technology and design that allow it to be accessible for novices while still inviting contributions from experts (and yes, that’s why it looks like Wikipedia).

By focusing on providing better information to current policymakers, we believe we have found a useful niche for PolicyAtlas to serve. Unlike the depth of academic journals, PolicyAtlas provides clear, jargon-free briefings catered to the busy government official, journalist, or issue advocate. It also avoids the ideologically-driven distillations of issues promoted by lobbyists and elected officials, whose agendas often hinder the credibility and diffusion of actual accomplishments. Instead, PolicyAtlas is a badly-needed referee, explaining why certain constituents may have incentives to support or oppose a policy–in language that both opponents and supporters of a policy can accept as true.

POLICIESScreenshot of a page summarizing policies tagged with the goal of “Increase the efficiency of automobile traffic”

Not long ago, PolicyAtlas was still just a curious wiki maintained in the spare time of three graduate school classmates. Participating in the GovLab Academy coaching program “Leveraging Crowds in the Public Sector,” however, was rocket fuel to our team’s trajectory. It helped us map out a site development plan, develop a crowdsourcing strategy, and hone our vision of the content the site should feature.

Most critically, with the encouragement of our peers and coaches—notably, Beth Simone Noveck and Karim Lakhani—we launched a pilot partnership with graduate-level policy professors at New York University and the University of Virginia. In doing so, we were able to provide students with a unique learning experience while simultaneously launching a new resource that already offers more than 50 entries for policymakers.

PolicyAtlas is only beginning to evolve, but as it grows, the lessons we learned from our GovLab coaching program stay with us. With our site live, we welcome members of the GovLab community as readers and invite you to submit comments, critiques and questions–and, especially, contributions!

If the goals of PolicyAtlas ring true for you, join us.


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