Bring back the OTA? Not without a few changes
This spring, the House included $6 million to revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in its draft appropriations. The nonpartisan agency, defunded in 1995, was responsible for helping Congress navigate science and technology (S&T) issues.
The possibility of a revived OTA is a welcome development. For its 23 years, the agency was an extraordinary return on investment. In the 1980s, for instance, it clocked $60 billion in savings for the federal government through a single study of synthetic fuels. Meanwhile, the OTA’s annual budget was a mere $31 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. Beyond savings, the OTA helped Congress make informed decisions. From nuclear waste and earthquakes to substance abuse and biotechnology, Congress’s in-house experts brought clarity and focus to technical topics of profound public interest.
Given the deepening complexity of S&T issues confronting today’s Congress, assistance is called for even more so, and urgently. But bringing back an agency designed in 1972 will not fix today’s problems. Too much has changed – not least the legislature itself. These changes, along with certain features of the OTA’s design, would handicap a new body from the start.
First, the OTA chiefly produced ‘technology assessment’ reports. These were almost always large, long endeavors – often lasting years. The approach was subject to criticism then and would be even less appropriate today given the rate of technological change. Last week, for instance, Facebook revealed its efforts to create “an alternative financial system” using a new cryptocurrency, operational by early next year. Members cannot wait on a years-long report to make sense of its implications.
Second, the OTA’s unique governing structure would be vulnerable to today’s gridlock. Unlike other congressional agencies, the OTA was governed by a twelve-member bipartisan, bicameral Technology Assessment Board (TAB) that authorized all assessments, approved their budgets, and appointed its Director. While these members worked reasonably well together then, it is far from certain that the same would be true today. Additionally, the OTA principally responded to the needs of TAB, not to Congress broadly, limiting its impact to a narrow constituency.
Third, the OTA’s organizational structure mirrored a university’s, featuring topical departments (Health, Energy) housing teams of experts. While the agency complemented its work with networks of external experts, this structure today would still prove too rigid. Congressional priorities shift ever more hastily between news cycles while technologies are increasingly cross-cutting. AI, for instance, doesn’t neatly sit in any one vertical; it touches, at minimum, defense, healthcare, labor, agriculture, finance, and criminal justice. Congress requires a body that can gauge shifting needs across interdisciplinary issues and flexibly respond.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, more experts at a revived OTA will not solve much. Congress does not lack access to technical expertise. Rather, Congress has radically diminished its capacity to use it. By slashing its staffing and weakening its committees, Congress has left itself with few resources and poor processes to make use of expertise. Any new body would need to focus far more on strengthening capabilities to harness available knowledge rather than simply generating more of it.
A different body for a different Congress is needed. In a recent Belfer Center report, we investigate the institutional issues constraining S&T policymaking and propose a Congressional Futures Office (CFO) as a modernized model of support. The CFO’s design departs from the OTA’s in several distinct ways, a few of which we enumerate here.
First, its proposed services are intended to address the pressing and diverse needs of members and staff, such as rapid technical analysis of draft legislation; or on-call, impartial demystification of breaking developments. Services that fail to address members’ acute, real priorities are unlikely to be valued. Moreover, reimagined services should reach into member offices. Whereas the OTA worked exclusively at the behest of committees, the CFO would go beyond them.
Second, a new body should be led by an empowered, independent Director. Rather than primarily serve a governing board of powerful members, the CFO would be free to service a broader constituency across Congress. Increased independence would also avoid paralyzing gridlock. A new Joint Committee on Science & Technology, for example, could nominate a director and perform basic oversight functions – ensuring the CFO remained responsive to congressional priorities – while still devolving decision-making to the body.
Third, the CFO would prioritize cultivating and engaging global networks of expertise rather than hiring large technical teams. Today, it is probably unnecessary – and certainly expensive – to employ crypto or biotech experts. To access increasingly distributed knowledge, the CFO would instead develop methods for rapidly querying outside networks, responding flexibly as congressional priorities change. Staff should be tasked with helping Congress to make use of expertise, not with generating it.
Finally, a new body must be authorized to experiment. The OTA’s enacting legislation generally pre-determined its products and activities. Using its same narrow mandate would be a mistake. Today’s challenge of improving congressional capabilities to make use of expertise is bigger and more ambiguous. It will require room for much trial and error.
The OTA exemplified a standard-setting approach for its time. While Congress should rightly look to the agency for inspiration, it shouldn’t stop there. A new model is needed for a new era.