GAO versus the ghost of OTA: Who will win the science and technology assessment race?

Hardly anyone would argue that Congress is well equipped to make technology policy. Very few members are techies, and let’s face it, innovation is hurtling forward at a mind-blowing pace. Nor is Congress and its basic modus operandi — serving as a bargaining arena for diverse interests — particularly congenial to the use of data and evidence in decision making.

So it is that a motley crew (including myself)  began banging the gong for expanding Congress’ technology and science capacity. One can’t make every representative and senator savvy in cutting edge innovations; but we can surround them with nonpartisan staff who do know tech and science. Our battle cry has been, “Bring in the nerds!”

Figure 1. Mentions of the Office of Technology Assessment by Congress

Source: R Street Institute based upon data.

Our effort has been abetted, inadvertently, by our national legislature through its own public displays of technological and scientific ineptitude during congressional hearings on social media. And who can forget Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga) fretting aloud that an island might tip over if too many soldiers are stationed on one side of it?

In spring 2018, Congress responded to the various cries for more technological assessment capacity. But it did so in a fashion that fueled a race between advocates for reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (which was defunded in 1995) and those pushing for a science and technology office within the Government Accountability Office.

To accompany the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, both chambers approved committee reports — with competing provisions.

The House’s report directed that Congress’ technology assessment capacity should be studied. H. Rept 115-696 declared:

“Technology Assessment Study: The Committee has heard  testimony on, and received dozens of requests advocating for restoring funding to the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and more generally on how Congress equips itself with the deep technical advice necessary to understand and tackle the growing  number of science and technology policy challenges that face  our country. The Committee directs the Congressional Research  Service (CRS) to engage with the National Academy of Public  Administration [NAPA] or a similar external entity to produce a report detailing the current resources available to Members of  Congress within the Legislative Branch regarding science and  technology policy. This study should also assess the potential need within the Legislative Branch to create a separate entity charged with the mission of providing nonpartisan advice on  issues of science and technology. Furthermore, the study should also address if the creation of such entity duplicate services already available to Members of Congress. CRS should work with the Committee in developing the parameters of the study and once complete, the study should be made available to CRS’s committees of jurisdiction.”

The NAPA report will reportedly be finished at the end of October, 2019. And restarting the OTA — which could be done by appropriating funds — might be recommended as the best option.

Yet, the House report also carried this language regarding an increase in funding for GAO:

“This level of funding will enable an increase of 80 FTE  over the fiscal year 2018 level and will allow an enhanced  focus on cybersecurity issues and the threats to the nation’s critical infrastructure, continued focus on a range of rapidly evolving science and technology issues; bolster reviews of the  increased investment in Department of Defense programs; and assess the challenges associated with growing health care costs.”

The Senate’s report (S. Rept. 115-274) added to the confusion. It reads:

“Technology Assessment. There is general support in Congress to bolster capacity of and enhance access to quality, independent science and technological expertise. Since 2002, GAO has provided direct support to Congress in the area of technology assessment through objective, rigorous, and timely assessments of emerging science and technologies. The Center for Science, Technology, and Engineering [CSTE] within GAO has developed such a capacity, providing wide-ranging technical expertise across all of GAO’s areas of work. However, because the scope of technological complexities continues to grow significantly, the Committee seeks opportunities to expand technology assessment capacity within the Legislative Branch.

“The Committee encourages GAO to reorganize its technology and science function by creating a new more prominent office within GAO. GAO is directed to provide the Committee a detailed plan and timeline describing how this new office can expand and enhance GAO’s capabilities in scientific and technological assessments. This plan should be developed in consultation with internal stakeholders of the Legislative Branch such as congressional staff and Members of Congress in addition to external stakeholders, including nonprofit organizations and subject matter experts knowledgeable in the field of emerging and current technologies. Further, such a plan should include a  description of the revised organizational structure within GAO,  provide potential cost estimates as necessary, and analyze the following issues and: the appropriate scope of work and depth of analysis; the optimum size and staff skillset needed to  fulfill its mission; the opportunity and utility of shared efficiencies within GAO; and the opportunities to increase GAO’s engagement and support with Congress. GAO is directed to submit this report to the Committee within 180 days of enactment.

“The Committee also directs GAO to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration to evaluate previous  and current efforts related to technology assessment support to the Congress, including those of the former Office of  Technology Assessment, the Congressional Research Service, and  GAO. The evaluation should also identify and assess options for enhancing technology assessment support to the Congress, including new legislative authorities, resources, or functions  for existing agencies or entities, establishing previous agencies or entities, and/or the establishment of a new entity  or entities. A report summarizing such evaluation is directed  to be submitted to the Committee not later than 12 months after enactment.”

Not surprisingly, GAO has zoomed forward to launch its new assessment team, and generally behaves as if the question over who should do technology assessment is already answered. Adam Mazmanian at writes:

“While many have called for a revival of OTA, [GAO’s Tim] Persons said that the new GAO office can perform essentially the same work. The GAO website offers past technology assessments, with reports covering computer technology, life sciences, manufacturing, engineering, climate change and water and power infrastructure. ‘I think the short answer is: It’s not new to us. We’ve been doing that OTA mission since 2002,’ Persons said.”

Inarguably, GAO is doing exactly what it thinks it should do — bolster its technological assessment capacity. Yet, not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of GAO becoming Congress’ go-to source for technology assessment. GAO, they note, has been doing tech assessments for a long time, and they just are not the same as the big think studies that OTA did. They remind us that GAO is first and foremost an agency known for producing audits and legal opinions. So the culture and methodology for GAO’s thinking about technological and scientific matters is  different than it is at a place staffed by scientists — which OTA was. GAO, they also note, mostly responds to committee chairmen and legal directives to produce their work. OTA, on the other hand, did a great deal of responding to individual legislators and staff, who often needed primers and tutorials.

But where is all of this going? Is GAO going to handle all technological assessments for Congress? Or might OTA be revivified?

Plainly, fans of OTA have been around since its demise in 1995, and certainly they are not going to quit pressing their case on Capitol Hill and to media. Both the House and Senate legislative branch appropriators could — no, should — take up the issue in their oversight hearings in the next month. They have jurisdiction over the dollars, and they are the ones who created this confusing situation. Not least, the subcommittees, which have many new members, should acquaint themselves with the situation. They might also do everyone a favor and make clear that they have not made any decision as to who should do technological assessments. Congress has committed itself to spending money to study the matter, and it would be a waste to turn NAPA’s effort into a dead letter by treating the GAO vs. OTA debate as settled.

Rather, appropriators might arrange with the relevant authorizing committees (Senate Rules and House Administration) to hold a hearing this autumn to review the NAPA study, and consider GAO’s effort to date. The recently created Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress might well host such a discussion.

Equally critical, legislators should ask themselves: “What kind of help do we really need in the 21st century?”

Is it an agency that mostly produces long-form studies taking stock of technological and scientific developments? (E.g., genomic editing or cryptocurrency.)

Do they want experts who can help legislators competently respond to a major technological event? (For example, China makes a major quantum computing breakthrough that enables it to break any encryption system, or a geneticist announces she will begin lab farming extinct species to sell online.)

Whatever Congress decides, technological and scientific breakthroughs will continue apace.  Congress needs help, and it needs it fast. Relying on a small corps of GAO staff and tech fellows provided by the private sector will not give it the capacity it needs to govern competently. And nobody but Congress has the authority and funding to tackle a problem this big.

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Topics: Congress & Technology