What to expect from GAO’s new science and technology office

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced the formation of a new office to aid Congress in understanding science and technology matters. This office will be organized as a 15th mission team under GAO’s organization chart called “Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics” (STAA). Its work will focus on four key areas:

  • Conducting technology assessments and providing technical services to Members and their staff
  • Auditing science and technology programs and initiatives to assist in oversight of federal investments in research, development, and advanced manufacturing
  • Compiling and utilizing best practices in engineering sciences, including cost, schedule, and technology readiness assessments
  • Establishing an audit innovation lab to explore, pilot, and deploy new advanced analytic capabilities, conduct research in information assurance, and explore emerging technologies that will impact future audit practices

STAA will expand upon GAO’s past technology assessment work, but with much greater resources and structural independence. This will include a team of 70 staffers at launch, and plans to double that number in the next few years. The office will be jointly run by two managing directors: GAO chief scientist Tim Persons, and John Neumann.

STAA’s creation follows a bipartisan effort in the FY 2019 legislative branch appropriations bill to improve science and technology capacity within Congress. This bill included language asking GAO “to reorganize its technology and science function by creating a new more prominent office.”

The bill also directed GAO to submit a strategic growth plan to Congress by March 20, 2019 that addresses the following issues:

  • The revised organizational structure within GAO
  • The appropriate scope of work and depth of analysis
  • The optimum size and staff skill set needed to fulfill its mission
  • The opportunity and utility of shared efficiencies within GAO
  • The opportunities to increase GAO’s engagement and support with Congress.

STAA’s launch comes as there is growing interest in improving Congress’ technical expertise (this has followed, among other things, a slew of embarrassing exchanges with tech CEOs). The new Democratic House leadership has made this issue a priority, proposing to address Congress’ expertise gap by reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Reviving OTA is now part of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official agenda, and has been promoted by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and various other Democrats.

As we head into the FY 2020 appropriations process, supporters of STAA and advocates for reviving OTA may come into conflict over which entity is best suited to fill this role.

In practice, STAA and OTA each face different challenges to being successful. For OTA, its primarily challenge is a political one. It has a proven model, but it still has weak (but growing) conservative support and brand problems among Republicans. It would also face an uphill battle to rebuild its former capacity and cope with a more polarized political environment.

For STAA, its primarily challenge is institutional. GAO’s tech office has struggled for years with resource constraints, and a culture and bureaucracy that didn’t sufficiently support its mission. Its study methodology has also been criticized for not living up to the quality or comprehensiveness of OTA’s work. However, GAO has the advantages of momentum, greater support among Republicans, and now a new mandate.

More work still needs to be done to explore different approaches to improving science and technology capacity in Congress. That’s why Lincoln Network and Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes are co-organizing an invitation-only convening on STAA on February 19, 2019. Send me a note if you’re interested and work in a relevant field. Space is limited.

This piece originally ran on Medium on February 3, 2019.


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Topics: Congress & Technology