To those who have paid attention to recent technology policy debates in Congress, such as the recent hearings with Mark Zuckerberg, it is obvious that the technology expertise gap between Silicon Valley and Washington is getting worse. At the same time science and technology issues are only becoming more complex and pressing.

In any given week, we expect our lawmakers to competently answer policy questions across a number of technological domains – often in reaction to the news cycle. These are complicated issues that Members of Congress and their staff are ill-prepared to tackle alone given their limited resources, high staff turnover, and the fast-paced congressional calendar.

To address this problem, it is critical to strengthen Congress’ internal capacity to anticipate and understand emerging technology issues. One way to do this, is to revive Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

Before being defunded in 1995, the OTA was an expert legislative support agency staffed with technical experts from various disciplines. When it was shut down, its mission was not taken up by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) as some had anticipated. Instead, various groups sought ways to fill the technology assessment gap. This included doing more with outside groups, like the National Research Council, the Potomac Institute, and the now-defunct Institute of Technology Assessment. Various unsuccessful attempts were also made to resurrect OTA itself. However, there was one successful effort by Congress that resulted in the creation of an experimental technology assessment program in the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

While there has been some recent interest in a revival of the OTA and a strengthening of technology assessment in the GAO, the institutional culture, report methodology, oversight structure, and functions of these two entities are quite different. With that said, this post will examine the differences between the two offices and the advantages and disadvantages of technology assessment within the GAO (in light of the previous functions of the OTA).

Office of Technology Assessment

The OTA existed from 1972 to 1995 as an independent legislative branch support agency. Its mission was to provide lawmakers with access to deep technical expertise necessary to confront an expanding field of complex science and technology challenges. When the OTA closed its doors, it had a staff of around 200 and a budget of $22 million (about $35 million in today’s dollars). During its existence, OTA published around 750 assessments, background papers, technical memoranda, and other reports. (See a full archive of them here).

Government Accountability Office

The GAO’s technology assessment program was first set up as an experimental function in the Fiscal Year 2002 appropriations bill. This function was made permanent in 2008, and continues to this day, producing a few reports each year. Currently, the technology assessment program at GAO sits within the Center for Science, Technology and Engineering within the Applied Research and Methods mission team. It is a very small program, sharing resources and staff with other GAO functions. Like the OTA, the GAO’s technology assessment program is largely oriented to serving requests made by congressional committees. Recent reports have covered topics such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. However, their work product does not seem to have had the impact of the OTA or the National Academies, and they do not have a significant roster of in-house technical experts available to consult with Congress as “shared staff.”

Technology assessment at the GAO

Given the past difficulty and political challenges around reviving the OTA directly, proponents of strengthening science and technology expertise in Congress may consider the GAO as a vehicle for reviving the OTA’s functions. Below are some additional considerations regarding this avenue (for differences between OTA and other entities such as CRS and NAS, see here).

The potential advantages of doing technology assessment in the GAO include:

Even though the GAO has some structural disadvantages over the OTA that may never be solved, it has a key advantage in that it is already performing technology assessment. While there are some serious challenges and questions that would need to be resolved before strengthening this part of the GAO, advocates for deepening Congress’ technical expertise should consider this as a potential vehicle going forward. Nonetheless, for it to be successful, Congress would need to make substantial changes in both the GAO’s resourcing and structure.

Zach Graves is director of technology and innovation policy for the R Street Institute.


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