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.

Cross-posted from Medium.

FY 2019 Appropriations Conference Report and Joint Explanatory Statement

House and Senate appropriators released the Conference Report and Joint Explanatory Statement today for H.R. 5895, a minibus package containing the legislative appropriations bill. This clarifies language on the administration of a study on reviving Congress’s technology assessment office to be carried out by NAPA. It also echoes Senate language that would improve and expand GAO’s technology assessment program.

The JES language on technology assessment:

Technology Assessment Study: The Committees have heard testimony on, and received dozens of requests advocating for restoring funding to the Office of Technology Assessment, 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 facing our country. The conferees direct the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to engage with the National Academy of Public Administration 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, including the GAO. 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 duplicates services already available to Members of Congress. CRS should work with the Committees in developing the parameters of the study and once complete, the study should be made available to relevant oversight Committees.

And also:

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 GA O's areas of work. However, because the scope of technological complexities continues to grow significantly, the conferees seek opportunities to expand technology assessment capacity within the Legislative Branch. The conferees encourage GAO to reorganize its technology and science function by creating a new more prominent office within GAO. GAO is directed to provide the Committees a detailed plan and timeline describing how this new office can expand and enhance GA O'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: 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 Committees within 180 days of enactment.

We supported these measures in letters, testimony and meetings.