Congress Urged to Up Its Tech Game Through OTA, GAO’s STAA

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Members of Congress have a lot on their plates, and on any given day understanding the nuances of technology issues may not be one of them.

A report issued today by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, a research center at Harvard Kennedy School, squares up that issue by offering a set of recommendations for restarting the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

Last September, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives announced they were looking to address gaps in Congress’ technology expertise by bringing back the OTA and making it responsive to member needs.

OTA operated from 1972 to 1995 to provide to members of Congress and their staffs objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues. Its absence since the mid-90s has drawn complaints from some lawmakers particularly as technology has become more influential in the U.S. culture and economy.

In its report, the Ash Center argues that the absence of the OTA “left Congress in the hands of overworked, under-experienced generalist staff that are straining under the weight of their responsibilities – and revolving-door lobbyists have stepped in to carry the load.” The report’s authors –  Zach Graves and Daniel Schuman – argue that the “revival of a technology assessment capacity inside the legislative branch can help set the tone for the next quarter-century and beyond.”

Graves and Shuman call for Congress to pass legislation to restore and modernize the legislative branch’s technical assessment capacity by improving and expanding upon the work being done by the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recently established Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team.

In light of rapidly advancing technology, the report calls for the establishment of a smaller version of OTA that focuses on emerging technologies, which they dub the Technology Assessment Service (TAS). The authors explain that TAS would “be free to engage in nimbler (and long-term) proactive thinking and horizon scanning about emerging technologies and other science and technology issues.”

Alongside the proposed TAS operation, the report calls for Congress to double the size of the GAO STAA operation, to about 140 full-time employees.  The report argues that the STAA unit has “shown significant competence in building its technology assessment capacity,” and should continue to take on a significant portion of OTA’s original mission.

As part of a larger effort to improve technology literacy in Congress, the report says that Congress must create new senior science and technology policy positions on committees, in personal offices, and in legislative support agencies like the Congressional Research Service and GAO.

In terms of modernizing and improving on the original OTA, the report says that the new technology assessment office, TAS, would need to expand its scope to “cover non-technical values such as ethics.” The new office also would need to “adapt elements from participatory models developed by technology assessment offices abroad, improve the timeliness of its reports, make itself more accessible to rank-and-file members of Congress, adjust its oversight structure to empower its director, and put greater emphasis on economic analysis and market-oriented approaches, as well as other reforms,” the report says.

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