Written Testimony to Senate Appropriators on Improving S&T Expertise in Congress

I submitted the following written testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch regarding the fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill.


Zach Graves, Head of Policy, Lincoln Network
Written testimony to the United States Senate, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch Re: GAO’s STAA Team

Dear Chairman Cindy Hyde-Smith, Ranking Member Chris Murphy, and Members of the Committee:

My name is Zach Graves. I am the head of policy at Lincoln Network, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and DC. Last year, I submitted testimony on enhancing congressional capacity on science and technology. Following a bipartisan effort in the last Congress, the fiscal year 2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill included two important provisions on this subject. One provided for a major study conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). The other provided for the elevation and expansion of GAO’s science and technology program. 

While the NAPA study is still in progress, GAO has reorganized and significantly expanded its program into a 15th mission team, called “Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics” (STAA). While the STAA team is new, its core program goes back nearly two decades. The original technology assessment pilot at GAO was created in 2001 with $500,000 in dedicated funding. Its first study, “Using Biometrics for Border Security,” was released in November, 2002. This report was reviewed favorably in an external evaluation, which concluded GAO “did a very good job” on its inaugural assessment, but raised concerns the nascent program would face significant challenges to build its own culture and scale its capabilities. In the next couple of years, funding for the pilot was expanded, allowing the production of 2-3 reports a year.

An effort came together to build off of the GAO pilot’s success. In 2004, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced legislation (with 9 other Democrats and 5 Republicans as original cosponsors) to elevate the GAO pilot to a formal technology assessment office in GAO called the “Center for Scientific and Technical Assessment” (CSTA). This entity would have adapted major structural features from the defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), such as its bipartisan, bicameral Technology Assessment Board. The CSTA proposal went through a review process that incorporated feedback from civil society experts, as well as the office of then Comptroller General David M. Walker. While the proposal was favorably received and had bipartisan support, it failed to move forward, seemingly due to its large budget requirements. Nonetheless, it showed that GAO was a viable location for this function, and that such a proposal could attract bipartisan support.

Rather than partisan politics, the primary challenge to reviving a technology assessment office has been finding the necessary resources in the constrained legislative branch budget. Thanks to the efforts of this committee and Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, this challenge appears to be in the process of being overcome—particularly if GAO’s fiscal year 2020 budget request can be accommodated.

Its next challenge is figuring out how to structure a nimble, semi-independent, and forward-looking research unit within another large agency, while mitigating potential conflicts in mission, function, and process. These were concerns that Rep. Holt and others saw and spent considerable time contemplating. If these issues are to be resolved and adapted to the needs of our current environment, it will require the steady oversight and expert guidance of this committee and other expert stakeholders.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The strategic plan for STAA rightly identifies some of the most important structural and methodological issues to address, including: (1) the inclusion of policy options in its reports; (2) the creation of an advisory board that includes industry, government, and civil society; (3) the development of additional product types including shorter form analysis; and (4) the refinement of its technology assessment methodology. It will be critically important to get the details right for implementing these features. I thus urge the Committee to consider the following recommendations:

External advisory board

STAA has said it will create a new S&T advisory board of top experts. No doubt, this will be valuable in providing ad hoc advice to the Comptroller General and STAA directors on matters such as research design, peer review, and related issues. This board should also be encouraged to produce periodic analysis and recommendations oriented to congressional stakeholders regarding the continued evolution of STAA.

Refining GAO’s TA methodology

Given its past resource limitations, it was likely not possible for GAO’s technology assessment program to utilize in-house experts for its reports in the manner that OTA did. But the reliance on external experts has some significant limitations, inhibiting the capacity for experts to serve as “shared staff” for Congress, and detracting from the robustness of the reports themselves. I believe this methodological difference has contributed significantly to skepticism of GAO’s program. STAA should be encouraged to prioritize the recruitment of in-house experts (permanent staff and project-based contractors/detailees) and adjust its technology assessment methodology accordingly.

Policy options

One of the most valuable features of OTA reports was providing policymakers with an authoritative, multi-disciplinary analysis of the tradeoffs of different policy options. Yet, OTA’s options methodology was not always internally consistent, and had considerable room for improvement. A 1993 OTA self-assessment suggested its options methodology warranted a “more rigorous” approach. The same report also suggested its options may have skewed towards “increased Federal intervention rather than market solutions.” To address this, STAA should be encouraged to develop a formal options methodology that prioritizes the inclusion of economic analysis and gives consideration to potential solutions from the states or private sector.

Talent flow and expert networks

OTA widely utilized temporary contractors for its reports. This helped bring in best-in-world talent and specialized experts, and facilitated the development of expert networks outside Congress. STAA should be encouraged to explore greater utilization of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, or other mechanisms, to bring in outside talent on an individual project-basis. It should also be encouraged to include project-specific external advisory committees to assist with individual major projects (beyond the overall external advisors noted above).

OTA vs. GAO 

The fiscal year 2020 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill in the House of Representatives included $6 million in funding to revive OTA. While both STAA and OTA do “technology assessment,” the focus and mission of each entity is quite different. Thus, each is likely to have a different comparative advantage: OTA at horizon-scanning and anticipating the social, ethical, and economic effects of emerging technologies; and STAA at evaluating federal government programs and expenditures on S&T, the functioning of regulatory agencies governing innovative technologies (e.g. NHTSA’s approach to autonomous vehicles, or FCC’s approach to spectrum policy), and the promotion of responsible utilization of new technologies by the federal government. Each of these fields is massive, and critically important to our national interest. In considering this issue, I urge the Committee to consider the value of having both OTA and STAA functions to assist the Congress.

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