Should we rename the Office of Technology Assessment?


Over the past year or so, there’s been growing interest in bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment, a think tank within Congress that helped it understand complex science and technology issues from 1974 to 1995. Should OTA be brought back, it seems unlikely that policymakers will leave it unchanged (as they reexamine issues like the timeliness of its reports and responsiveness to rank-and-file Members). One of the changes up for discussion has been its name — which comes with no small amount of baggage from the past.

Last week, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress unanimously endorsed reviving OTA. However, this also came with a recommendation to rename it the “Congressional Technology and Innovation Lab.” They aren’t alone in wanting to rename it. A recent Harvard Belfer Center study suggested we should call it the “Congressional Futures Office.” A 2016 discussion draft from former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) wanted to call it the “Congressional Office of Systems, Technology, and Innovation.”

Several questions come to mind in thinking about renaming OTA:

  • “Technology assessment” is a term of art with a specific meaning. Would a name change that doesn’t include this contribute to mission drift away from its core function?
  • “OTA” has some brand baggage (particularly with Republicans), but it also has strong brand awareness for a small congressional agency that’s been defunct for a quarter century. Is a name change worth this tradeoff?
  • Is it important to have a catchy acronym? Or is it preferable to have a boring name that flies under the radar (like GAO’s STAA)?

I posed these questions to the technology assessment Google Group, which resulted in an interesting discussion thread. The group — which consists of over 200 science and technology policy experts, scholars of Congress, and former OTA staff — is organized under the Chatham House Rule, so I’m leaving names out. But I will discuss some of my takeaways below.

How an entity is described is important to how people think about it. Most people chiming in on the list seemed to think a name change was warranted. It may also be necessary political reasons, since Members don’t like to flip flop and many Representatives — mainly Republicans — are on the record voting against OTA revival. A new name, perhaps bundled with a few other cosmetic tweaks, is an easy excuse to change your vote.

One person suggested changing “Office” to “Service” (like the Congressional Research Service), noting that the latter reinforces its role in working at the pleasure of Congress, rather than representing something more autonomous and imposing (like the Government Accountability Office). I like this idea a lot.

Multiple people criticized the idea of calling it a “lab,” which they said implies technology development or digital services work. Since some people are still confused about the difference between OTA (which did tech policy) and a Congressional Digital Service (which would do tech services), it’s probably not a good idea to go this direction.

Another approach would be to call it a “Center,” like former Rep. Rush Holt’s 2004 proposal for creating an OTA-like office in GAO called the “Center for Scientific and Technical Assessment.” However, “Center” may imply something embedded within another bureaucracy, rather than a stand-alone office.

Another factor to consider is the limitations of the word “technology.” Today, people largely think of technology policy as things that involve Google or Facebook. Yet, the OTA’s work spanned a broad range of issues including healthcare, education, energy, environment, and space. While this is closer to how “innovation” is used today, several people on the list suggested this term is overused (and I tend to agree). This would be particularly true of “assessment” were dropped, as the Select Committee proposes. Another way to address the implied scope limitation is to use “Science and Technology” instead of just “Technology,” similar to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

One person said that “Congressional” should be included in the name, emphasizing that it is part of Congress. This could also reinforce that it would not serve a regulatory function (which, unfortunately, some peopleare also confused about). I like this idea, too.

Overall, I like Belfer’s “Congressional Futures Office” name suggestion, which emphasizes its forecasting and horizon-scanning functions (which the original OTA didn’t always live up to). Some others on the list didn’t like this name, suggesting it obscured the value proposition of evidence-based analysis. Considering the above factors, a name like “Congressional Technology Assessment Service” could also work well.

In the end, just as for post offices, naming rights for whatever entity emerges will depend on the preferences of Members of Congress themselves. As they approach this issue, I would urge them to be thoughtful and deliberate in choosing one, since a name can be a powerful thing.

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