New CRS report offers an authoritative review of the current debate over OTA

Charting a path forward for enhanced science and technology expertise in Congress


Yesterday the Congressional Research Service published a 71 page report, “The Office of Technology Assessment: History, Authorities, Issues, and Options.” As its title suggests, the report covers the history of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), recent legislative activity, and the recommendations from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in their recent congressionally-directed study.

The report looks at the pros and cons of five different approaches Congress could take:

  1. Reestablish OTA Without Changes to Its Statute
  2. Reestablish OTA with Changes to Its Statute
  3. Charge an Existing Agency or Agencies with New or Expanded Technology Assessment Authorities and Duties
  4. Use the National Academies for Technology Assessment
  5. Rely on a Broad Range of Existing Organizations for Scientific and Technical Analysis and Technology Assessment

The report also features some new charts that I don’t think I’ve seen in the existing literature around OTA:

Notably, the report highlights some of the criticisms Daniel Schuman and I made about NAPA’s analysis, in addition to the fundamental problem that it did not consider reestablishing OTA. These include:

[The Lincoln Network and Demand Progress] report questioned “whether GAO’s culture will be able to adapt to effectively cover the full range of OTA’s work (particularly that part concerning non-technical values and horizon scanning)….[the] report was [also] critical of the absence of details on key features of NAPA’s recommendation for an Office of the Congressional S&T Advisor (OCSTA). In particular, the report questioned how OCSTA would pick topics; how it would integrate new resources into committees; how it would engage in horizon scanning; issues related to OCSTA’s oversight, statutory powers, and mechanism for coordinating with other legislative support agencies; and whether OCSTA is the right organization for the horizon scanning function.

Adding that:

Further, the report noted that NAPA recommended “beefing up CRS in several areas,” but noted that NAPA did “not assess CRS’s current capacity for S&T work versus the volume and type of congressional demands.” The report cited assertions by one former CRS employee that CRS is risk-averse and increasingly politicized, leading to a loss of talent, and by another former CRS employee who asserted that CRS has moved from a policy of nonpartisan advice to one of neutrality which, in his view, has undermined CRS’s analytical capabilities. The report recommended additional analysis of any CRS institutional challenges prior to making significant new investments in CRS.

The report also highlights some of my earlier work on this issue with Kevin Kosar at R Street:

In 2018, the R Street Institute (R Street)…proposed reestablishment of OTA in its report Bring in the Nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment. The report identifies and addresses a number of rationales that have been put forth by others as to why OTA should not be reestablished, including cost, political loss of face, perception by some of an ideological bias in OTA’s work, providing a foundation for encouraging additional government intervention, and adding another governmental expert bureaucracy.

In addition to its detailed analysis of the current policy debate, the report also offers a well-researched appendix detailing the history of the concept of “technology assessment” and OTA’s origin in the 1960s. Notably, our recent symposium on technology assessment also featured a paper on this topic.

Coming out of 2019, there seemed to be considerable momentum around building this capacity in GAO’s STAA team (option 3), which has now grown to around 90 FTE staff. Yet, the push continues to revive OTA alongside it (options 1/2). A recent appropriations request letter for FY 2021 included 24 Senators, and another one in the House included 57 Representatives.

With our current institutional challenges around COVID-19 and unprecedented levels of new spending, the need for legislative science and technology advice is greater than ever. Let’s hope Congress allocates some of that funding to equip itself with better expertise and oversight capacity.

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