June 26, 2014

Senate Takes a Step Toward Improving Its Technology-Assessment Capabilities

By Azhar Unwala and Daniel Schuman

Office of Technology AssessmentCongress finally has remembered that good technology advice translates into good policy. While the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has provided technology advice to Congress for more than a decade, its work falls short for many reasons, most notably budget constraints. In response, the report accompanying the Senate Appropriations Committee's fiscal 2015 legislative branch budget, marked up last Thursday, directed the GAO to determine the best strategies to improve its technology assessment capabilities.

The Committee directs the GAO, within 60 days of enactment, to submit a strategic plan for its technology assessment program. The strategic plan should include proposed solutions to critical challenges constraining the GAO's technology assessment capabilities, approaches to increase responsiveness to congressional needs and priorities, strategies to improve technology assessment procedures and methodologies, and additional authorities and resources that may be necessary to best carry out this mission.

Congress’ desire for independent science and technology advice is not new. Before the GAO took up the mantle, lawmakers relied on the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a non-partisan legislative branch agency that produced hundreds of peer-reviewed, technology-focused reports for legislators. Unfortunately, the Gingrich revolution led to OTA's defunding in 1995. Since then, no one has adequately filled OTA's role and an overwhelmed Congress has implemented many costly, technologically unsound programs and relied on biased advice from agencies and lobbyists with an axe to grind.

GAO could learn much from OTA. The strategic plan should draw upon the OTA’s enabling law to gain the authorities, resources, and capabilities necessary to produce sound science and technology reports. For its part, Congress must ensure the GAO is sufficiently funded to develop its assessment capabilities.

In today’s world of rapid technological advancement, Congress needs access to timely, expert advice on technology issues. Ensuring that legislators are knowledgeable of critical technology issues moves policymaking away from the influence of well-funded lobbying groups and advances the best interests of the American people.

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