Inside GAO’s Plan to Make Congress More Tech-Savvy

An empty chair reserved for Google's parent Alphabet, which refused to send its top executive, is seen as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee Sept. 5.

An empty chair reserved for Google's parent Alphabet, which refused to send its top executive, is seen as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee Sept. 5. Jose Luis Magana/AP

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The new Science and Technology Assessment and Analytics group aims to prep lawmakers for big decisions on artificial intelligence, privacy and 5G.

As lawmakers prepare to weigh in on high-profile tech issues like artificial intelligence, 5G and online privacy, the Government Accountability Office wants to make sure they know what they’re doing.

The agency is in the early days of standing up a new office dedicated to building lawmakers’ tech-savvy and helping them understand the impacts of any tech-centric policies they pursue. Ultimately, the Science and Technology Assessment and Analytics group would serve as a one-stop shop for the technical expertise currently in short supply on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, GAO submitted a letter to Congress outlining its vision for the group. The plan, which has not yet been made public, will include specifics on the size and scope of the office.

The organization, officially created in January, comes as both “an internal merger and a great expansion” of the agency’s science and tech operations, according to GAO Chief Scientist Tim Persons, who will co-lead the office with John Neumann, the agency’s former director of science and technology issues. The group will pull in experts from the agency’s audit and science teams, as well as some new hires, creating a single spot where Congress can access a wide variety of advisory services.

By the end of 2019, the office will house some 60 engineers, physicists, data analysts, computer scientists, federal auditors and other diverse specialists, according to Persons. And in the coming years, the staff could potentially double in size, he said in a conversation with Nextgov.

The office is also partnering with prominent universities to offer faculty short-term stints within the organization, Persons said, following a similar model to tech-heavy research groups like the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“By leveraging analysts and specialists in one team we can provide the whole spectrum of products to the Congress,” Neumann told Nextgov. According to him, those “products” could run the gamut from formal assessments of emerging technology applications to suggestions on what questions lawmakers should ask during committee hearings.

“We're in the process of doing extensive outreach to the Congress ... to talk about the types of products and services that would be useful to them,” Neumann said. “That's partly what will drive our growth.”

By acting as a springboard for tech expertise, the office could help prevent Congress from repeating its embarrassing missteps during last year’s high-profile hearings with Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.

There are a handful of factors that contribute to Congress’ lack of tech-savvy. For one, few lawmakers have experience in technical fields—in the last session, only 19 of the 535 members had backgrounds in engineering, science or the tech sector. Lawmakers also rely heavily on congressional staffers to fill them in on key issues, but shrinking budgets and a growing portfolio of tech-related issues have stretched those resources thin. Additionally, some congressional committees and offices are having a difficult time recruiting people with technical backgrounds in the first place, as government jobs are often far less lucrative than those in the private sector.

Over the past year, policy experts and lawmakers have proposed multiple strategies for closing the knowledge gap on Capitol Hill, including reviving the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan group that advised Congress on science and tech issues before it was shuttered in 1995. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who led a failed attempt to reopen the office in 2018, recently said he would propose a similar measure this year that would revive the office with an annual budget of $2.5 million.

But even if Congress were to reopen OTA, Persons and Neumann said it’s unlikely the two groups would step on each other’s toes.

“There's enough work to go around,” Neumann said, and given their respective mandates, each office would bring different strengths to the table.

GAO has long advised Congress on tech and science issues through reports, assessments and audits, but guidance often came in response to specific inquiries from committees or individual offices, they said. With expertise scattered across different GAO offices, those resources rarely provided a holistic overview of any one technology, they said, but rather a narrow perspective on a single application or policy.

But as lawmakers prepare to take on more big-picture issues like social media regulation, quantum computing applications and facial recognition, GAO wants to ensure resources are available before Congress even knows it wants them.

“We do things now, but we've been in a reactive mode. We haven't had the critical mass of resources to be more proactive,” Persons said. “The office “is intended to [provide] that specialized workforce to deal with those soup to nuts science and technology issues across the Congress ... in as agile a manner as we can.”

Lawmakers have a wide array of factors to consider when weighing in on controversial issues like privacy, facial recognition and election security, so Persons said it’s critical the office provides an unbiased assessment of any policy they move forward.

“There's always going to be a pro and con to those options,” Persons said. “Our job is to elucidate in as neutral and nonpartisan and non-ideological way … here's the upside and the downside of each. We're not going to say ‘you should do this.'”

Though the group is still getting off the ground, Congress has already asked it to take a look at 5G broadband, distributed ledger technology and the potential impacts of artificial intelligence on health care, according to Persons. Down the line, he and Neumann said the team expects to set its sights on quantum computing, bioengineering and ways to remedy the opioid epidemic.

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