GAO Guide Helps Agencies Tell When Emerging Tech is Primetime Ready

Yuralaits Albert/AP

The Government Accountability Office's new report walks agencies through "technology readiness assessments."

Federal agencies need a standardized system for deciding when early-stage technology can move out of the development phase, according to a government watchdog.  

The Government Accountability Office last week published a "Technology Readiness Assessment" guide, designed to walk agencies through that evaluation process, so they can decide how to apportion money and time to technology development projects likely to transition into real-world applications.

The guide, meant to complement GAO's recent "Cost Estimating" and "Schedule" assessment guides, says agencies should perform these assessments to help them figure out if a concept can advance to another acquisition phase, "needs additional work, or should be discontinued or reconsidered in favor of more promising technology.”

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

The guide also included a series of task checklists for agencies, including that independent review teams should conduct the assessment, and that they used credible, verified information to draw any conclusions. The assessments should be conducted regularly so agencies can estimate the cost-effectiveness of investing more time and money into the program. They should also keep program managers "from unknowingly accepting or being forced to accept immature technologies into their programs.”

Few federal agencies have their own guides to technology readiness assessment, according to GAO.

"[T]he federal government has not adopted a generally accepted approach for evaluating technology," the guide said.

For instance, an Army Future Combat Systems program that included new weapons and IT systems was canceled after a 2008 GAO report found that 42 of 44 critical elements hadn't reached maturity halfway through the timeline. The 5-year, $12 billion program was eventually scrapped.

"Major technical challenges, the Army’s acquisition strategy, and the cost of the program, as well as insufficient oversight and review, all contributed," the GAO guide said. 

Such a guide could help federal agencies "be a smarter consumer" of technology developed outside the government, Mallory Bullman, the Partnership for Public Service's director for research and evaluation, told Nextgov in an interview.

"Government is no longer in a position ... to be developing everything by itself," she said.