GAO Will Pour $15 Million Into New Tech Assessment Office in 2020

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The Science and Technology Assessment and Analytics team aims to build lawmakers’ understanding of emerging technologies and weigh in on tech-centric policies.

The Government Accountability Office will spend $15 million next year scaling up a new office dedicated to building tech literacy on Capitol Hill and informing policy decisions on issues like 5G, quantum computing and privacy.

Officials plan to expand the Science and Technology Assessment and Analytics group’s staff from 49 to 70 full-time employees by the end of 2019, according to the expansion plan GAO submitted to Congress. In the years ahead, GAO said the office could grow to as many as 140 staffers.

“They’ve overcome the resource hurdle for a tech assessment office,” said Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, which advised GAO on the expansion. “I think it’s well beyond minimum viable product—it’s a serious effort.”

Officially created in January, the group brings the various tech and science teams previously scattered across GAO together under a single roof, serving as a one-stop shop for the technical expertise needed on Capitol Hill. The office will provide lawmakers with a wide array of resources, ranging from informal briefings ahead of committee hearings to major studies on the impact new technologies will have on society.

According to its expansion plan, the office will be divided into four groups:

  • A 25-person technology assessment and technical assistance team that will conduct forward-facing studies on emerging technologies.
  • A 23-person science and technology program oversight team that will monitor the performance of federal science and tech initiatives.
  • An 11-person engineering sciences team that will advise agencies on tech investments.
  • A 6-person innovation lab that will explore and develop new data analysis and auditing tools.

The office also plans to recruit experts from industry and academia “to meet project-specific needs,” the report said. As its work ramps up, the office may need additional hiring authorities to bring on that temporary expertise, officials wrote.

Over the next year, GAO said the office will focus its efforts on exploring applications of artificial intelligence in health care, freshwater technologies for agriculture and 5G communications.

Beyond helping lawmakers understand the implications of new tech, STAA will also provide nonpartisan evaluations of the policies they propose, something Graves sees as “hugely beneficial” for a Congress doesn’t always understand the issues at hand. When it comes to tech, policy debates are often driven by outside interest groups, he told Nextgov, and it would help lawmakers to have input from a group like GAO, which is generally viewed as unbiased and objective by both political parties.

“Congress needs the ability to evaluate and check the homework of people who are making these kinds of claims, and [it’s] not really able to do that now,” he said. STAA’s input “would be helpful in making it so Congress isn’t flying blind on these big policy issues that could have really disastrous consequences” if they’re designed incorrectly.

That said, GAO itself has historically turned to outside experts to inform its own perspectives on tech and science issues, according to Graves, so STAA’s effectiveness will hinge on its ability to build knowledge internally. In the coming months, he said he’ll be paying close attention to the types of people the office recruits and how it goes about creating its “own brand and identity.”

While he’s optimistic about the future of STAA, Graves said the office won’t address all the problems related to tech literacy in Congress. Committees and individual offices still struggle to hire staffers with technical backgrounds, and the conversation around tech is often driven by political rhetoric instead of substantive policy debates.

Having a group like STAA provide expertise is a step in the right direction, he said, but Congress must also be willing and able to put that resource to good use.

“The most important thing is that people don’t think that building a tech assessment office is going to fix everything,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, it’s one component of this broader conversation.”

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