Technology Assessment in the U.S.: Reinvigoration and Reinvention

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Regency A (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Timothy M. Persons , GAO, Washington, DC
Emerging science and technology (S&T) developments continue to influence almost every aspect of the American society. As an example, products involving nanotechnology are both relevant to policy goals as well as to the health and safety of the American public. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent and non-partisan agency working for the U.S. Congress, provides expertise in analyzing such complex S&T issues by making them more accessible and presentable to inform and improve policy making.

After the closing of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, Congress directed GAO to conduct a technology assessment (TA) pilot program. Between 2002 and 2006, GAO completed four TA reports. To illustrate the results of a report, GAO found that though biometrics technologies could be used to secure the border, it had limitations in fingerprinting and facial recognition systems. An immediate impact of the report was a congressional testimony on the use of biometrics which, in turn, helped to inform U.S. national security reform efforts. GAO reports, which are made available to the public, have become essential vehicles for understanding S&T implications of policies considered by the Congress.

Since 2007, Congress has established a permanent TA function within GAO. This new operational role augments GAO’s performance audits related to S&T issues, including effectiveness and efficiency of U.S. Federal programs. In the last three years, GAO has completed TA reports on three topics – rail security, climate engineering, and alternate neutron detectors. As an example of one such report, Congress requested GAO to examine three areas: the current S&T state of climate engineering, views of experts on the future of climate engineering research, and potential public responses to climate engineering. When GAO receives a request to conduct TA, it utilizes existing processes in five phases, which include selecting the topic and initiating the TA plan (i.e., Acceptance phase 1 and Planning phase 2), then conducting TA (i.e., Data Gathering and Analysis phase 3), followed by developing the report and ensuring its accuracy and integrity (i.e., Product Development and Distribution phase 4), and finally receiving feedback from Congress and developing lessons learned to enhance the TA process (i.e., Results phase 5).

As the TA program is maturing, GAO is looking ahead to three next steps. First, while GAO has utilized the quality assurance process for conducting performance audits, it is also tailoring the quality assurance framework specifically for conducting technology assessments. Second, in order to support GAO analysts for efficient and effective work, it is developing a guidance document addressing the logic and design of technology assessments. Third, as GAO is interested in measuring the impact of its TA reports, there are plans to develop metrics for impact which will help to identify ways to improve the quality and efficacy of TA.