How Should the New OTA Decide What To Study?

The likelihood of Congress reinstating a science and technology assessment office is at an all time high, but should such an agency be reconstituted, how should it decide what issues to address?

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Congress’s other legislative support agencies — the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the Congressional Budget Office — use various mechanisms to decide where to devote analytic resources. The GAO, for example, prioritizes congressional mandates, then senior leader and committee requests, and then individual member requests, with the practical effect that individual member requests are not usually considered. CRS, by contrast, leaves significant discretion to its analysts concerning which general distribution reports to create, although it does look at frequent requests from members of Congress. (CRS memos, of course, are written at the request of individual members.)

The kind of products created by these agencies varies as well. GAO usually produces lengthy, analytical reports that examine waste, fraud, and abuse inside federal agencies; it solicits feedback from the agencies subject to its oversight; and it issues recommendations. CRS, by contrast, currently focuses on quick-response summaries and syntheses of existing research; it avoids reaching conclusions or issuing recommendations; and it strongly discourages communications external to the agency. The former OTA was more like GAO in that it produced in-depth, analytical pieces that took a long time to research and were the result of wide consultation.

Part of what led to OTA’s demise was a narrow political base of support rooted in committee leadership. At the time, this design was considered a feature, not a bug, as the agency was intended to meet the needs of committees — which were more powerful at the time — and members of Congress did not anticipate the consequences of a shift in control of the House. In fact, the committee-centric design did increase the science and technology foresight of committees, as OTA staff supported comparatively robust and expert committee staff. Given the political flaw of a historically narrow political base of support for OTA, perhaps the best way to identify what OTA should study is to examine how to build a sufficiently strong foundation for the agency, such as by determining how to directly meet the needs of all Members of Congress.

Congressional science and technology constituencies can be broken out as follows: party leadership, relevant committee leadership, relevant committee members, the rank and file, and the public interest (as reflected by the press and constituents). Accordingly, each should have political buy-in to the reconstituted OTA for the agency to be able to persist. (For ease of reference, and to distinguish it from the OTA, I’m going to refer to this new entity as “NOTA.”) How could this work?

First, I would suggest there is a continuum between shorter form (and faster turn-around) analyses and longer form (and slower) analyses. Clustering reports at the ends of the shorter/longer axis could help satisfy the needs of the varying constituencies while conserving limited resources. 

Second, we should look at how to divide up the time of NOTA staff. How OTA chose the topics it would study was prescribed by statute: a request had to come from a committee chair; the OTA Board; or the OTA director, in consultation with the Board. As discussed above, it makes sense for NOTA to expand what may prompt a report. 

Analysts at CRS have a statutory obligation to take the initiative to make recommendations on issues that committees should study and to analyze and make available information that is of use to members of Congress in conducting their legislative and oversight functions. It seems reasonable that some percentage of NOTA staff time should be devoted to identifying issues of congressional and public interest and generating appropriate shorter reports and briefings on those topics. A few in-depth analyses could also come from this process, and perhaps be used as fodder to create derivative shorter form reports.

These shorter form reports likely would be relevant to rank and file members as well as members of committees that have jurisdiction over a matter under review. Accordingly, some percentage of staff time for NOTA reports should be responsive to these requests. We must be cautious to strike the right balance. Too few reports made at the request of the rank-and-file will leave members of Congress feeling underserved. Too many such reports could prove to be quite expensive and not provide as large a return on investment.

For the longer form analytic pieces, it makes sense to have them generated when there is sufficient interest inside Congress. One way to identify such interest is a request by a committee chair, ranking member, or subcommittee chair and ranking member. Some percentage of NOTA resources should be responsive to requests made on this basis, with some prioritization around full committee leadership over subcommittee leadership and some priority given to the majority over the minority. But as power can change hands quickly, it is important to satisfy the priority needs of the majority and minority.

However, while a member of Congress’s position inside Congress is one way to represent the interests of members of the chamber, it is not the only one. It is not uncommon for some issues to be ripe for consideration but a committee chair will not request an evaluation. Accordingly, a small number of requests for in-depth NOTA analysis that are signed by a significant number of members of the chamber (say 20%) should be granted. One could imagine that the bipartisan nature of a request could be considered as a plus-factor to help prioritize a request. In addition, NOTA leadership could exercise discretion in shaping what goes forward 

It would be reasonable for NOTA to combine requests made by different actors. There surely will be a need to prioritize within these categories. It may be instructive to look to how the Government Accountability Office and executive branch agencies decide what reports are worth the expenditure of time. 

The process should not end with the release of a report. The analyses should be made publicly available, of course, and, as appropriate, NOTA should host staff briefings and break longer reports into digestible pieces. In addition, it should write blog posts and use social media to help disseminate the contents, and perhaps have a podcast as another way for staff to consume the contents. This is common practice for other parliamentary research institutions, such as in the European Parliament and the British Parliament, and it makes sense to bring it to NOTA. In addition, NOTA may wish to consider more unconventional techniques, such as bringing on a Wikipedian in residence to encourage third parties to add the agency’s findings to the world’s most frequently used online encyclopedia.

Finally, there may be occasions where multiple Congressional research agencies, like GAO and CRS, have conducted an analysis on the same or a related topic, or there are other analytical pieces from parliamentary research services around the world. In those cases, it would make sense for NOTA to monitor and perhaps partner with these other entities to provide their work as a combined briefing package so that interested staff can view the topic through multiple lenses.

— Written by Daniel Schuman