Tech Expertise in Congress, Additional Thoughts

William Eric Rinehart —  7 January 2019

I’m of two minds on the issue of tech expertise in Congress.

Yes there is good evidence that members of Congress and Congressional staff don’t have broad technical expertise. Scholars Zach Graves and Kevin Kosar have detailed these problems, as well as Travis Moore who wrote, “Of the 3,500 legislative staff on the Hill, I’ve found just seven that have any formal technical training.” Moore continued with a description of his time as a staffer that I think is honest,

In Congress, especially in a member’s office, very few people are subject-matter experts. The best staff depend on a network of trusted friends and advisors, built from personal relationships, who can help them break down the complexities of an issue.

But on the other hand, it is not clear that more tech expertise at Congress’ disposal would lead to better outcomes. Over at the American Action Forum, I explored this topic in depth. Since publishing that piece in October, I’ve come to recognize two gaps that I didn’t address in that original piece. The first relates to expert bias and the second concerns office organization.  

Expert Bias In Tech Regulation

Let’s assume for the moment that legislators do become more technically proficient by any number of means. If policymakers are normal people, and let me tell you, they are, the result will be overconfidence of one sort or another. In psychology research, overconfidence includes three distinct ways of thinking. Overestimation is thinking that you are better than you are. Overplacement is the belief that you are better than others. And overprecision is excessive faith that you know the truth.

For political experts, overprecision is common. A long-term study of  over 82,000 expert political forecasts by Philip E. Tetlock found that this group performed worse than they would have if they just randomly chosen an outcome. In the technical parlance, this means expert opinions were not calibrated; there wasn’t a correspondence between the predicted probabilities and the observed frequencies. Moreover, Tetlock found that events that experts deemed impossible occurred with some regularity. In a number of fields, these non-likely events came into being as much as 20 or 30 percent of the time. As Tetlock and co-author Dan Gardner explained, “our ability to predict human affairs is impressive only in its mediocrity.”    

While there aren’t many studies on the topic of expertise within government, workers within agencies have been shown to have overconfidence as well. As researchers Xinsheng Liu, James Stoutenborough, and Arnold Vedlitz discovered in surveying bureaucrats,   

Our analyses demonstrate that (a) the level of issue‐specific expertise perceived by individual bureaucrats is positively associated with their work experience/job relevance to climate change, (b) more experienced bureaucrats tend to be more overconfident in assessing their expertise, and (c) overconfidence, independently of sociodemographic characteristics, attitudinal factors and political ideology, correlates positively with bureaucrats’ risk‐taking policy choices.    

The expert bias literature leads to two lessons. First, more expertise doesn’t necessarily lead to better predictions or outcomes. Indeed, there are good reasons to suspect that more expertise would lead to overconfident policymakers and more risky political ventures within the law.

But second, and more importantly, what is meant by tech expertise needs to be more closely examined. Advocates want better decision making processes within government, a laudable goal. But staffing government agencies and Congress with experts doesn’t get you there. Like countless other areas, there is a diminishing marginal predictive return for knowledge. Rather than an injection of expertise, better methods of judgement should be pursued. Getting to that point will be a much more difficult goal.

The Production Function of Political Offices

As last year was winding down, Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions regarding Google’s search engine. The coverage of the event by various outlets was similar in taking to task members for their the apparent lack of knowledge about the search engine. Here is how Mashable’s Matt Binder described the event,  

The main topic of the hearing — anti-conservative bias within Google’s search engine — really puts how little Congress understands into perspective. Early on in the hearing, Rep. Lamar Smith claimed as fact that 96 percent of Google search results come from liberal sources. Besides being proven false with a simple search of your own, Google’s search algorithm bases search rankings on attributes such as backlinks and domain authority. Partisanship of the news outlet does not come into play. Smith asserted that he believe the results are being manipulated, regardless of being told otherwise.

Smith wasn’t alone as both Representative Steve Chabot and Representative Steve King brought up concerns of anti-conservative bias. Towards the end of piece Binder laid bare his concern, which is shared by many,

There are certainly many concerns and critiques to be had over algorithms and data collection when it comes to Google and its products like Google Search and Google Ads. Sadly, not much time was spent on this substance at Tuesday’s hearing. Google-owned YouTube, the second most trafficked website in the world after Google, was barely addressed at the hearing tool. [sic]

Notice the assumption built into this critique. True substantive debate would probe the data collection practices of Google instead of the bias of its search results. Using this framing, it seems clear that Congressional members don’t understand tech. But there is a better way to understand this hearing, which requires asking a more mundane question: Why is it that political actors like Representatives Chabot, King, and Smith were so concerned with how they appeared in Google results?

Political scientists Gary Lee Malecha and Daniel J. Reagan offer a convincing answer in The Public Congress. As they document, political offices over the past two decades have been reorientated by the 24-hours news cycle. Legislative life now unfolds live in front of cameras and microphones and on videos online. Over time, external communication has risen to a prominent role in Congressional political offices, in key ways overtaking policy analysis.

While this internal change doesn’t lend to any hard and fast conclusions, it could help explain why emboldened tech expertise hasn’t been a winning legislative issue. The demand just isn’t there. And based on the priorities they do display a preference for, it might not yield any benefits, while also giving offices a potential cover.      

All of this being said, there are convincing reasons why more tech expertise could be beneficial. Yet, policymakers and the public shouldn’t assume that these reforms will be unalloyed goods.

William Eric Rinehart

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William Rinehart is a tech policy analyst in DC. The views expressed in this blog are not representative of the organizations. His main research interests include economics, law, rhetoric, and political economy.