Congress needs help understanding the fast moving world of technology. That help is not going to arise by reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (“OTA”), however. The OTA is an idea for another age, while the tweaks necessary to shore up the existing technology resources available to Congress are relatively modest.
Although a new OTA is unlikely to be harmful, it would entail the expenditure of additional resources, including the political capital necessary to create a new federal agency, along with all the revolving-door implications that entails.
The real problem with revising the OTA is that it distracts Congress from considering that it needs to be more than merely well-informed. What we need is both smarter regulation as well as regulation better tailored to 21st century technology and the economy. A new OTA might help with the former problem, but may in fact only exacerbate the latter problem.
The OTA is a poor fit for the modern world
The OTA began existence in 1972, with a mission to provide science and technology advice to Congress. It was closed in 1995, following budget cuts. Lately, some well meaning folks — including even some presidential hopefuls — have sought to revive the OTA.
To the extent that something like the OTA would be salutary today, it would be as a check on incorrect technologically and scientifically based assumptions contained in proposed legislation. For example, in the 90s the OTA provided useful technical information to Congress about how encryption technologies worked as it was considering legislation such as CALEA.
Yet there is good reason to believe that a new legislative-branch agency would not outperform the alternatives to these functions available today. A recent study from the National Academy of Public Administration (“NAPA”), undertaken at the request of Congress and the Congressional Research Service, summarized the OTA’s poor fit for today’s legislative process.
A new OTA “would have similar vulnerabilities that led to the dis-establishment of the [original] OTA.” While a new OTA could provide some information and services to Congress, “such services are not essential for legislators to actually craft legislation, because Congress has multiple sources for [Science and Technology] information/analysis already and can move legislation forward without a new agency.” Moreover, according to interviewed legislative branch personnel, the original OTA’s reports “were not critical parts of the legislative deliberation and decision-making processes during its existence.”
A new [OTA] conducting helpful but not essential work would struggle to integrate into the day-to-day legislative activities of Congress, and thus could result in questions of relevancy and leave it potentially vulnerable to political challenges
The NAPA report found that the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”) and the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) already contained most of the resources that Congress needed. The report recommended enhancing those existing resources, and the creation of a science and technology coordinator position in Congress in order to facilitate the hiring of appropriate personnel for committees, among other duties.
The one gap identified by the NAPA report is that Congress currently has no “horizon scanning” capability to look at emerging trends in the long term. This was an original function of OTA.
According to Peter D. Blair, in his book Congress’s Own Think Tank – Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment, an original intention of the OTA was to “provide an ‘early warning’ on the potential impacts of new technology.” (p. 43). But over time, the agency, facing the bureaucratic incentive to avoid political controversy, altered its behavior and became carefully “responsive to congressional needs” (p. 51) — which is a polite way of saying that the OTA’s staff came to see their purpose as providing justification for Congress to enact desired legislation and to avoid raising concerns that could be an impediment to that legislation. The bureaucratic pressures facing the agency forced a mission drift that would be highly likely to recur in a new OTA.
The NAPA report, however, has its own recommendation that does not involve the OTA: allow the newly created science and technology coordinator to create annual horizon-scanning reports.
A new OTA unnecessarily increases the surface area for regulatory capture
Apart from the likelihood that the OTA will be a mere redundancy, the OTA presents yet another vector for regulatory capture (or at least endless accusations of regulatory capture used to undermine its work). Andrew Yang inadvertently points to this fact on his campaign page that calls for a revival of the OTA:
This vital institution needs to be revived, with a budget large enough and rules flexible enough to draw top talent away from the very lucrative private sector.
Yang’s wishcasting aside, there is just no way that you are going to create an institution with a “budget large enough and rules flexible enough” to permanently siphon off top-tier talent from multi-multi-billion dollar firms working on creating cutting edge technologies. What you will do is create an interesting, temporary post-graduate school or mid-career stop-over point where top-tier talent can cycle in and out of those top firms. These are highly intelligent, very motivated individuals who want to spend their careers making stuff, not writing research reports for congress.
The same experts who are sufficiently high-level enough to work at the OTA will be similarly employable by large technology and scientific firms. The revolving door is all but inevitable.
The real problem to solve is a lack of modern governance
Lack of adequate information per se is not the real problem facing members of Congress today. The real problem is that, for the most part, legislators neither understand nor seem to care about how best to govern and establish regulatory frameworks for new technology. As a result, Congress passes laws that threaten to slow down the progress of technological development, thus harming consumers while protecting incumbents.
Assuming for the moment that there is some kind of horizon-scanning capability that a new OTA could provide, it necessarily fails, even on these terms. By the time Congress is sufficiently alarmed by a new or latent “problem” (or at least a politically relevant feature) of technology, the industry or product under examination has most likely already progressed far enough in its development that it’s far too late for Congress to do anything useful. Even though the NAPA report’s authors seem to believe that a “horizon scanning” capability will help, in a dynamic economy, truly predicting the technology that will impact society seems a bit like trying to predict the weather on a particular day a year hence.
Further, the limits of human cognition restrict the utility of “more information” to the legislative process. Will Rinehart discussed this quite ably, pointing to the psychological literature that indicates that, in many cases involving technical subjects, more information given to legislators only makes them overconfident. That is to say, they can cite more facts, but put less of them to good use when writing laws.
The truth is, no degree of expertise will ever again provide an adequate basis for producing prescriptive legislation meant to guide an industry or segment. The world is simply moving too fast.
It would be far more useful for Congress to explore legislation that encourages the firms involved in highly dynamic industries to develop and enforce voluntary standards that emerge as a community standards. See, for example, the observation offered by Jane K. Winn in her paper on information governance and privacy law that
[i]n an era where the ability to compete effectively in global markets increasingly depends on the advantages of extracting actionable insights from petabytes of unstructured data, the bureaucratic individual control right model puts a straightjacket on product innovation and erects barriers to fostering a culture of compliance.
Winn is thinking about what a “governance” response to privacy and crises like the Cambridge Analytica scandal should be, and posits those possibilities against the top-down response of the EU with its General Data Protection Directive (“GDPR”). She notes that preliminary research on GDPR suggests that framing privacy legislation as bureaucratic control over firms using consumer data can have the effect of removing all of the risk-management features that the private sector is good at developing.
Instead of pursuing legislative agendas that imagine the state as the all-seeing eye at the top of the of a command-and-control legislative pyramid, lawmakers should seek to enable those with relevant functional knowledge to employ that knowledge for good governance, broadly understood:
Reframing the information privacy law reform debate as the process of constructing new information governance institutions builds on decades of American experience with sector-specific, risk based information privacy laws and more than a century of American experience with voluntary, consensus standard-setting processes organized by the private sector. The turn to a broader notion of information governance reflects a shift away from command-and-control strategies and toward strategies for public-private collaboration working to protect individual, institutional and social interests in the creation and use of information.
The implications for a new OTA are clear. The model of “gather all relevant information on a technical subject to help construct a governing code” was, if ever, best applied to a world that moved at an industrial era pace. Today, governance structures need to be much more flexible, and the work of an OTA — even if Congress didn’t already have most of its advisory bases covered — has little relevance.
The engineers working at firms developing next generation technologies are the individuals with the most relevant, timely knowledge. A forward looking view of regulation would try to develop a means for the information these engineers have to surface and become an ongoing part of the governing standards.
*note – This post originally said that OTA began “operating” in 1972. I meant to say it began “existence” in 1972. I have corrected the error.