The wake of the flawed HealthCare.gov rollout leaves us with two questions: Why was the rollout such a debacle? And are the members of a surprisingly tech-illiterate Congress even capable of understanding the answers to that question? Previously, our representatives had help analyzing complex scientific and technological problems; now, the agency that once helped them no longer exists.
Congress has a technology problem. A survey [pdf] of around 1,000 government workers conducted by Federal News Radio looked into opinions of Congress's tech literacy. The majority of the respondents had jobs that heavily depended on technology and had worked in the federal sector for more than 20 years. When asked this question—"More than ever, Congress is being asked to legislate on issues such as cybersecurity and cloud computing. Do you believe members of Congress have the knowledge/background they need to properly legislate on these issues?"—85% of survey respondents answered 'no.' That might explain why the HealthCare.gov hearings ended up sounding like "people who can't read doing literary criticism," according to former Presidential Innovation Fellow Clay Johnson.
What is fascinating is that from 1972 to 1995 there was an entire agency—the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)—that existed to help Congress understand technological and scientific issues. I, for one, had no idea that this agency ever existed until I read this article by Jack Moore at Federal News Radio. According to the article:
"Fewer than 20 years ago, Congress had a thriving 200-person technology think tank at its disposal, tasked with conducting research and analysis on pressing science and technology issues. Over the years, the Office of Technology Assessment issued reports on everything from acid rain and AIDS to virtual-reality and wireless technologies—influencing both the debate and legislation coming out of Capitol Hill."
The OTA sounds like it was pretty amazing to this scientist and voter. For starters, the staffers at OTA did careful analysis—bringing in many outside experts and taking more than a year to complete most reports. These reports predicted back in 1982 that e-mail or 'electronic message systems' would have a major impact on the postal service and that Reagan's 'Star Wars' Strategic Defense Initiative was not feasible. All 750 reports the issued by OTA are archived on this website maintained by Princeton University. Just scanning through the titles is an interesting exercise.
But the main reason the OTA was so important was because of its relationship with Congress. Says the article, "The goal wasn't to make recommendations but to provide lawmakers with a number of policy options along with the cost, technical feasibility and, even, societal impacts of particular technologies. "It was a non-partisan agency that was overseen by a board "split evenly between House and Senate lawmakers of both parties." Representatives from other countries even came to research the OTA so they could duplicate the agency for their governments.
Despite having a budget of only 1% of the legislative budget, the OTA itself was a victim of politics and was shut down in 1995. The General Accounting Office is now struggling to fill the void—they only have five full-time employees working on technological assessment reports. Some lawmakers, including New Jersey Representative and physicist Rush Holt, say Congress should bring the OTA back. But in this budget climate, attempts to do so are falling on deaf ears, which is really too bad given the growing importance of technology in issues governed by Congress—from health care to commerce to national security. Maybe the OTA needs bumper stickers? "We oughta bring back OTA!" Or a catchier name?