This post was co-authored by Zach Graves and Dan Lips.
The FY2022 appropriations process is underway. While it represents a small fraction of overall spending, one of the most important challenges on Congress’s agenda is meeting the funding needs for the Legislative Branch, and providing resources for key support agencies like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service. This capacity is essential to help our elected representatives formulate policy and conduct oversight of the federal bureaucracy.
The $661 million that Congress allocated to spend on its nonpartisan watchdog this year is less than a rounding error of the $5.3 trillion that Washington will spend in 2021. But funding for GAO is one of the best investments that Congress makes. Over the past decade, GAO has reported a return of over $100 in financial benefits to taxpayers for each dollar of its budget. This is particularly true as the agency is engaged in new efforts to build its technical capabilities and modernize the future of nonpartisan oversight. One of the most exciting programs in GAO is the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA; pronounced ”S, T, double A”) team, which is creating capacity to provide deep technical expertise to Congress and help it leverage modern technology tools for oversight.
In 2019, following encouragement by Congress, GAO established STAA as its 15th mission team, and it has since grown to have over 100 FTE staff. STAA’s mission includes four objectives: providing technology assessments and services to Congress, auditing federal S&T programs, analyzing and identifying engineering best practices, and establishing new analytics capabilities to modernize auditing.
STAA’s creation within GAO followed calls to address gaps in S&T expertise in the legislative branch. These gaps are often attributed to the defunding of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which served as a technical think tank within Congress from 1974 and 1995. However, this occurred at the same time as other major cuts to committees, personal offices, and support agencies.
Revealing the depth of this capacity gap, since the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, committees have lost over 1,000 staff positions, and support agencies have lost over 2,500. Meanwhile, resource allocation within the legislative branch has disproportionately shifted to non-policy functions like the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police. Additionally, an ever-increasing share of staff in personal offices focus on communications and constituent engagement rather than policy.
In recent decades, Members of Congress have debated options for rebuilding S&T capacity within the Legislative Branch. Lawmakers have introduced various bills to restart OTA, or create an OTA-like office in GAO or CRS. But these measures have not become law. In 2019, the National Academy of Public Administration published a congressionally-directed report identifying gaps in Congressional S&T capacity and options for Congress, recommending a focus on enhancing existing entities like GAO’s STAA and CRS (see our full commentary on it here).
On the current course, Congress has shown its support for STAA as the vehicle for this work, and invested in its growth. In a March 2021 testimony, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro highlighted the recent work of the STAA, including early and ongoing scientific analysis related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dodaro also highlighted the STAA’s promising work to apply data analytics by creating an Innovation Lab that has launched a “first-of-its-kind collaborative effort across key agencies to enhance payment integrity” and has the potential to modernize Congressional oversight. GAO’s FY2022 budget proposal requests additional funding to continue to grow the STAA team and increase its impact.
Yet, STAA now faces several key governance challenges, including establishing strong relationships with Members and congressional staff, building its reputation and networks within the broader S&T community, and establishing its own culture within the 3,000+ person audit-focused organization. As its critics have pointed out, its largest challenge will be getting the necessary clearance to accomplish its mission within GAO’s traditional organizational bureaucracy, which has processes and norms that may be at odds with an experimental S&T office. To address these challenges, Congress should take steps in the current appropriations process and future legislation.
Recommendation #1: Encourage STAA to Utilize Rotators
Background: Major S&T agencies like the former OTA, NSF, and DARPA have successfully used short term project-based rotators to enhance their talent pool and build expert networks. STAA has discussed taking this approach, and has authority under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.
Report language: The Committee encourages STAA to move forward with the adoption of project-based short-term staff.
Recommendation #2: Encourage STAA to Expand Outreach to Members and Staff
Background: A key challenge is making Congressional offices and committees aware of STAA’s capabilities. It should expand on its past initiative to organize briefings for congressional staff on emerging technology issues. It should also explore ways to improve user experience to staff to access its work through the Congressional intranet, and potentially create newsletters or other mechanisms to engage with staff.
Report language: The Committee encourages STAA to expand its direct outreach efforts to Members and congressional staff to make them aware of its unique capabilities, and provide briefings on timely science and technology topics. It is also requested to report back to the Committee within 180 days on strategies to enhance its communications and outreach with staff.
Recommendation #3: Encourage Research Independence at STAA
Background: Given diverse stakeholder interests within GAO, providing greater process independence for STAA's work product will facilitate its ability to provide robust policy options and high quality S&T advice for Congress.
Report language: To support independent expertise advice to Congress, the Committee encourages the Comptroller General to provide STAA maximum practicable research independence, consistent with GAO quality standards and best practices.
Recommendation #4: Increase STAA’s Visibility and Independence with a Line Item
Background: Because STAA’s core mission and needs are fundamentally different from the work of its parent organization, greater separation may benefit both. Additionally, increased visibility into the operational development of STAA would be beneficial to stakeholders in Congress. Thus, we propose that STAA move towards the relationship model between CRS and the Library of Congress of sharing support resources but also having a measure of operational independence.
Bill text: Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Line Item: For all necessary salaries and expenses to carry out the operations of STAA, $XX,000,000. Provided further that STAA and the Chief Scientist shall be granted research independence by Comptroller General consistent with GAO quality standards and best practices.
Report language: Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Congressional Budget Justification: STAA is taking on an increasingly important set of responsibilities within the legislative branch. Commensurate with this growing role, it is appropriate for Congress to have greater visibility into its operations and more granular insight into its funding. Therefore, we request the STAA provide a direct request to this Committee for annual funds starting for fiscal year 2023. Provided further, that STAA is requested to publish an annual report as to its activities, staffing, and outputs.
Recommendation #5: Fully Fund GAO’s FY 2022 Budget Request
Background: Since 1999, the Government Accountability Office has provided annual estimates of the financial benefits and other government improvements that have resulted from GAO’s work. As of October, GAO’s work over the past 21 years had resulted in more than $1.1 trillion in financial benefits and more than 25,000 other improvements. During that period, GAO’s lowest annual return on investment was $57 in financial benefits for each dollar in funding for GAO. This successful track record underscores why GAO is one of Congress’s best investments. It’s nonpartisan oversight results in significant financial savings and makes the government work more efficiently on behalf of the American people.
Fully funding the Comptroller General’s FY2022 budget request would improve GAO’s capacity to conduct this work, particularly given his recent plans to invest new resources in growing the STAA team, including its new innovation lab. The lab is “using emerging technology to rethink analytics and auditing,” including for pandemic related oversight. Moving forward, applying data science and analytics to modernize GAO’s approach to auditing has the potential to drive significant financial benefits and improvements.