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OTA 2.0: Reviving the Expert Agency with a New Public Participation Component

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, April 15 2009

OTA_seal.png (PNG Image, 158x160 pixels)Tech and science-minded types within the Beltway get a bit misty-eyed discussing the Office of Technology Assessment. OTA wasn't perfect, but during its 23 year run from 1972 to 1995, the small agency provided Congress with considered expertise on a full gamut of issues. Alas, OTA navigated the tricky waters faced by anyone attempting to provide impartial expertise in official Washington (see Bruce Bimber's The Politics of Expertise in Congress for a great take on the challenges faced by OTA, CRS, GAO, and others), only to be killed off during the Gingrich revolt of 1994. It was largely a symbolic measure. OTA's operating costs amounted to peanuts in the grand scheme of governmental spending. But the office's small budget may have actually been its downfall. Rather than a press release touting some 10% or 20% cut in spending in some bureaucratic behemoth, closing down OTA allowed Republicans to declare victory on the complete elimination of a congressional office.

The thing is, the Office of Technology Assessment was defunded during the Republican revolution. It wasn't killed, just forced into hibernation. Its implementing legislation is still on the books. That means that restarting OTA -- and providing Congress with an in-house source of science and technology expertise -- would only take political will of Congress to reappropriate funds.

There has been increasing chatter about doing just that. But Darlene Cavalier over at the Science Cheerleader blog has some intriguing new news. Congressman-physicist Rush Holt is planning to introduce legislation to re-open OTA. All well and good. But what's especially interesting here is that Holt, reports Cavalier, is planning to include in his proposal provisions that involve public participation in OTA's work. With the great deal of untapped technical expertise floating around America, OTA could prove to be ground zero for the engagement of citizens in the nuts and bolts of government work.