GAO growing cyber staff even if Congress doesn’t revive tech assessment office

Whether or not Congress resurrects the defunct Office of Technology Assessment, the head of the Government Accountability Office said his agency plans to increase its capacity to oversee emerging technology issues.

“I’m here to assure you that we’re prepared, if you decide to go that way, to handle those additional responsibilities,” GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the House Appropriations Committee Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Wednesday.

GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro addresses the House Appropriations Committee Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Feb. 28, 2019.

By the end of this year, the watchdog office will grow its information technology and cybersecurity team from 140 employees to 175. Dodaro already said earlier this year that he hoped to expand the Science, Technology, Assessment and Analytics Team from 70 employees to 140 employees.

In order to increase its capacity, GAO has requested a $58 million increase for its fiscal 2020 budget – an increase of nearly 10 percent.

However, Dodaro estimated that over the past five years, GAO has identified $100 in savings for every dollar invested in the agency’s budget.

“Congress needs your agency’s neutral expertise these days more than ever,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman. “With the complexity of federal programs and tax policy threatening to overwhelm Congress’s capacity to perform adequate oversight, we know we sometimes overtax you with our constant requests for reports, but GAO and the agency IGs are really our principal source of analysis that are needed for responsible policy-making.”

Up until the mid-90s, GAO had as many as 5,300 employees but was downsized by about 40 percent during around the time Congress defunded the Office of Technology Assessment. At the height of its staffing, GAO used to handle 1,000 to 1,200 requests a year from Congress.

“We can scale up to whatever Congress decides they want to invest in us,” Dodaro said. “We can provide much more assistance and we’re capable of doing that.”

GAO, on average, gets about 800 requests a year from Congress. The agency gives priority to reviews mandated by law, or conference reports, followed by requests from congressional committee leadership.

However, Dodaro said the watchdog office doesn’t have the capacity right now to take on requests from individual members of Congress who don’t serve in leadership roles.

“We haven’t had enough resources to do that for about 15 years. So right now, in order to get access to our services, it needs to be a committee [request], at a minimum, or something in statute,” he said. “I’d like to do more, but we just don’t have the resources.”

Dodaro said he’s recently been meeting with committee chairs and ranking members to help get a sense of their priorities for requests.

GAO has conducted technology assessments since 2002, but as requests from Congress get more complex, Dodaro said the agency will need to hire more specialized experts.

“Congress asked us to look at the new Columbia-class nuclear submarine. I need people that understand that technology. We’re spending over $300 billion to refurbish our nuclear arsenal. I need people to understand how to do that, particularly sophisticated computer modeling,” Dodaro told lawmakers.

GAO will submit plans to Congress next month on how the agency can expand its work on technology assessment work in the future.

Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) questioned whether GAO can compete with the private sector for new hires with in-demand expertise.

“Somebody can want to work for you really badly, but if they’re offered twice that or more in the private sector, how do you handle that?” Case asked.

However, Dodaro said GAO, listed as one of the best places to work in the federal government by the Partnership for Public Service, hasn’t had much difficulty attracting new talent.

“A lot of people [that] work in a private sector might get paid more money, but they’re not as satisfied, in some cases, with the type of work that they do,” Dodaro said.

If Congress meets GAO’s FY 2020 budget request, the agency expects to make 100 new, full-time hires.

“I don’t need huge numbers, but I need the right person. So if you market yourself properly, and you target people who are likely to appeal to wanting to do public service work in a good, professional, nonpartisan environment, that’s a big part of what we sell,” Dodaro said.

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