Technology Assessment Design Handbook

What GAO Found

The Technology Assessment (TA) Design Handbook identifies tools and approaches GAO staff and others can consider in the design of robust and rigorous technology assessments. The handbook underscores the importance of TA design (Chapter 1), outlines the process of designing TAs (Chapter 2), and describes approaches for mitigating select TA design and implementation challenges (Chapter 3). While the primary audience of this handbook is GAO staff, other organizations may also find portions of this handbook useful as they consider or conduct TAs. This is an update to the handbook published in December 2019, based on the experiences of GAO teams and a review of relevant literature and comments submitted by external experts and the public between December 2019 and December 2020.

The handbook identifies three general design stages, as shown in the figure below. The handbook also highlights seven cross-cutting considerations for designing TAs: the iterative nature of TA design, congressional and policymakers’ interests, resources, independence, engaging internal and external stakeholders, potential challenges, and communication strategy. In addition, the handbook provides a high-level process for developing policy options, as a tool for analyzing and articulating a range of possible actions a policymaker could consider that may enhance the benefits or mitigate the challenges of a technology. Steps in developing policy options include, as applicable: determining the potential policy objective; gathering evidence; identifying possible policy options and the relevant dimensions along which to analyze them; analyzing policy options; and presenting the results of the analysis.

Summary of Key Stages of Technology Assessment Design

We found that GAO TAs can use a variety of design approaches and methods. The handbook includes TA design and methodology examples, along with example objectives commonly found in GAO TAs, such as: describe a technology, assess opportunities and challenges of a technology, and assess policy implications or options. For example, some GAO TAs include an objective related to describing the status and feasibility of a technology, which GAO teams have addressed by using methodologies such as expert panels, interviews, literature and document reviews, site visits, and determining the technology readiness level.

Also included in the handbook are examples of TA design and implementation challenges, along with possible mitigation strategies. We identified four general categories of challenges: (1) ensuring that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers; (2) determining the policy objective and measuring potential effects; (3) researching and communicating complicated issues; and (4) engaging relevant stakeholders. For example, allowing sufficient time for writing, review, and any needed revisions is one potential mitigation strategy that could help teams write simply and clearly about technical subjects and ensure that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2019, GAO created the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team to expand its work on cutting-edge science and technology issues, and to provide oversight, insight, and foresight for science and technology. TAs can be used to strengthen decision-making, enhance knowledge and awareness, and provide early insights into the potential effects of technology. Systematically designing a TA can enhance its quality, credibility, and usefulness; ensure independence of the analysis; and ensure effective use of resources.

Under Comptroller General Authority, we developed this handbook by generally following the format of the 2012 GAO methodology transfer paper, Designing Evaluations. Below is a summary of the approach we used to affirm and document TA design steps and considerations for this handbook.

  • Reviewed select GAO documents, including Designing Evaluations (GAO-12-208G), published GAO TAs, select GAO products using policy analysis approaches to present policy options, and other GAO reports
  • Reviewed select Office of Technology Assessment reports
  • Reviewed select Congressional Research Service reports
  • Reviewed select English-language literature regarding TAs and related to development and analysis of policy options
  • Consulted with external experts and performed outreach, including holding an expert meeting to gather input on TA design, soliciting comments from external experts who contributed to GAO TAs published since 2015, and soliciting comments from the public
  • Reviewed experiences of GAO teams that have successfully assessed and incorporated policy options into GAO products and TA design, including challenges to TA design and implementation and possible solutions

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making any recommendations.

For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons or Karen L. Howard at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov or howardk@gao.gov.

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    Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) met its goal to expand the 287(g) program. However, ICE has not established performance goals that cover all program activities, such as ICE's oversight of its law enforcement agency (LEA) partners, or measures to assess the program's performance, such as the percentage of LEA partners in compliance with annual training requirements. As a result, ICE is not well-positioned to determine the extent to which the program is achieving intended results. ICE considers a number of factors, such as LEAs' capability to act as an ICE force multiplier, when reviewing their suitability to join the program; however, ICE has not assessed how to optimize the use of its resources and program benefits to guide its recruitment of future 287(g) participants. For example, ICE has two models in which LEAs can participate with varying levels of immigration enforcement responsibilities. In the Jail Enforcement Model (JEM), designated state or local officers identify and process removable foreign nationals who have been arrested and booked into the LEA's correctional facility, whereas in the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) model, the designated officers only serve warrants to such individuals. However, ICE has not assessed the mix of participants for each model that would address resource limitations, as each model has differing resource and oversight requirements. By assessing how to leverage its program resources and optimize benefits received, ICE could approach recruitment more strategically and optimize program benefits. 287(g) Participants in January 2017 and September 2020 ICE uses a number of mechanisms to oversee 287(g) JEM participants' compliance with their agreements, such as conducting inspections and reviewing reported complaints. However, at the time of GAO's review, ICE did not have an oversight mechanism for participants' in the WSO model. For example, ICE did not have clear policies on 287(g) field supervisors' oversight responsibilities or plan to conduct compliance inspections for WSO participants. An oversight mechanism could help ICE ensure that WSO participants comply with their 287(g) agreement and other relevant ICE policies and procedures. The 287(g) program authorizes ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to assist with enforcing immigration laws. The program expanded from 35 agreements in January 2017 to 150 as of September 2020. GAO was asked to review ICE's management and oversight of the program. This report examines (1) the extent to which ICE has developed performance goals and measures to assess the 287(g) program; (2) how ICE determines eligibility for 287(g) program participation and considers program resources; and (3) how ICE conducts oversight of 287(g) program participant compliance and addresses noncompliance. GAO reviewed ICE policies and documentation, and interviewed officials from ICE headquarters and field offices. GAO also interviewed 11 LEAs selected based on the type of 287(g) agreement, length of participation, and facility type (e.g. state or local).While not generalizable, information collected from the selected LEAs provided insights into 287(g) program operations and oversight of program participants. GAO analyzed data on 287(g) inspection results and complaints from fiscal years 2015 through 2020. GAO recommends that ICE (1) establish performance goals and related performance measures; (2) assess the 287(g) program's composition to help leverage its resources and optimize program benefits; and (3) develop and implement an oversight mechanism for the WSO model. DHS concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or GamblerR@gao.gov.
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  • Gender Pay Differences: The Pay Gap for Federal Workers Has Continued to Narrow, but Better Quality Data on Promotions Are Needed
    In U.S GAO News
    The overall pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce has narrowed considerably, from 19 cents on the dollar in 1999 to 7 cents in 2017, but the current pay gap is greater for certain groups of women, according to GAO's analysis of data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Two trends help explain why the pay gap has narrowed: (1) men and women have become more similar in measurable factors related to pay, such as occupation; and (2) women have earned slightly higher rates of pay increases than men. In 2017, most of the overall pay gap—or 6 of 7 cents on the dollar—was not explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors (see figure). This unexplained portion of the pay gap may be due to factors not captured in the data GAO analyzed, such as work experience outside the federal government, or factors that cannot be measured, such as discrimination and individual choices. In 2017, the overall and unexplained gaps were greater for certain groups. For example, compared to White men, the unexplained gap was greater for Hispanic/Latina, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native women than for White and Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander women. Pay Gap between Men and Women in the Federal Workforce, 1999 to 2017 OPM and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have taken steps to analyze data on the pay gap and help agencies address it. From 2014 to 2016, OPM implemented a government-wide strategy to address the pay gap, and officials said their future efforts will include monitoring the pay gap periodically. EEOC annually collects workforce data from agencies and provides related technical assistance, and officials said they plan to expand these efforts. These data include promotions by gender and race and ethnicity, which EEOC and agencies use to identify potential barriers to career advancement, but GAO found these data were not sufficiently complete. Of the 51 data tables GAO requested, 35 were either missing or had at least one incomplete data element. EEOC officials said this is partly due to promotion applicants not being required to provide demographic information. However, EEOC has not fully assessed the reliability of these data and generally does not follow up with agencies about missing data between technical assistance visits. Without taking steps to assess and improve the quality of these data in a timelier manner, EEOC may miss opportunities to ensure equal opportunity for all promotion applicants. As the nation's largest employer, the federal government employed about 2.7 million workers in 2019. Although the pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce is smaller than it is for the entire U.S. workforce and has narrowed over time, studies show that pay disparities continue to exist. GAO was asked to explore the current status of pay equity in the federal workforce. This report examines how the pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce has changed since 1999, and what factors account for any remaining gap; and the extent to which OPM and EEOC have monitored and taken steps to address the pay gap in the federal workforce, including assessing potential disparities in promotions; among other objectives. GAO analyzed OPM's Enterprise Human Resources Integration data on about 2.1 million federal employees from September 1999 to September 2017 (the most recent reliable data available at the time of GAO's review); reviewed federal agency promotion data collected by EEOC for fiscal years 2015 through 2017 (the most recent available data); and interviewed OPM and EEOC officials and reviewed relevant documentation. GAO recommends that EEOC take steps to assess the quality of federal agency promotion data and address missing data with agencies in a timelier manner. EEOC neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19 Contracting: Observations on Contractor Paid Leave Reimbursement Guidance and Use
    In U.S GAO News
    Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act generally authorizes agencies at their discretion to reimburse a contractor for the cost of paid leave incurred during the pandemic so that it can maintain its workforce in a ready state. Between March 2020—when the CARES Act was enacted—and early July 2020, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and each of the seven other agencies in GAO's review issued guidance to implement section 3610. While largely similar, GAO's work identified some differences across these guidance documents, including the extent to which the rates used to calculate these reimbursements could include profit or fees. OMB issued additional guidance on July 14, 2020, that addressed these differences and clarified how agencies should handle each situation. For example, OMB noted that profit or fees should generally not be reimbursed but provided options for addressing situations in which removing profit or fees would be burdensome. OMB advised agencies to report the amount reimbursed using section 3610 authority via contract modifications to the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG). After excluding reported obligations identified by agency officials as not associated with section 3610 authority, the reported data indicated that agencies made relatively little use of the authority through July 2020 (see figure). However, the Department of Energy (DOE) reimbursed contractors for almost $550 million in paid leave costs, stating it used existing obligations rather than adding funding via a contract modification. As a result, these amounts were not reported to FPDS-NG as section 3610 reimbursements. Obligations Using Section 3610 Authority Reported to the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation by Selected Agencies from January 31 to July 20, 2020 Agency officials and industry representatives GAO interviewed identified several factors that limited section 3610 obligations to date, including the absence of dedicated funding. With the exceptions of the Department of Defense (DOD) and DOE, agency officials GAO met with either did not expect a large amount or were uncertain about the level of future requests for section 3610 reimbursements. DOD officials stated that they expected requests amounting to billions of dollars. In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance and healthcare response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by COVID-19. The CARES Act also includes a provision for GAO to review federal contracting pursuant to authorities provided in the Act. This report addresses the implementation of section 3610 of the CARES Act, which authorizes federal agencies to reimburse contractors for paid leave related to the COVID-19 pandemic through September 30, 2020. This report describes (1) the extent to which section 3610 implementation guidance provided by selected federal agencies and OMB differs and (2) the extent to which selected federal agencies reported use of section 3610 authority through July 20, 2020. GAO reviewed relevant guidance issued by OMB and the seven federal agencies with contract obligations greater than $10 billion in fiscal year 2019; interviewed cognizant officials from OMB and each agency; and reviewed comments provided by and spoke with representatives from four industry associations. GAO also analyzed public procurement data reported by selected agencies to FPDS-NG through July 20, 2020 on the use of section 3610 authority. GAO will continue to assess how agencies are implementing section 3610 authority as part of a series of planned reports regarding the federal response to COVID-19. For more information, contact Timothy J. DiNapoli at (202) 512-4841 or dinapolit@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice today presented Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg with the John Sherman Award for his lifetime contributions to the development of antitrust law and the preservation of economic liberty.  The award is the Department of Justice’s highest antitrust honor. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim presented the award and gave remarks  celebrating Judge Ginsburg’s contributions during a ceremony displayed virtually and conducted at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.  Judge Ginsburg also delivered remarks in accepting the award.  
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  • Retirement Security: Other Countries’ Experiences with Caregiver Policies
    In U.S GAO News
    For over a decade, Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) have developed and implemented national approaches—including strategies, laws, and policies—to support family caregivers, according to experts GAO interviewed. Specifically, experts noted that these efforts could help caregivers maintain workforce attachment, supplement lost income, and save for retirement. As a result, their retirement security could improve. For example, experts said: Care leave allows employees to take time away from work for caregiving responsibilities. Australia's and Germany's policies allow for paid leave (10 days per year of work or instance of caregiving need, respectively), and all three countries allow for unpaid leave though the duration varies. Caregivers can receive income for time spent caregiving. Australia and the UK provide direct payments to those who qualify. Germany provides indirect payments, whereby the care recipient receives an allowance, which they can pass on to their caregiver. Other Countries' Policies to Support Caregivers Experts in all three countries cited some challenges with caregiver support policies. For example, paid leave is not available to all workers in Germany, such as those who work for small firms. In Australia and the UK, experts said eligibility requirements for direct payments (e.g., limits on hours worked or earnings) can make it difficult for someone to work outside their caregiving role. Experts in all three countries said caregivers may be unaware of available supports. For example, identifying caregivers is a challenge in Australia and the UK. As required under the RAISE Family Caregivers Act, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convened the Family Caregiving Advisory Council (FCAC)—a stakeholder group that is to jointly develop a national family caregiving strategy. As of July 2020, HHS and the FCAC reported limited information on other countries' approaches, and neither entity had concrete plans to collect more. In September 2020, HHS officials provided sources they recently reviewed on selected policies in other countries, and they further noted that HHS staff, FCAC members, and collaborating partners have subject-matter expertise and bring perspectives about other countries' efforts into their discussions. Family caregivers play a critical role in supporting the elderly population, which is growing at a rapid rate worldwide. However, those who provide eldercare may risk their own long-term financial security. Other countries have implemented policies to support caregivers. In recognition of challenges caregivers face in the United States, Congress directed HHS, in consultation with other federal entities, to develop a national family caregiving strategy. GAO was asked to provide information about other countries' efforts that could improve the retirement security of parental and spousal caregivers. This report examines (1) other countries' approaches to support family members who provide eldercare, (2) challenges of these approaches, and (3) the status of HHS' efforts to develop a national family caregiving strategy. GAO conducted case studies of three countries—Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom—selected based on factors including rates of informal care (i.e., help provided to older family members or friends) and the types of policies they have that could improve caregivers' retirement security. GAO interviewed government officials and experts and reviewed relevant federal laws, research, and documents. GAO's draft report recommended that HHS collect additional information about other countries' experiences. In response, in September 2020, HHS provided an update on its efforts to do so. As a result, GAO removed the recommendation and modified the report accordingly. For more information, contact Tranchau (Kris) T. Nguyen at or nguyentt@gao.gov.
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  • Data Security: Recent K-12 Data Breaches Show That Students Are Vulnerable to Harm
    In U.S GAO News
    A cybersecurity incident is an event that actually or potentially jeopardizes a system or the information it holds. According to GAO's analysis of K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center (CRC) data from July 2016 to May 2020, thousands of K-12 students were affected by 99 reported data breaches, one type of cybersecurity incident in which data are compromised. Students' academic records, including assessment scores and special education records, were the most commonly compromised type of information (58 breaches). Records containing students' personally identifiable information (PII), such as Social Security numbers, were the second most commonly compromised type of information (36 breaches). Financial and cybersecurity experts say some PII can be sold on the black market and can cause students significant financial harm. Breaches were either accidental or intentional, although sometimes the intent was unknown, with school staff, students, and cybercriminals among those responsible (see figure). Staff were responsible for most of the accidental breaches (21 of 25), and students were responsible for most of the intentional breaches (27 of 52), most frequently to change grades. Reports of breaches by cybercriminals were rare but included attempts to steal PII. Although the number of students affected by a breach was not always available, examples show that thousands of students have had their data compromised in a single breach. Responsible Actor and Intent of Reported K-12 Student Data Breaches, July 1, 2016-May 5, 2020 Notes: The actor or the intent may not be discernible in public reports. For this analysis, a cybercriminal is defined as an actor external to the school district who breaches a data system for malicious reasons. Of the 287 school districts affected by reported student data breaches, larger, wealthier, and suburban school districts were disproportionately represented, according to GAO's analysis. Cybersecurity experts GAO spoke with said one explanation for this is that some of these districts may use more technology in schools, which could create more opportunities for breaches to occur. When a student's personal information is disclosed, it can lead to physical, emotional, and financial harm. Organizations are vulnerable to data security risks, including over 17,000 public school districts and approximately 98,000 public schools. As schools and districts increasingly rely on complex information technology systems for teaching, learning, and operating, they are collecting more student data electronically that can put a student's information, including PII, at risk of disclosure. The closure of schools and the sudden transition to distance learning across the country due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic also heightened attention on K-12 cybersecurity. GAO was asked to review the security of K-12 students' data. This report examines (1) what is known about recently reported K-12 cybersecurity incidents that compromised student data, and (2) the characteristics of school districts that experienced these incidents. GAO analyzed data from July 1, 2016 to May 5, 2020 from CRC (the most complete source of information on K-12 data breaches). CRC is a non-federal resource sponsored by an educational technology organization that has tracked reported K-12 cybersecurity incidents since 2016. GAO also analyzed 2016-2019 Department of Education data on school district characteristics (the most recent available), and interviewed experts knowledgeable about cybersecurity. We incorporated technical comments from the agencies as appropriate. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
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  • Man Pleads Guilty to Directing COVID-Relief Fraud Scheme
    In Crime News
    A Wisconsin man pleaded guilty today for his role in fraudulently obtaining over $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
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    A California man was charged in a complaint unsealed today for his alleged participation in a coordinated cryptocurrency and securities fraud scheme that used purported digital currency platforms and foreign-based financial accounts.
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