GAO publishes guide for measuring agencies’ tech maturity, readiness

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A congressional watchdog issued a new guide to help agencies assess the maturity of a technology for acquisition or development.

The Government Accountability Office’s Technology Readiness Assessment Guide, released in draft form last week, outlines a common framework of best practices for assessing a technology’s progress, “particularly as it relates to determining a program or project’s readiness to move past key decision points that typically coincide with major commitments of resources,” according to the GAO’s summary.

“The guide is intended to provide TRA practitioners, program and technology managers, and governance bodies throughout the federal government a framework for better understanding technology maturity, conducting credible technology readiness assessments and developing plans for technology maturation efforts,” the summary explains.

The new guide is meant to be a companion to the GAO’s Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide, and its Schedule Assessment Guide.

“This really is about technology lifecycle maturation: How do you take a good technology idea… and then translate that idea into some operational context where life may be on the line, or national or homeland security issues or equities are on the line,” said GAO Chief Scientist Timothy Persons, who co-directed the guide.

He added: “The readiness assessment process is just intended to help decision-makers, program managers and evaluators understand, well, how mature is this technology in the context of what I’m trying to do in my program,” which Persons said is crucial. 

For example: An agency could decide to take a mature computer chip, one someone could buy in the commercial market today, and try to launch that into space, Persons said.

While the technology is mature for some commercial applications, it may not be ready for NASA’s use in a radiation-heavy environment, he explained. 

“Technology may be very mature in one context but may be relatively immature in another,” Persons said. “So it may be dependent on the project context or what mission function you’re trying to accomplish.”

The guide comes after the GAO has seen many projects go drastically over budget, failing to factor in technology readiness.

“Based on a vast array of GAO’s work, what we’ve seen are programs that encumbered a lot of risk with immature technologies and assumed that they would be mature by the time that they went through when they started writing major checks to either build the building, build the airplanes or so on,” Persons said. “That’s when you start doubling, tripling, quadrupling… your budget, and that’s never good to do with Congress.”

While this guide will be new for some agencies that were not doing technology readiness assessments, Persons noted some others, including NASA and the Defense Department, have been doing them for years.

“What was happening was there wasn’t any common understanding about what a tech readiness assessment is or who was doing what and so on,” Persons said. “So that’s where this guide was meant to bring a little more of a common understanding.”

The guide can be useful to individuals across the federal government, he said, including everyday project managers, people on Capitol Hill, decision-makers, and evaluators and auditors.

The guide is not binding and will not necessarily change the processes for agencies like NASA and the DOD who are already doing this kind of analysis, Persons said. Those agencies also offered their expertise to help drive the guide’s recommendations, he said.

“When you look at all the best practices together broadly, it’s just a planning support and project management function. It’s meant to help those who are managing technical projects identify the risk and manage it,” Persons said.

His advice to future guide users: Look at all of the best practices, “take them seriously all together, don’t skip any sort of steps.”

The guide will not completely eliminate risk, however, Persons said.

“That’ll never happen,” he said. “You’ll always have risk, it’s just how you identify and manage the risk that you’re taking on into the program.”

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Acquisition, Government IT News, technology investment, technology readiness
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