Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) “Technology Readiness Assessment Guide”

One of the challenges the government faces in terms of technology development is making decisions about when early stage technology can and should move out of the development phase. To this end, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had previous created guides for cost estimating and scheduling to help agencies decide if a project is ready for advancement or “needs additional work, or should be discontinued or reconsidered in favor of more promising technology.” To complement those guides, the GAO has now released the Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) Guide (http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/679006.pdf)

The TRA Guide is billed as “best practices for evaluating the readiness of technology for use in acquisition programs and projects” and is designed to help standardize a process by which agencies can make decisions about budgetary and time allotments for new technology projects.

The guide explains:

“A technology readiness assessment (TRA) is a systematic, evidence-based process that evaluates the maturity of hardware and software technologies critical to the performance of a larger system or the fulfillment of the key objectives of an acquisition program. TRAs, which measure the technical maturity of a technology or system at a specific point in time, do not eliminate technology risk, but when done well, can illuminate concerns and serve as the basis for realistic discussions on how to mitigate potential risks as programs move from the early stages of technology development, where resource requirements are relatively modest, to system development and beyond, where resource requirements are often substantial. In addition, TRAs help legislators, government officials, and the public hold government program managers accountable for achieving their technology performance goals…. 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 guide utilizes a phased acquisition cycle (Technology Development, Product Development, Production, Operations) with decision points after Technology Development (before program initiation,) and another decision point after Product Development (before production begins.)

The guide also discusses limitations of TRAs, including

  • Limited shelf life
  • One size fits all approach is not feasible
  • Subject to the makeup and availability of the assessment team leads and its members
  • Subject to interpretation, experience, culture, or organizational bias
  • Evidence used to render professional opinion is only as good as the artifacts, analyses, test reports, and relevant important information provided and relied upon

The guide gives specific best practice recommendations for:

  • A reliable process for conducting credible TRAs
  • Including technology maturity assessments in the program strategy, designing the TRA plan and determining the team
  • Selecting critical technologies
  • Evaluating critical technologies
  • Preparing the TRA report
  • Using the TRA Result
  • Preparing a technology maturation plan (TMA)

The guide also discusses the fact that practices are evolving in evaluating software systems and systems integration using TRAs, which is an area that experts have argued is weak in terms of the usefulness of TRAs because of the intangible, “invisible” nature of software as compared to hardware. The guide’s authors suggest that the “challenges are not insurmountable and can be overcome with knowledge, clearly articulated guidance, and personnel with the appropriate expertise, skills, and experience,” and the final chapter is devoted to guidelines for doing just that.

Finally, the guide includes questions to assess how well programs using the guide followed the process for developing credible TRAs, and examples and case studies.  In an interview with Nextgov (http://www.nextgov.com/emerging-tech/2016/08/gaos-new-guide-helps-agencies-tell-when-emerging-tech-primetime-ready/130753/) Mallory Bullman, the Partnership for Public Services director for research and evaluation, explained the this guide could support federal agencies to  “be a smarter consumer” of technology developed outside the government, because “government is no longer in a position … to be developing everything by itself.”

 

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