Watchdog agency to focus on security, technology

The shift to an information-based economy and the new national security priorities prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have spurred a governmental oversight body to target homeland security and the deployment of new technology as key areas for study.

The six-year strategic plan of the General Accounting Office calls for the agency to concentrate its efforts on analyzing the impact and deployment of technologies and programs designed to protect the nation's critical infrastructure.

The plan is a blueprint to support Congress as it examines trends and issues that will affect policy over the next few years," said External Relations Director Bernice Steinhardt, who spearheaded the strategic report at GAO.

"The increased development and use of new technologies challenge the government's and the Congress's ability to evaluate their potential, and assess their effect on security, safety, privacy and equity," the plan says. Within that context, the agency notes the growing challenges that businesses and governing bodies face as a result of their shift online.

"We identified and sort of wove into the ... blueprint a set of major themes that we believe are going to affect the United States and its place in the world over the next few years," Steinhardt said. "This year, when we updated the strategic plan, we broadened ... science and technology" to include advances that already are or will be "significant forces in shaping public policy."

"We think that there is a need to re-examine what the government does and how it does it," she added. "Technology is one of the things that has caused the need for fundamental reexamination."

Recognizing that technology is quickly becoming a key asset to the U.S. economy and the American quality of life, GAO will bolster its efforts to assess government programs, including education and workforce development, that could impact the growth of the information economy and global markets. The agency intends to analyze free-trade agreements and how those deals are shaping U.S. industries, for example.

The plan also calls for examining the widespread interconnectivity of the computer systems and how it might make critical infrastructures such as telecommunications systems vulnerable. "Given the limited resources, decision-makers must choose the investments that promise to be the most cost-effective and targeted to address national infrastructure needs," the plan says.

GAO plans to assess the impact that regulations and policies may have on critical infrastructure, and to identify and evaluate solutions for infrastructure protection.

"We do have authority to undertake work on our own ... that allows us to deal with issues that may not yet be on [congressional] committees' horizons," Steinhardt said. "It allows us to start learning and building some intellectual capital in some new, emerging areas so we can be prepared to provide Congress with some analysis when the issue comes up immediately."