Federal Oversight

Will the most innovative census yet create more risks?

The U.S. Census Bureau has big plans to use new technologies and processes to make the rollout of the 2020 census faster, easier and safer for U.S. residents to complete.

“This will be the first census ever where we expect most people to submit their data electronically and efficiently,” said Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, at a July 16 hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Some of the motivation for those innovations — which include re-engineering field operations, using administrative records, verifying addresses in-office and developing an internet self-response option — involves reducing the overall cost for the 2020 count, the estimate for which has reached $3 billion over the agency’s original cost estimate.

“These innovations show promise for controlling costs, but they also introduce new risks, in part because they have not been used extensively, if at all, in prior enumerations,” said Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, at the same hearing.

He added that the agency scaled back its operational testing in 2017 and 2018, meaning that the agency has lees time to discover if there are potential problems in the systems they plan to rely on for 2020.

In total, Goldenkoff said that GAO has made 106 recommendations on the 2020 census, and the agency has implemented 74, leaving 31 open.

“It’s encouraging that the bureau has agreed with the recommendations that we‘ve made,” said Nicholas Marinos, director of information technology and cybersecurity at GAO.

Many of the Census Bureau’s innovations rely on new technologies to make not only responding to the census, but also hiring temporary agency employees easier and faster.

“The Bureau plans to rely heavily on IT for the 2020 census, including through the use of 52 systems it plans to produce over the course of multiple stages of census operations. Many of these systems will be deployed multiple times in order to add needed functionality over the course of 16 operational deliveries,” said Marinos.

“Our ongoing work has determined that the Bureau is at risk for not meeting key IT milestones for five upcoming operational deliveries.”

And though the agency has made progress in preparing for security concerns and bandwidth spikes as thousands of Americans respond online at once, Marinos said that the agency needs to do more to test their systems and come up with an emergency response plan if something goes wrong.

The agency will also have to contend with potential lack of trust in the census itself, which, while always a general concern for each census, is particularly relevant in a year where an administration proposal to add a citizenship question to the survey caused many minority groups to mistrust the motivations of the Bureau.

“One of the things that has us concerned is the rate of hiring of partnership specialists,” said Marinos, who explained that such specialists are essential to a successful count, as they serve as trusted members of the community that can encourage their neighbors to respond.

Goldenkoff explained that Congress should take a “trust but verify” perspective on the risks associated with the 2020 census, as the agency is working right now to address that risk.

“We agree that there are risks, and we’re managing those risks. And we’re making progress, and we’ll continue to make progress,” said Dillingham.

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