A plan to redesign the 2020 Census could open up at least $5.3 billion in savings, if the bureau can overcome budget uncertainty and stay on track with its implementation timeline.
A redesign is necessary for the bureau because its last count was more than double the cost of the previous one. At nearly $13 billion, the 2010 Census was the most expensive count in U.S. history, and it cost the bureau $100 per household.
But lawmakers are wary that missteps in the bureau’s planning stages could derail Census’ ambitious plans for improvement.
“We want you to succeed,” House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told bureau leaders at a Nov. 3 hearing. “But we don’t want egg on our faces. There is no way that I’m going to allow this to continue to progress without certainty.”
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The Census redesign comes in four major areas. For the first time in bureau history, it will let the public take the Census online. It will also re-engineer the bureau’s canvassing process to develop a more complete address list.
It also plans to use existing administrative records from agencies like the IRS and Postal Service, which will cut down the number of hours Census employees spend in the field collecting responses door to door.
The fourth area should save the bureau the most money — an estimated $2.5 billion. The bureau is creating a mobile application that could help employees in the field conduct non-response follow ups and share that information with their supervisors in real time.
For Census Bureau Director John Thompson, budget uncertainty is the biggest unknown as his agency prepares for the 2020 count.
Thompson said the full 2020 Census cycle will cost about $12.3 billion. Success will depend on what the bureau receives in appropriations each fiscal year, starting with 2016. The initial budget proposal from House Republicans would cut funding for the bureau by $374 million.
“The designed document we released laid out a schedule based on the President’s budget for 2016 to make all the decisions we need to make, to have a complete end-to-end test to ensure the successful deployment of 2020,” Thompson told Federal News Radio. “But we think we’re in pretty good shape.”
For Meadows and others of the Government Operations and Information Technology subcommittees, Census’ redesign plans show potential. The bureau submitted its operational plan for the 2020 count three years earlier than when it released its plan for the 2010 Census.
But some lawmakers said the bureau’s implementation timeline hasn’t been specific enough and deadlines that have been set already are too loose.
The Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing (CEDCaP) effort is at the center of the bureau’s redesign plans.
In the past, the bureau used some 100 different systems to collect and process data. CEDCaP, Thompson said, will standardize some of those systems into one.
Part of that system includes the bureau’s new mobile app, which will help Census employees quickly collect and share data with each other in the field. The bureau has built a prototype for the app, but it hasn’t decided whether it will build the app on its own or ask a vendor to develop one instead.
Steve Cooper, chief information officer at the Commerce Department, told the subcommittees the bureau won’t make the decision until September 2016.
“That allows us to complete the planned and already in motion, in process set of field operation tests, so that we can make both an economic-based determination, as well as a security-based determination and include privacy functionality,” he said.
But several lawmakers agreed that decision shouldn’t take so long.
“Looking at your timeframe and how it’s already moved to the right, and looking at when we will be testing it, when you will go out with your RFP for whether you build it or someone else builds it, we’re running out of time,” Meadows said. “If we’re sitting there worried about how a handheld device is collecting the very simplest of data … if that’s what we’re working on at this point, that’s like saying we’re working on the steering mechanism for a car, believing that the car is going to work OK, but it may not run. That may be a crude analogy, but we have to be a lot more end-to-end in terms of what we’re trying to do. My concern is from a technology standpoint, we’re nowhere close.”
The Government Accountability Office also has its concerns.
“Unless the bureau makes these key decisions soon, it will likely run out of time to put CEDCaP systems in place,” said Carol Cha, director of information technology and acquisition management issues at the GAO.
The bureau attempted to deploy mobile devices for its 2010 count, but the project ultimately failed, and Census was forced to add extra employees at the last minute to help process paper forms.
GAO released 115 recommendations on IT management and security weaknesses at the Census Bureau in 2013. Of those recommendations, the bureau has addressed 66 of them, but 19 are under review and 30 haven’t been addressed at all.
Of the 30 open recommendations, many of GAO’s suggestions deal with issues of authentication and identification controls, Cha said. Those issues include password controls, unsecured system accounts and access and configuration management, which as Information Technology Subcommittee Chairman Will Hurd (R-Texas) reminded the committee, have led to cyber breaches at the Office of Personnel Management.
Cooper said the bureau plans to finish improvements on its authentication and identification controls by the end of this calendar year, but he couldn’t give the subcommittees an exact completion date.
“That does include the open actions from the GAO report,” Cooper said. “We’ve also taken an additional step and that is that we’ve created internal, cross-bureau teams of our cyber experts. We are bringing those to bear to assist all of our bureaus, but in this case, the Census Bureau, in helping close these actions.”
The lack of permanent leadership within the bureau’s IT management division also raises other questions for Congress and GAO.
The bureau has been without a permanent chief information officer since July, when former CIO Brian McGrath left Census to take the same position at the Justice Department.
The bureau has a CIO position open now, Thompson told the subcommittees. The job must stay open for at least 30 days before the bureau’s HR office can review and select qualified applicants.
The bureau is also without a permanent chief cloud architect, Cha said.